Wednesday, 17 June 2020
Treasury Laws Amendment (2020 Measures No. 2) Bill 2020; Consideration of Senate Message
Something extraordinary has happened this week. For the third time in three days, an identical proposition has travelled from the Senate to this House and sought our agreement. That proposition is that we remove a discrimination which currently exists within our corporate law, which enables some of Australia's largest companies to avoid the sorts of scrutiny and transparency that apply to every other like company in the country. It's not right, it's not fair and it's not in the public interest, and this House should agree with the amendments that have been moved and agreed to in the Senate to the Treasury Laws Amendment (2020 Measures No. 2) Bill 2020.
It is worth noting that we have now approached the 25th year of the existence of a measure which was supposed to be both temporary and transitional—the 25th year. And as the member for Fenner said in his contribution yesterday, a measure that was once supposed to be a grandfathering provision is now a great-great-great-great grandfathering provision!
It is about time that this government and this House agree to a proposition which was recommended to the government five years ago to be incorporated into our law. When it made that recommendation, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission said this:
The lack of availability of public financial reports reduces transparency about possible indicators of tax avoidance or tax minimisation.
There can be no clearer example of clear advice to government and the inability or the unwillingness of government to accede to that advice.
If the majority of members of this place were to be coupled with the majority of members of the other place, I have no doubt that this proposition would be moved into law. If you are going to adopt a proposition which, on its face, is completely opposite to the public interest and if you are going to adopt a proposition which is completely opposite to that which has been recommended to you by the corporate regulator and if you are going to refuse to accept the recommendation from a Senate committee that has spent several years investigating the matter, the very least you could do would be to come into this place and explain why.
Yesterday, we gave the assistant minister at the table the opportunity to explain why his government was refusing to accept this proposition. The day before, we gave the assistant minister the opportunity to come here and explain why they refused to accept this proposition. On the first time it appeared before this House, the assistant minister refused to speak but tabled a document. The document had this to say:
The House will not pre-empt the Government's response to this recommendation as part of its response to the Senate Economics Committee's corporate tax avoidance reports.
That report is five years old. We've had three elections, three Treasurers and three Prime Ministers since that report was given to the government. We are still waiting. Glaciers move faster than this government on adopting a report from that Senate committee—a report which adopts the recommendation of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.
Many members opposite may not be aware of what they're going to be coming into this chamber to vote on. They are about to refuse a proposition that says that we should not have laws which discriminate against one group of companies and another group of companies dependent on the date they are incorporated. They are going to vote to maintain a proposition to level the playing field between one group of companies and another group of companies. And you may ask: why does this matter? Transparency always matters in corporate affairs. It matters to creditors, it matters to investors and it should matter to the members of the company, but it also matters to taxpayers. At a time when this government has managed to more than double the debt that they have inherited—debt this week clicked over at $673 billion—it's incumbent upon them to ensure that every corporate pays every cent of tax that they are required to pay.
In The Mikado, the Lord High Executioner sings, 'I've got a little list,' and the coalition have a little list as well. Their little list is of their mates that they would like to avoid public scrutiny. That's what they're doing with this vote that we are about to have in this place. Yet again, for the third time in as many days, they are going to come into this place and defend the indefensible. Why do I say it's indefensible? It's because none of them are standing up to defend it. None of them are saying 'boo' as to why they are taking this extraordinary action. They're too ashamed. As the member for Whitlam says, they are hanging their heads, hoping the issue will go away.
The fact is that the issue will not go away. This provision was grandfathered in 1995 and had been intended to be in place for a year or two. The Howard government made it permanent and the mob on the other side want to maintain it. They have no rational reason for arguing in favour of it. In 2015, ASIC said very clearly that such a list 'reduces transparency about possible indicators of tax avoidance or tax minimisation'. The firms on this list are not tiddlywink firms. They include Baiada, Tangaratta, 7-Eleven, Linfox and Suttons Investments. They include firms, as Tom McIlroy from The Australian Financial Review has said:
… linked to billionaire rich listers Anthony Pratt, Kerry Stokes and Bruce Gordon, along with firms controlled by the Myer family, transport magnate Lindsay Fox, and private hospital giant Ramsay Health Care.
They include entities linked to Transfield, Tobin Brothers, Bob Jane, Jones Lang LaSalle, Sealey, Inghams and Dymocks. It includes billionaire investor Alex Waislitz's Thorney Opportunities Ltd and leading hedge fund Portland House Group among others.
In listing these firms, I'm not casting aspersions on them, because they couldn't get off the list even if they wanted to. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tried in 2018 and was unable to do so. So the fact is that this list only exists for one purpose—to prevent the proper public scrutiny of private firms. We're not asking much in asking the government to remove this exemption. We are saying that these firms, which are old firms—because, by definition, you had to exist in 1995 to be on the list—should be on the same level playing field as other private firms in Australia. We're asking for a level playing field, which is, of course, a Labor value but once upon a time was a coalition value too. But the coalition won't defend it and can't defend it. The once-great party of Menzies has become the party of 'the dog ate my homework', the party unable to come in here and back up with words what it is about to do with its vote.
Labor has been utterly consistent on this issue. In 2015, we voted for Ricky Muir's measure to get rid of the grandfathered list. The Greens voted with the Liberals at the time, but a few years later the Greens had a change of heart and put up an amendment and we voted with them at the time. We, again, believe that these 1,500 firms should be treated like every other private firm in Australia. Again, today, we are consistent with the position we have held since 2015, voting to say: 'Enough's enough. Let's get rid of the grandfathered position. Let's put these 1,500 firms on the same footing as all other firms in Australia.' In so doing, we are ensuring that integrity is returned to our tax system. It is only fair that these firms be treated as other firms are treated. It's what ASIC has called for.
The government have no rational reason for their position. They tabled a desultory note in which they said their reason for not responding was that there was a Senate report that they hadn't yet responded to. When was that Senate report handed down? 2015. Their only reason is: 'We are voting against it because a 2015 report recommended it and we haven't got around to responding to that report.' The party of Menzies has become the party of 'the dog ate my homework'. They have no reason for voting the way they did. They ought to be hanging their heads in shame for this secrecy provision which protects some of the richest firms in Australia.