Senate debates

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws — Superannuation) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy Surcharge Thresholds) Bill 2008; National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical and Other Benefits — Cost Recovery) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (Luxury Car Tax) Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — General) Amendment Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — Customs) Amendment Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — Excise) Amendment Bill 2008; Excise Legislation Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008; Excise Tariff Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008; National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) Bill 2008; National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (2008 Measures No. 3) Bill 2008; Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008

Referral to Committees

9:31 am

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Manager of Government Business in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

Where I left the debate yesterday was this: the Liberals are ditherers in respect of these committee references. They are not providing and will not provide an answer on what they will do and what they would prefer to do with these bills. What they are now doing is putting them off to the never-never because they do not want to deal with them now; they do not want to explain to the Australian public what their position on these bills is. Effectively, they are now abrogating their responsibility as an opposition to hold the government to account. They are not going to have the numbers post 1 July. So what they will then do is refer these matters to the next Senate so that they do not have to come to a concluded view, so they do not have to actually say, ‘What we stand for is X or Y.’ What they are actually going to say is, ‘What we’d prefer to do is give the minor parties, the Greens’—and of course not the Democrats—‘the ability to stand up and say what they believe in’—while the Liberals hide behind.

One of the bills, the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008, is in a special category of its own because it does not have a reporting date. Its actual reporting date is some time off into the future, depending upon a whole range of packages coming forward. In truth, it is not a reference; it is an abrogation of their responsibility to refer a matter to a committee to consider and report back on to the Senate. They are not doing that.

This bill is an important bill for the Senate. It is an important bill for the government. We have had an argument about the bill’s issues for a very long time, and the bill provides certainty for a certain area of people who are on superannuation benefits or who might benefit from them. Here we have a referral of it to a Senate committee. That is undesirable as any delay in implementing the reforms in the bill would see the continuation of discrimination against same-sex couples and their children in acts governing the Commonwealth defined benefits superannuation scheme and in related taxation and regulatory acts. Say a scheme member died, for argument’s sake. Until the acts are amended his or her same-sex partner or the children of such a relationship will not be entitled to receive reversionary death benefits.

This cannot occur until the bill is passed and proclaimed. There will be a gap by which people could suffer detriment, and the opposition are not prepared to close that gap. What they are going to do is extend that gap, widening it to the never-never. Commencement of the legislation at the beginning of the 2008-09 income year will immediately extend the concessional tax treatment of death benefits to recipients under Commonwealth superannuation schemes. This bill covers the first stage of the reforms and is confined to superannuation. It is not a difficult issue for the opposition to come to grips with. There will be an opportunity for Senate committee consideration of the reforms more broadly. No-one is saying that the Senate should shut itself away from looking at reform packages as they come forward, but this one is a finite measure, it is a confined measure, it relates to superannuation and it should start by 1 July. There will be an opportunity for the Senate to look at the reform packages more broadly as they come forward when draft legislation covering the remaining reforms is introduced in the spring sittings.

There are of course significant legal and practical difficulties with backdating. The opposition might say, ‘Let’s just backdate it.’ Well, superannuation trustees are required to make payments under the law as it stands, not under what it might be in the future. If payments were to be made now, either to certain beneficiaries or to a deceased’s legal estate, it would be very difficult to unwind those payments at a future date when the law changed. In practical terms, when you are talking about reversionary benefits, you are usually talking about a fortnightly or, at the least, a monthly pension payment. The Rudd government is committed to giving people access to those benefits as soon as possible. Backdating this access will not help anyone meet their day-to-day financial considerations, yet that is the position that the opposition are now putting forward as a proposal by sending this off to the never-never. It should not be done, and they should make a practical decision to support the provisions of this bill from 1 July and not refer it. There will be time for greater consideration of all these bills in the future.

The changes to the Medicare levy surcharge represent a measure to be introduced for one simple reason: to remove an unjust tax slug on working families. That is what it is about. It is not a complex policy issue; it is about the removal of an unjust tax slug on working families. Opposition senators will be aware that this penalty on high-income earners to encourage them to take out private health insurance was first introduced in 1997. The penalty applied to people earning $50,000 and above. That was because of the very simple fact that, 11 years ago, $50,000 was seen as a little bit more than an ordinary income—and even a high income. Because of that simple fact Labor has acted now to ensure that working families are no longer hit with a tax penalty that was never meant for them. As a result, we now have the opposition, again, not ensuring that that would occur. They are referring the matter to a committee. They are not going to deal with it by 1 July; they are going to ensure that working families continue to get an unjust tax slug.

I will conclude with those matters. I will not use up all of the available time. This is an important debate. The opposition are being completely unrealistic about the proposals that they are now putting. They should be supporting the budget bills, supporting those bills that have a start-up date of 1 July, including the same-sex bills, because of the challenges that face those people who have superannuation. They should not disadvantage those people. They should also take the grand policy position of saying, ‘We actually do support changes to same-sex relationships; we actually do recognise that society has moved on.’ But instead they are going to refer the matter off to the never-never.

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