Thursday, 12 November 2015
Tax Laws Amendment (Combating Multinational Tax Avoidance) Bill 2015; Consideration of Senate Message
That the amendments be disagreed to.
The government is acting to ensure multinational corporations pay their fair share of tax in Australia, where they earn that income, and we have put forward well-considered legislation that achieves this objective.
The opposition say that they like to support these goals, but yet when called upon to support this well-considered legislation, which is needed to ensure that multinational corporations pay their fair share of tax, the opposition chose to play politics and block this critical piece of the government's tax integrity plan last night with the amendments that have now come before the House. Not once between the former Treasurer introducing the Tax Law Amendment (Combating Multinational Tax Avoidance) Bill 2015, on 16 September 2015, and the Senate's decision yesterday did the opposition or crossbench raise with me as Treasurer—or with the former Treasurer—that they had any concern with this piece of legislation. Not once did Labor or the crossbench ask to meet with me to discuss this legislation.
Instead, after years of work—by the OECD; the Treasury; the Australian Taxation Office; the government— and after hundreds of meetings and discussions—consultation with stakeholders and experts considering all the requirements, consequences and implementation issues; a committee report from the Senate which included Senators Xenophon and Labor Senator Dastyari and which recommended the bill be passed, with no dissenting report—the Senate, on the run and at the last minute, has sought to dramatically amend this bill and to include a raft of peripheral additions. This is a very shabby and irresponsible way to deal with such a serious issue. This is a very shabby process that cannot be supported and should not be encouraged.
The opposition have failed to act in good faith and failed to be part of a sensible discussion and process on this issue. They have chosen cheap, opportunistic politics over good policy process. This is the type of cynical, old politics that Australians are sick of. It is very disappointing. The government are setting a new tone in politics in this country. The opposition remain locked in the old politics of the past. The opposition are following a very similar path, as we know, when it comes to issues of changing the tax system. So haphazard was the way the proposed amendments came about that there were no less than six proposed amendments circulated.
This is not how you make policy; it is policy on the run. The government will not accept a cobbled together, last minute, back of the envelope amendment which seeks to re-write our tax integrity measure that has been drafted to be consistent with the G20 OECD BEPS program as part of a two-year process. What is more concerning is that the amendment which the Senate is asking this House to consider repeals another law, the better targeting income tax transparency measure, which the Senate passed a mere three weeks ago.
Suddenly, a number of senators admitted yesterday that they did not understand the bill when they voted on it—that is their right—and got it wrong and they wanted to vote it out. This type of flip-flopping may be acceptable to the authors and supporters of these amendments, but it is not how the Turnbull government does business and sets policy. The government will not support law made on a whim. These admissions by certain senators that they got it wrong a few weeks ago provide me with no confidence that these same senators are now able to make a clear decision on this incredibly important area of law.
But I finish on this point, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker Goodenough: the government will take the time to carefully consider the issues raised in these amendments, who might be affected, the potential unintended consequences and whether there is any real substance to what is being proposed by the Senate. I will consult with the Commissioner of Taxation next week and discuss with him these new obligations to be imposed, as proposed, on businesses and how they might in anyway assist to improve our taxation system, because, at the end of the day, that is what the government are interested in. I will consult with senators who are prepared to engage in good faith on this issue, and I am disappointed they failed to do this so far up until this point.
This government are interested in getting the policy right, not playing politics like the opposition have done. The government are not rejecting the consideration of the issues raised in these amendments, rather the appalling process that has produced these amendments, which give me no confidence as to their veracity and merit at this point. And that is why the government will not accept these proposed amendments and the appalling manner in which they have been put forward. What we are interested in doing is considering the issues raised, but we will not endorse this shabby process sponsored by the opposition.
Of course the opposition will resist this move by the Treasurer. The Treasurer says we have seen a shabby process. That shabby process is called parliamentary debate and a vote of a chamber of parliament, the other place, and it is a vote the government lost. It happens from time to time. From time to time, governments lose votes. I know it does not happen in this place very often but it does happen in the other place, and the Treasurer has to get used to it. He lost a vote, get over it. Get over it. He lost the support of the crossbench. It happens. It is not a shabby process. It is called democracy. It happened to us from time to time when we were in government. We had to deal with it. It is called losing a vote. I know the Treasurer is used to getting his own way in this House, I understand that, but in the other house you actually have to talk to people.
In the Senate, senators expressed a view which was in accord with that of the opposition, a consistent view that the opposition have had. The Treasurer says he is surprised at the Labor Party's point of view and he says we should have told him that we support tax transparency. Well, the Labor Party have been arguing that for months. And, yes, the Treasurer is right about one thing: he says the Labor Party lost a vote in the Senate a couple of weeks ago about tax transparency. Yes, that is correct. We understand that; we lost the vote. And last night, we won a vote on the same issue because the crossbench were persuaded by our arguments. What happened was—
Well, I think I can predict how it will go here. Yes, we can predict that. You are going to create a dispute between the houses. That is your call. You could just accept the loss. But, no, you do not want to do that. What you are going to do is create a dispute between the houses. That is a matter for you. That is not my call; that is your call. That is the Treasurer's call.
What has happened is that the senators have looked at this matter and at the way they voted last fortnight and they have said, 'Hang on a second, there's a problem.' The problem is that there was a Senate inquiry with an organisation giving evidence before it and it turns out that that organisation is not entirely genuine. It has no members. It is called the Family Office Institute. The Family Office Institute argued to those senators that they were a grassroots organisation and that the legislation would cause them grave concern if tax details were to be made public.
It turns out that the Family Office Institute have no members and are what is called an astroturfed organisation. If the Treasurer wants to talk about shabby processes, let's talk about that. If he wants to talk about shabby processes, we can talk about shabby processes. The Senate was less than impressed with that shabby process, and the Senate voted last night. But this so-called shabby process that the Treasurer is concerned about, which is called the Senate voting, was brought about when the senators looked at this and said, 'Hang on a second, we're not very impressed by this tactic that has been employed by supporters of the government's legislation,' and they decided to reinsert tax transparency. But they did so with a caveat and it is a caveat the opposition are more than happy with.
It is a caveat whereby somebody can apply to the tax commissioner not to have their information disclosed if it is a significant and legitimate concern. That is a fair check and balance, in our view. It was not our suggestion but we are happy to work with that. We are happy to accept that in the interests of good faith. So the vote passed the Senate. The Treasurer says that the Labor Party are blocking this. In fact, the legislation passed the Senate, I am advised, unanimously. That is not how you block legislation—by voting for it. That is not how it works. I know the Treasurer has a problem with parliamentary processes. I know he thinks they are shabby. But when you are actually happy with a piece of legislation, you vote for it. Occasionally, the government is going to lose, but the government actually won last night on the legislation because it passed. That is not called blocking. The Labor Party voted for it. That is not blocking legislation.
I know it is a complex scenario, but the Labor Party supported the legislation. That is not how you block it; it does not work that way. I know the Treasurer is new to the job and still working out how to get legislation through. Last night, Treasurer, you took a win. Know when to accept a win. You got your legislation through; that is called 'winning'. We are happy to support it, and we voted for it. We just had a suggestion—a friendly suggestion—which the Senate agreed with and adopted. It improved the legislation before the House and it improved the legislation before the Senate. The Treasurer is quite right: the Senate recognised that, in our view, they got it wrong a couple of weeks ago. They came to that view and it was negotiated through the Senate last night. That is what happened. The legislation has passed. The Treasurer should just accept the fact that he won the day and got his legislation through, and he should move on.
It would be one thing to come into this place and say: 'For policy reasons, we disagree with what the Senate has just done. We all want to achieve a certain outcome, but we think there is a better way of doing it than what the Senate has done. Here is a series of reasoned arguments as to why that's wrong.' But to come in here and call it a 'shabby process' shows us what is really motivating this government. Only a blue blood government with a born-to-rule mentality would call democracy a 'shabby process'.
What happened yesterday in the Senate was that the Senate said: 'We have an opportunity here to introduce a bit of transparency into our tax system. We have an opportunity to say that rules should apply across the board so that those people and those companies that are at the top end of the income spectrum in Australia have to disclose the amount of tax that they earn, so that Australians can have an informed debate, so that we can have the kind of debate that the Prime Minister has urged us all to have—one where we know the facts and they are put on the table—and so that we can have a reasoned debate about who should pay their fair share of tax.'
We are reading in the papers every day a new argument about why everyday Australians should pay a bit more in terms of the rise of the GST. Then, when we say it would be good if Australia did what some other countries have done and have a look at the disclosure around how much tax some of the wealthiest companies operating here are actually paying so that consumers might be able to then vote with their feet, or so that voters might be able to say: 'Perhaps it's right that they should pay a little bit more. Perhaps tax reform should start at the top rather than at the bottom. Perhaps you should go after some of those very wealthy private companies in Australia who may be operating under various other arrangements. Perhaps you should go after others instead of coming after us first.'
The Senate, in this instance, is much more representative of the Australian people than this government is. The Senate said, 'Maybe we can improve this bill by including a requirement not only for all of the things the government wants to do but also something that would make it better; something that would introduce a bit more transparency into our tax system.' But what we know—and we see it on every occasion, whether it is immigration or taxation—is that transparency is to this government what sunlight is to a vampire. They are scared of knowing the facts and of having the facts made available to the Australian people. We see it time and time again.
First things first: if you want a more informed debate about tax in this country, then let the Australian people know how much tax is being paid by the people at the top end of town. Let us know and then we can have an informed and reasoned debate. If you believe in democracy, do not come in here and call what happened in the Senate a shabby process. What happened in the Senate was that people from across different parts of the political spectrum said: 'It is our role as the upper house of this parliament to hold the government to account. When we think the government could be doing better we will tell them how.' When the government said that the only way to deal with tax in this system is to shield their rich mates from having to give the kind of information that in other countries is provided on a regular basis, the Senate said, 'We don't agree with that.'
The more we learn about what has happened the more we feel that we have been misled. We were misled when organisations pretending to be grassroots organisations came to us and said that there are good reasons as to why this should happen. The Senate said, 'We were astroturfed.' There was an organisation set up only to deal with the proposed mechanism that had been floated previously about requiring a bit more transparency, an organisation that was set up to represent the top part of the one per cent that most people in this country can never aspire to be in. They fronted up and they said that they were representative of what was going on. We in the Greens called them out early, but others said, 'We didn't realise that you weren't what you said, so we want to revisit the decision we made before and we want to take this chance to improve the bill.'
What happened in the Senate was democracy. The Greens are incredibly proud to have moved the amendments that are now here before this House. I would have hoped that the government might give it a bit of reasoned consideration. I would have hoped that the government might think about it for a bit longer that it has, than the 12 hours overnight. But, no, the government has come in here and said, 'It's our way or the highway.' We are going to stand up for these amendments. I am very pleased to have been part of having them passed yesterday.