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Monday, 9 August 2021
Page: 4342

Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (11:09): [by video link] I pass my greetings on to the colleagues that I can see in the chamber but also on the screen, and I thank the President for his decision to allow me to join today from hotel quarantine, which is perhaps not going to be the most enjoyable thing that I've endured but is far less serious than the privations endured by many other people as a consequence of the failings of this government.

This bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, makes a series of technical changes to the regime that governs the delivery of debt waivers and act of grace payments by the federal government. It sounds quite technical—I understand that—but it actually goes to very important principles. It embodies the principles of accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, as we know, both of these principles are routinely ignored by members of the Morrison government. It's telling, in fact, that the act we are amending with Senator Gallagher's bill is an act that was introduced by Labor when we were last in government. The PGPA Act is an immensely important piece of work. It rationalises and reconciles several pieces of legislation and it forms the framework for much of the activity that's undertaken by the Department of Finance and, indeed, the other departments around it. It was introduced by Senator Wong, as Minister for Finance and Deregulation in the last Labor government. It was designed to establish a framework that's necessary for a modern public service.

If you think about it, it's almost unimaginable that this crowd, the Morrison government, would introduce any piece of legislation of this kind, a piece of legislation aimed at improving public governance and accountability. The Morrison government's approach to the Public Service is hostile at best, and their attitude towards governance and accountability is essentially contempt. Labor, in government, put in place the important modernising piece of legislation aimed at supporting accountability and transparency in government. It's now Labor, from opposition, that is doing the work to ensure that that legislation remains effective and up to date.

So, what does the bill do? The bill we're debating today improves the level of accountability and transparency around the granting of debt waivers and act of grace payments by the federal government. Debt waivers are essentially a mechanism by which the Minister for Finance, on behalf of the Commonwealth, can waive a debt that's owing to the Commonwealth, including debts owed to entities like the ATO, the tax office or to Centrelink. The discretionary ability of the government to waive debts of this kind is fundamentally important. It is about fairness. Debt waivers can be made where recovering the debt would be inequitable or cause ongoing hardship. We don't want to see onerous debt leaving someone unable to provide food, accommodation, clothing, medical treatment, education or other necessities for themselves, their family or the other people for whom they're responsible. It's an essential part of how the act works.

Act of grace payments are similar. The PGPA Act authorises the finance minister to make payments for a person if they consider it appropriate to do so because of special circumstances. These special circumstances are not defined in the act. It's a discretionary power. It requires the finance minister to consider the individual circumstances of a particular person. And the decisions that are made under this power do not create a precedent for future requests.

Both of these capabilities, these powers, are important. They provide the flexibility that's needed to ensure that the system doesn't create injustice and inequity through inflexibility. But that same flexibility is the reason that transparency and accountability around the making of these decisions is so important. The public deserve to be able to have confidence that these powers are being exercised in a way that is consistent with their expectations and reflect the fair and impartial application of public power. That is why Labor has introduced this amendment bill. This bill would require the Department of Finance to report, in its annual report, on the number of debt waivers made during the period that the annual report covers, the total dollar amount that was waived as a result of those debt waivers, the number of act of grace payments made during the period the annual report covers and the total dollar amount that was paid as a result of those act of grace payments. This information would all be anonymous. It wouldn't infringe on the privacy of individuals and organisations. No names would be released. It is a simple, straightforward proposition to increase transparency and, through that, accountability.

So why has it fallen on the opposition to bring forward this proposal? Taking a guess, would it be because the government, to date, has shown very little interest in transparency or accountability? In fact, the government's track record on both of these things is far from great. Its first appointment for Public Service Commissioner resigned after an investigation was started into whether he had breached the Public Service Act, a document it was actually his job to enforce. But the true mettle of the Morrison government is found in the consistent drip of scandals about the treatment of public money by senior ministers. One of the pieces of advice that is given to fiction writers is that one should show, rather than tell. Don't use words; rely on actions. The Morrison government has shown through its actions, time and time again, what it thinks of public officers and public resources. It has treated important public jobs as gifts to be handed out to friends and allies. It has treated public money as a slush fund to be spent on its own re-election attempts.

It is worth having a look at just some of the scandals that have been running in the news over the last few weeks. It was reported last week that the Australian National Audit Office recently told a Senate estimates committee that the Morrison government awarded funding under the commuter car parks scheme by preparing a list of the top 20 marginal seats and inviting the sitting MPs to nominate projects for funding. In fact, the relevant ANAO auditor said:

In some cases, the evidence shows the local member or duty senator was actually engaging with the (Prime Minister's office), who would then pass it onto the Minister's office.

The Prime Minister has refused to confirm if his office has ever seen such a list. But the sting in the tail is that the Morrison government has not even been able to deliver on these promises. Just two of the promised 47 car parks have been built. As my colleague Senator Sheldon indicated just now, there is something simultaneously offensive and ludicrous about a PM's office that has time to scrutinise car parks in this way, for their own electoral benefit, but insufficient time or inclination to properly manage the pandemic, insufficient time to negotiate vaccines and insufficient time to establish national quarantine arrangements. These are not the sorts of things that the PM's office presently think is important but, over time, they have found evidently immense amounts of time for pork barrelling. But I digress.

I'll come back to the questions of transparency and accountability. The government's attempt to keep important documents relating to the handling of the pandemic secret has again, in the last week, been repudiated by the Federal Court. I congratulate my colleague Senator Patrick on this victory for common sense and transparency. The court found what my colleague in the other place Mr Albanese has been saying for some time: national cabinet is not a real cabinet. Just saying it is doesn't make it so. The court found that the national cabinet documents were not eligible for a blanket exemption from freedom-of-information requests because 'none of the subject documents is an official record of a committee of the cabinet'. The Federal Court went on to say:

The mere use of the name 'national cabinet' does not, of itself, have the effect of making a group of persons using the name a 'committee of the cabinet'. Nor does the mere labelling of a committee as a 'cabinet committee' have that effect.

Spin can only get you so far. This was yet another disgraceful attempt to conceal decision-making and to oppose transparency at a time when trust in government is more important, arguably, than it has ever been before.

What else has been in the news? There are the legal costs, the cost of Clive Palmer's border challenge. A year on, the government still hasn't revealed how much Mr Morrison's decision to back Clive Palmer's legal challenge to the WA border closures has cost the taxpayer. The Morrison government and the then Attorney-General, Mr Porter, funded a team of barristers to force WA's borders open in the middle of a pandemic, before eventually conceding to common sense, or at least to the wisdom of the crowds in Western Australia, by backing out of the challenge. We still don't know how much this endeavour has cost.

Any of these scandals alone would have been enough to embarrass a government capable of shame. Sometimes people talk about a post-truth world. We're moving to a period where facts don't matter. The more accurate thing you could say of this government is that it is living in a post-shame world. The Morrison government and the key people who lead it have become used to operating under a cloud of ignominy and shame.

That's why I'm proud that Labor has announced that an Albanese government would establish a powerful, transparent and independent national anticorruption commission. The commission would operate as a standing royal commission into serious and systemic corruption in the federal government. It would have broad jurisdiction to investigate and hold to account Commonwealth ministers, public servants, statutory office holders, government agencies, parliamentarians, personal staff of parliamentarians and other Commonwealth officials. It would be able to follow the money, meaning it would also be able to investigate private individuals and companies involved in systemic and serious corruption.

The government's proposal, by contrast, is weak and conflicted. It would be unable to instigate its own independent inquiries into government corruption. It would be unable to hold public hearings when it comes to politicians or public servants. Crucially, it would be unable to investigate any of the multiple past scandals of the Morrison government. Worst of all, it is hypocritical. This government has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into making a commitment to even establish such a commission. Now that those opposite have made the commitment, they're dragging their heels on actually doing it. It's little wonder. They have a track record of scandal that has enveloped minister after minister after minister, and during their eight years of office they have failed to take any action to tackle corruption. They've made next to no progress, leaving the Commonwealth as the only Australian government without a body dedicated to tackling corruption by public officials. Their refusal to honour their election promise is allowing corruption to go unchecked, enabling ministers to avoid being held to account for their actions and undermining public confidence in the Australian government. An Albanese Labor government would put an end to the Morrison government's shameful inaction. We will establish a powerful, transparent and independent national anticorruption commission.

I want to finish by reflecting on why it all matters. The last two years have shown us why it is so important for a government to behave with integrity and in a manner which is respectful of the trust that has been placed in it by the Australian public. It is obviously and plainly important for ministers to behave with integrity, but there's a broader principle at play too. Every scandal erodes the faith that the public in a democratic society has in our leaders. We rely collectively on that faith to address collective challenges, like the ones we are facing during this pandemic. We draw on that faith when the Australian people are asked collectively and individually to make sacrifices for the common good, to get us through difficult periods like the one we are facing at the moment. That is why Labor will continue fighting to improve the institutions and laws that support and protect that trust. We will do it in small ways, like this bill today, and we will do it through larger proposals, like our proposal for a national anticorruption commission. It is time for a government that respects public trust and that the public can trust. (Time expired)