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Monday, 9 August 2021
Page: 4339


Senator SHELDON (New South Wales) (10:54): I rise to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This bill is put forward by Labor to bring some sorely needed transparency to this government. It seeks to improve the accountability and transparency of two types of discretionary government payments: debt waivers and act of grace payments, both of which are permitted under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, or the PGPA Act. Section 63 of the PGPA Act enables a finance minister to waive debts to non-corporate Commonwealth entities—debts to agencies such as Centrelink and the ATO. Debts may be waived in circumstances where recovering the debt would cause ongoing financial hardship and other debt treatment options are not deemed appropriate. When the debt is waived, it is extinguished so that the Commonwealth cannot pursue repayment of the debt at a later date. That provision protects people from a robodebt situation down the track, one of many shameful stains on this government's record.

The other payment within the scope of the act is an act of grace payment. Section 65 of the PGPA Act enables the finance minister to make a payment to a person if they consider it appropriate to do so because of special circumstances. Those circumstances are not defined within the act. The Department of Finance cites the following examples: where a non-corporate Commonwealth entity has taken action which has caused an unintended result for someone or where Commonwealth legislation or policy has had an 'unintended, anomalous, inequitable or otherwise unacceptable impact' on someone. There must be some limitations on that provision. Both debt waivers and act of grace payments are entirely discretionary and not required to be publicly reported. This is not necessarily cause for alarm, but these payments are intended to be used to support people who are in need or who have been wronged.

The track record of the Morrison government when it comes to rorting public money means that there must be more transparency over discretionary spending. We don't have a gold standard in this government when it comes to vaccine rollouts. We don't have a gold standard when it comes to quarantine. But when it comes to rorting—when it comes to pork-barrelling money into marginal seats and forking out public money to their mates—this government could take gold, silver and bronze. It's only Monday morning, but there's not enough time left in the sitting week for me to list all the government's disgusting abuses of public money. There was the $102 million sports rorts scandal. We had unelected Liberal candidates, nonmembers of parliament, handing out cheques for sports grants. An investigation by the Prime Minister's own department found the sports minister, Senator McKenzie, had breached ministerial standards. Of course, Senator McKenzie is now back in the cabinet, which shows just how seriously they take any of these sorts of accusations and responsibilities when they are found guilty of wrongdoing.

Then we had the safer communities rorts, when the Morrison government overruled the home affairs department's advice and redirected community safety funding to marginal seats. Then we had the disgraceful rorting of JobKeeper. A system established to support Australians desperately in need of income support has ended up as the biggest corporate-welfare fund in Australian history, yet the Morrison government is still fighting tooth and nail to stop anyone from knowing just how much money was paid out to highly profitable big businesses like Harvey Norman. What we are aware of is that Harvey Norman received $22 million in JobKeeper. It then turned around and reported a net profit of $462 million and paid out $78 million in dividends. The next time you hear the Morrison government complaining about having to fund the NDIS or the aged-care system, remember that Mr Morrison was very happy to give Gerry Harvey a $22 million payday.

Just last week, the Senate passed an amendment by Senator Patrick, with the support of Labor and the crossbench, that would require the tax commissioner to reveal every company with revenue over $10 million that received JobKeeper and the amount they received. This was a fantastic opportunity to increase transparency and accountability, as is this bill we are debating this morning. Unfortunately the government has rejected this amendment in the House, which means the Australian people still don't know which highly profitable companies have rorted the system. This begs the question: what is the Prime Minister hiding?

The truth is that the Morrison government has done nothing but hide. If they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear, so what skeletons are being hidden in Mr Morrison's JobKeeper closet? How many other billionaires like Gerry Harvey have been secretly stuffing their pockets with public money? That is why measures such as this bill are so important. Speaking of billionaires and multimillionaires rorting the Australian taxpayer with the blessing of Mr Morrison, we have Alan Joyce. We saw Qantas receive $2 million in bail-out money from the Morrison government to keep their workers connected with the company, and Alan Joyce turned around and illegally outsourced 2½ thousand of those jobs as an act of union busting. Even after the Federal Court ruled this was illegal, there was not a peep from the Morrison government about this misuse of public funding.

Most recently, we've had the commuter car park rorts, where $660 million in public money was handed out using a list of the top 20 marginal seats. Brian Boyd from the Australian National Audit Office told a Senate inquiry that the process for this scheme was to touch base with the top 20 marginal representatives to ask them what projects in their electorates were worthy of being put through this program. So $660 million of public money was being managed by a process that started and ended with asking marginal MPs and candidates what to blow the money on. Mr Boyd even said: 'I think there was one electorate they canvassed that we don't think even had a railway station in it.' That's right: the Morrison government spent time and money investigating whether to build a commuter car park in an area that didn't even have a train station. At a press conference last week, the Prime Minister refused to even answer any questions about whether it had seen the marginal seats list used in the car park rorts scandal.

This is a cynical government with no vision for Australia beyond keeping themselves in power. Australians have suffered through eight years of record low wage growth, a global pandemic, a plague of neglect in aged care and disability care and a housing affordability crisis, and, rather than address these issues, the Prime Minister's office has been figuring out how to announce a commuter car park in a marginal seat that doesn't even have a train station. That's why measures such as this bill are so important. The truth is that we are only just scratching the surface when it comes to the Morrison government rorts. Whether it's sports rorts, Safer Community rorts, building better roads rorts, JobKeeper rorts, or commuter car park rorts, sunlight is the best disinfectant when it comes to government corruption. That is why, since 2014, I've been calling for a federal corruption commission, and that is why Labor has committed to establishing a National Integrity Commission, while the government continually sits on its hands on this issue. After nearly eight years, endless promises and a watered-down attempt to look like they're doing a National Integrity Commission, we've found this government wanting yet again—no legislation, no teeth and no accountability.

Would you be surprised, in light of all the rorts that go on, that they don't want transparency? They don't want to make sure that there's accountability because accountability and transparency mean that more of these rorts will be exposed—improper use of funds by the government in the circumstances where they've turned around and rorted it for their own interests. The National Integrity Commission would operate as an ongoing royal commission into serious and systematic corruption in the federal government. Hardworking Australians do the right thing: contribute to the Australian economy and pay their taxes. They reasonably expect that, when we come to Canberra, their collective contributions are spent to improve their standards of living. While Labor is in government, this is exactly the return on investment that Australians receive, whether it's Medicare, tertiary education or the NDIS. Under the Morrison government, the only returns that Australia has seen are a botched vaccine rollout, record low wage growth and a trillion dollars of debt. We need a National Integrity Commission, but Labor are the only ones who will deliver that. In the meantime, we will improve transparency around debt waivers and acts of grace payments. This bill would require the Department of Finance to report, in its annual report, on the number and total of those payments. It would do so without infringing on the privacy of individuals and organisations.

Of course, this isn't the only bill Labor has put forward to improve government accountability and transparency. When we look at Gerry Harvey, with Harvey Norman, he received $78 million in dividends as he owns 31.4 per cent of the company that paid out $249 million in dividends, yet Harvey Norman received $22 million in JobKeeper. It is offensive abuse and misuse of public monies. Senator Gallagher has also introduced an antirorting bill to increase the transparency around the award of funding from grants programs. That bill might stop another sports rort, another Safer Communities Fund rort, another Building Better Regions Fund rort or another commuter car park rort from occurring. Unsurprisingly, the government is also staunchly opposed to that as well.

It's clear that, in the circumstances, the government have failed to take the most fundamental steps. If you look across the ditch to New Zealand, you will see the government publishes the amount of wage subsidy that was given to any company throughout the pandemic. Five per cent of the payments have been returned just by having transparency. In Australia, there's no transparency. Only 0.25 per cent of JobKeeper funds have been returned to the government. We have a circumstance now where we clearly have a lack of appropriate steps and actions by the government and we have a failure by the government to put in appropriate transparency arrangements, yet we're seeing again today their opposition to having more transparency of their accounts. This is a pandemic of rorting. They're addicted to it. They can't help themselves but implement it, they can't help themselves but rort it, and they can't help themselves but abuse it. To see these sorts of payments not being transparent, both those within this bill but also the other payments that I've mentioned, is an indication of the failure by this government to have appropriate accountability for the systems within this parliament. We need to make sure that we have that transparency so that the Australian public can have confidence in what their parliamentarians are doing and make sure that people have confidence in democracy, and there's not just pork-barrelling. One thing we can be sure of is that, when it comes to pork-barrelling, these guys have it all over everybody. They are the world-beaters.

As I mentioned, we can look to New Zealand, which had particularly appropriate arrangements regarding JobKeeper. It was particularly important for New Zealand, and they were able to get five per cent of the payments back. You could well imagine that, in the circumstances in Australia, hundreds of millions of dollars could potentially be returned to the Australian public if we had the same accountability and transparency. I don't like the accountability and transparency of this lot. They certainly don't want accountability and transparency for themselves. This bill is just one small step towards airing out the rot that Mr Morrison has welcomed into this building. It improves transparency and it improves accountability—everything this government stand against and what the Labor Party stand for. Thank you.