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Monday, 9 August 2021
Page: 4336

Senator FARRELL (South Australia) (10:39): I rise today to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This bill seeks to improve transparency and accountability in relation to the granting of debt waivers and act of grace payments of and by the federal government. The government's power to provide these forms of discretionary financial assistance arises from the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, otherwise known as the PGPA Act. The PGPA Act was introduced by Labor—by Senator Wong as finance minister—when we were last in government. It replaced legislation that had been in place since the 1990s, and it was designed to establish the framework necessary for a modern Public Service.

I would first like to go to the issue of debt waivers. Section 63 of the PGPA Act authorises the finance minister to waive a debt owing to the Commonwealth. A waiver extinguishes that debt, meaning that the Commonwealth cannot pursue it at a later date. These debts relate to non-corporate Commonwealth entities like the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink. Waivers are granted where the decision-maker thinks that recovering the debt would be inequitable or cause ongoing financial hardship and that other debt treatment options are not appropriate. Finance officials can make decisions on debts below $100,000, while the minister decides on debts above $100,000. The finance department says financial hardship would exist where payment of the debt would leave someone unable to provide food, accommodation, clothing, medical treatment, education or other necessities for themselves, their families or other people for whom they are responsible.

In respect of the act of grace payments, the PGPA Act also provides the finance minister with the power to provide an act of grace payment. Section 65 of the act authorises the minister to make payments to a person if they consider it to be appropriate in special circumstances. These circumstances are not defined in the act, but the finance department cites examples such as where a non-corporate Commonwealth entity has taken action or failed to take action which has caused an unintended and inequitable result for someone or where the Commonwealth legislation or policy has an unintended anomalous, inequitable or otherwise unacceptable impact on someone. The provision of an act of grace payment is discretionary, as are waivers of debt.

So what will this bill do? The bill would require the Department of Finance to report in its annual report on the number of debt waivers made during the period the annual report covers; the total dollar amount that was waived as a result of the debt waivers; the number of act of grace payments made during an annual report period; and the total dollar amount that was paid as a result of those act of grace payments. Reporting would not include the names, so individuals' and organisations' privacies would continue to be protected.

There is currently no automatic mechanism for the reporting of this information. Last year, the government released a document, which is now available on the finance department website, showing, firstly, the number of debt waivers and act of grace payments approved and, secondly, the total dollar value of those waivers and payments for five financial years. The opposition would like to think that our constant and ongoing push for increased transparency and accountability might have helped push the government into releasing this information. We believe it's crucial to make this level of transparency a requirement that is set down in law. Why is it so important? Transparency and accountability around the spending of taxpayers' money is always important—of course, you wouldn't know it under this Morrison government—and it's particularly the case when decisions around granting act of grace payments or waiving debts are made in a totally discretionary fashion by a minister or their Public Service delegate. Now, more than ever before, these steps are crucial, given the Morrison government's appalling track record in accountability.

Senator Gallagher, who has introduced this bill, has also introduced an antirorting bill, which is designed to increase the transparency around grants programs. The Morrison government is addicted to rorting grants programs, Madam Acting Deputy President Brown, as I'm sure you know. You've seen it firsthand. There are so many examples that I don't have time to go through all of them, but there is an ever-growing lowlights list. I'd like to draw your attention to some of them. Sports rorts is one I am quite familiar with, of course—the colour-coded documents that flicked between the minister and the Prime Minister's office in the dying days of the last parliament. On that occasion, we saw industrial-scale rorting of public money, taxpayers' money.

An opposition senator interjecting

Senator FARRELL: I'll take that intervention. Yes, it was shocking. It was a shocking use of public money, which was simply designed to re-elect a failing government. But that was not the end of it. We've seen the safer communities rorts, where something as important as community safety was seen to be secondary to the political needs of the government of the day. Then, of course, we've got the building better regions rorts, where a handpicked ministerial panel decided to award funding to hundreds of projects, overriding the recommendations of the relevant department. Of course that was very much a feature of the sports rorts program—well-established, well-thought-out proposals by the sports department that were overridden by the minister, and, I think, for certain the Prime Minister, overridden by the Prime Minister's office, and we've seen that with building better regions. But of course the pick of the crop is the Commuter Car Park Fund. Some $660 million was decided on the basis of projects being in the top 20 marginal seats list. That's how they decided to spend the $660 million. I don't think we have seen all of the spreadsheets from that particular round of rorts, but we do know that they were going in and out of the Prime Minister's office.

The ANAO is a terrific organisation. We've been talking about gold medals over the past few weeks. They should be given a gold medal for the work that they have done, particularly Mr Brian Boyd. He's done a terrific job in exposing all of these rorts. It's a gold medal performance, I would say. We've discovered all of these things because of the work that they have done. We don't have an ICAC in this country, but we do have an ANAO, and, for the moment, they are doing a wonderful job. I look forward to speaking on the antirorting bill at another time, but I mention it because this bill seeks to redress some of the same issues.

We need stronger transparency and accountability measures, because under this government rorts are through the roof and commonplace. You might say to yourself, 'How did the government get itself in this situation?' There is a simple explanation for that: it was because they didn't expect to win the last election. They didn't expect to win it, so they never thought they were going to be held accountable for the way in which they spent this money. Of course, they have been caught out, but things haven't gone far enough. This bill will push things further, increase transparency, increase accountability and make sure Australians know exactly what this government is up to. The Prime Minister thinks he can get away with this. He's got the cover of COVID, so there's no responsibility.

I'd like to flesh out some of these rorts and why we need this transparency and accountability. Let's go back to sports rorts. In relation to the sports rorts scandal we saw the spin, the denial and the blame-shifting. The Australian National Audit Office reported on the Community Sport Infrastructure Program, and I'll quote from their report:

The award of funding reflected the approach documented by the Minister's Office of focusing on 'marginal' electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be 'targeted' by the Coalition at the 2019 Election.

What does this mean? In simple terms, it means that the former minister, Minister McKenzie, rejected applications to the program that scored as high as 98 out of 100 in Sport Australia's independent merit assessments. Many of those very worthy applications came from regional communities where sporting clubs are often the hub of the town. You'd be familiar with them down in Tasmania, where you come from, Madam Acting Deputy President Brown. Many were for modest amounts needed just to provide safe and usable facilities. But, instead of awarding grants to those clubs, the minister outright rejected them. The ANAO told the Senate inquiry into sports rorts that there was, broadly, a shift from applications located in safe and fairly safe coalition electorates to applications located in marginal coalition electorates and targeted electorates held by the ALP and the Independents. This is the very definition of industrial-scale pork-barrelling. Even to this point in time—Madam Acting Deputy President, I know you'll find this amazing—the government has still failed to apologise to and compensate the communities that lost out on these sports grants. It's two years into this scandal, and the government continues to refuse to knowledge the damage it did and compensate those communities. (Time expired)