Friday, 12 June 2020
Treasury Laws Amendment (2019 Measures No. 3) Bill 2019; In Committee
by leave—I move Centre Alliance amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 8968:
(1) Clause 2, page 2 (at the end of the table), add:
(2) Page 71 (after line 3), at the end of the Bill, add:
Schedule 4—Financial reporting obligations for large proprietary companies
Part 1—Repeal of instrument
ASIC Corporations (Exempt Proprietary Companies) Instrument 2015/840
1 The whole of the instrument
Repeal the instrument.
Part 2—Grandfathered exemption
Corporations Act 2001
2 Subsection 1408(6) (table item 7)
Repeal the table item.
(1) This item applies to a company if, immediately before the commencement of this item, the company was exempted from complying with subsection 319(1) of the Corporations Act 2001 by the ASIC Corporations (Exempt Proprietary Companies) Instrument 2015/840.
(2) Despite the amendments made by Parts 1 and 2, that exemption continues to apply to the company in relation to the 2019-20 financial year.
4 Instruments that provide relief from requirements of Corporations Act—Lodgment of annual reports by large proprietary companies
(1) Despite anything contained in the Corporations Act 2001, ASIC may not make a legislative instrument, however described, if that legislative instrument would have the effect of relieving the class of companies referred to in subitem (2) of the requirement to comply with subsection 319(1) of the Act for a financial year.
(2) The class of companies is the class of large proprietary companies that was relieved from the requirement to comply with subsection 319(1) of the Corporations Act 2001 due to the operation of the ASIC Corporations (Exempt Proprietary Companies) Instrument 2015/840 as in force immediately before the commencement of this Schedule.
I spoke about amendment (2) in my second reading contribution. It seeks to eliminate a privileged list of companies that do not have to lodge financial reports with ASIC. I understand that I will have the support of Labor, One Nation, the Greens and the Jacqui Lambie Network, which means it will pass. I understand that the government will not be supporting this amendment.
In that context, I just want to take the chamber to an article that was written by TheGuardian data journalist, Nick Evershed, back in 2015, when this was very topical. He basically compared the grandfathered list against the Australian Electoral Commission's donation records covering 1998 to 2014 and government contracts from AusTender covering 2007 to 2014. What he found was that 132 had given money to either the Labor Party or the Liberal Party or one of their associates, and 133 of the companies still on the list had held government contracts worth a total of $2.3 billion. I'm happy to say that that's not stopping Labor from supporting this. They get it. This is a very, very unfair arrangement where select people, well-known business people, are exempt from the requirements that apply to every other large proprietary company in lodging returns to ASIC. I just hope that is not the basis of the government's rejection of this amendment, and I look forward to hearing what the minister has to say.
Thank you, Senator Patrick. The government's position is to oppose Senator Patrick's amendment. The issue raised by the senator's proposed amendment is the subject of a recommendation in the Senate economics committee's report Corporate tax avoidance part 1: you cannot tax what you cannot see, which I know the senator has referred to before. The government will respond to this recommendation as part of its response to the Senate economics committee's corporate tax avoidance reports.
Labor will be supporting this amendment, as Senator Patrick has already indicated. This is an old regime. It's a regime that was put in place in 1995, and it provides very significant exemptions for a narrow set of companies. Companies on this list are owned by some of the wealthiest Australians. You can't even get off the list, I understand; those who've tried to take themselves off the list including, I think, former Prime Minister Turnbull, were unable to do so.
This is a sensible amendment. It's an amendment that, as the minister has noted, was canvassed in the Senate committee's work around corporate tax avoidance. The private companies that are on this list—very rich and very powerful people—are benefiting from an unfair grandfathering regime. As the title of the Senate report indicates, 'you cannot tax what you cannot see.' Why should these people be removed of their obligations to report transparently in the way that other companies do? Newer companies—and when I say 'newer', I mean companies founded since 1995—have to comply with very sensible ordinary ASIC requirements. While there may have been genuine policy reasons in the past for this exemption, the time for this exemption is over. If the Liberals, as they've indicated, won't back this amendment, then they need to explain to the public why it is that they are standing up for a special privileges regime that benefits the old, the wealthy and the very, very powerful.
The Greens will of course be supporting this amendment today. We moved a very similar amendment in 2018—in fact, almost identical to this amendment—with, I note, the support of Labor. We have long fought for tax transparency in Australia. In his contribution, Senator Patrick talked about the groundbreaking Senate inquiry that, I'm very proud to say, many of us in this chamber contributed to. It was initiated by my previous colleague, the Leader of the Greens, Senator Christine Milne, after being lobbied by the Tax Justice Network, Micah Challenge and a number of stakeholders at the time, going back to 2013. When people knock on our door and say, 'Can we come and see you and talk about an issue?'—and these were community groups and church groups saying, 'What can we do about tax justice?'—I often say to them, 'Look at that as an example of how you can achieve something when you come to this place and you sit down with your elected representatives.' Senator Milne initiated that inquiry. It ran for a number of years and it made some very significant recommendations for reform. Recommendation 13 in that reform was to get rid of this grandfathering amendment. I'm very proud, as a chamber, that we achieved a fantastic Senate report taking witness evidence right around the country from hundreds of stakeholders. Not all of it's been legislated, sadly, but a lot of it has. I'm very pleased that Senator Patrick has brought this back today.
It's no coincidence that, looking at the numbers in that Guardian report, some have expired—about 1,498 private companies back in 2015 were exempted from providing a full set of financial accounts to ASIC. I'm not sure what the policy reasons were that Senator McAllister was referring to that may have been legitimate at the time. I can't see any at all, except perhaps there was an impasse around legislation. However, transparency should be in our genes. There should be no reason at all that any company gets preferential treatment. Looking at the current numbers, I don't think it's any coincidence that nearly 10 per cent of these companies are donors to the Liberal Party. Nearly 10 per cent have contracts, and of course the Liberal Party has a lot of explaining to do if they don't vote for this today.
More importantly, since 2018, this chamber has had the appetite to pass this amendment to any piece of legislation as was evidenced when the Greens did this with Labor back in 2018. The appetite for transparency, however, I don't believe is as strong in that other place down the corridor through that door. We're about to find out when this amendment passes today whether the Liberal Party is going to finally turn its back on this outdated, totally unjustified exemption for some of the biggest and wealthiest companies, and families and individuals, in this country to not provide full details of their financial affairs to the regulator.
Making these things public is absolutely critical. There is a public good component to this—providing information. Luckily there are people out there who spend a lot of their time looking at the tax affairs of companies. Because it is all about social justice. It is all about paying your fair share. If you don't have the disclosure, you're never going to get the reform. The two things go hand in glove. So we're pleased, Senator Patrick, and thank you for acknowledging the role the Greens played when we did move a very similar amendment back in 2018. I hope, if we don't have success this time round, that we continue to plug away until we do. The Greens commend this amendment.
One Nation, too, will be supporting the Centre Alliance amendment. We acknowledge the office of Senator Rex Patrick in putting this forward and we thank them very much for doing so. It is yet another example of how the elites have their fingers into the two major parties. That needs to stop. We need to have a much more transparent system and we need to also have a much more transparent and fair taxation system. We need a comprehensive review of the whole taxation system, because there have been so many people butchering this since the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, I go back to 1953, when the Prime Minister of the time, Robert Menzies, introduced the double taxation act that made it possible for foreign multinational companies to pay no company tax at all. That leaves a burden on Australians, Australian companies and Australian families.
I just come back to: the Labor Party on this occasion is supporting this amendment. The Greens are supporting it; and, Centre Alliance: a wonderful job on that. We don't need to say too much more about the details other than thank you very much, and we will be supporting your amendment.
I have a couple of questions for the minister. Noting there are cuts across the public space, ASIC has provided a list of the 1,119 companies that still remain on the list—and I thank them for providing this in response to an answer to a question that I put to them at estimates. I'm just wondering if you could tell the chamber how many Liberal donors are on this list?
I have a copy of that list, too, Senator Patrick, so thank you very much for that. I'm not aware of whether there are any donors there or whether there aren't any donors there. Donations are of course a matter for the Liberal and National party organisations. And as Senator Patrick knows very well, donations are declared with the AEC in accordance with section 314AB(1) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. Political donations are openly and transparently disclosed, and the register is publicly available on the AEC website.
Perhaps a couple of the big names that are involved here: Mr Anthony Pratt, Mr Kerry Stokes, Mr Bruce Gordon, the Myer family, Lindsay Fox and Ramsay Health Care. I just wonder whether maybe any of those are on the list of donors to the Liberal Party.
I can't personally confirm whether they are or whether they aren't, but what I can say is that the register is publicly available on the AEC website—that political donations are openly and transparently disclosed. In fact, for the senator's benefit, in case he doesn't have it in his back pocket, the specific web page is www.transparency.aec.gov.au.
I just want to respond to a comment that was made by Senator Whish-Wilson, because I think people will be watching this. I know that there are not a lot of financial advisers looking at this, because my office has been bombarded by calls from people concerned that this amendment, when it passes, will in fact cause the bill to go back to the other place and then sit there, and nothing will happen to this bill. Now, firstly, I just want to make sure that all those financial advisers understand that this bill is being supported by the Senate and that it has an amendment to correct an anomaly that creates a privileged class of companies here in Australia, which is no longer acceptable to Australians. I will just foreshadow—just advise what I've indicated privately to other senators in the this chamber—that when the bill goes back to the House, if it sits there, every treasury bill that has the right constitutional hook will have this amendment put. And if you want to stop all the bills passing through the House, for the purposes of protecting your financial mates, then that's how this is going to play out. So, I urge that when it goes back to the House you do deal with it and deal with it in accordance with the public interest that I've talked about in my second reading contribution and that Senator Whish-Wilson talked about as well.
This amendment is not part of the original bill; it's unrelated to the original bill, and it will be addressed as part of the government's response to the Senate Economics Committee report that was referred to earlier.
Minister, that report was a long time ago. I was on that committee with Senator Dastyari when the report was finally released. We're talking about many, many years. There's been no attempt to address it at all. But thank you for saying that you will address it. I'll take you at your word on that. But my question—and it's very important for you now to explain to the Senate and anyone who may be listening to this debate—is: in your understanding, please, what is the public policy purpose of having grandfathered exemptions that were in place in 1995 and were designed to be temporary, as Senator Patrick outlined? Indeed, it was Mr John Howard who kept them in place deliberately, as a policy decision. So, it's your government that kept them in place. Can you explain to the Senate the policy purpose of having those exemptions and why you believe they should stay in place and why you're going to vote against them today?
Minister, with due respect, you've already responded to that Senate inquiry report, unless there's another report that you're referring to. Perhaps you could clarify that for us today. As I mentioned in my contribution, there's been—and good on the government—some legislative reform following that groundbreaking Senate inquiry, initiated by the Greens. I'm asking you this again. You are a minister of the Crown, of the Commonwealth government. What is your understanding of why grandfathered exemptions have a public policy purpose? What is their public policy purpose? I think it's really important for your government to stand up today and at least provide an explanation as to why you're not going to support Senator Patrick's amendment.
It may be that you don't feel it's related to what we have in this bill here today, but it is technically allowed. I would note that on the multinational anti-avoidance law bill that came in in 2015—which, by the way, was the most significant reform around tax avoidance that this chamber had seen in a decade—the Greens supported your government in good faith to get that bill through here. We also managed to achieve transparency on private companies worth over $200 million, making their accounts publicly available in, unfortunately, a fairly simplified format. Your government agreed to that amendment at the time to get the multinational anti-avoidance bill through. You could have given the same argument—that it wasn't technically related to the MAAL bill. Nevertheless, in hindsight, I think we all agree it was a good thing. Of course, I'm sure the Labor Party and the Greens would like more disclosure on a lower threshold than $200 million. That's something I believe Labor have moved in this chamber since then.
Just for the record, please explain to us why we need to provide grandfathered exemptions for some of the wealthiest individuals and companies in this country. Why should they not have to disclose their financial affairs when other companies have to? Private citizens all put in their tax returns. They do the right thing. They know the consequences if they don't. Why is it that big companies shouldn't be providing these accounts to ASIC?
Thank you, Senator Whish-Wilson. I reiterate my earlier answer that the government will respond to that Senate economics committee in a fulsome manner at another time. I think it would be very difficult for both Senator Whish-Wilson and Senator Patrick to deny that this government has done more than any other to ensure that everyone is paying the right amount of tax and taken more action than any previous government to close loopholes and ensure the ATO has the tools and resources that it needs to deter tax avoidance. With the Greens' and Centre Alliance's support, the Tax Avoidance Taskforce was set up in July 2016. The ATO had their resources increased dramatically, by $679 million over four years, specifically to target anti-avoidance activities by domestic and multinational enterprises, Australian public and private groups and wealthy individuals operating in Australia. I can also inform the Senate that, as of 30 April this year, the taskforce has 44 audits underway, covering 42 multinationals.
Minister, your disclosure then about some of the good work you're doing I totally acknowledge. The MAAL bill is a really good example of that. It kind of makes it even more important for you to explain why this anomaly exists, why you're allowing this grandfathering to continue. If you do believe in transparency and you do believe in tax justice—and I once again commend your government for the measures that you've brought before this place and the spirit of cooperation with which we've all worked on this together—it does seem very unusual and a significant anomaly that you would allow this exemption to remain in place. Of course, perceptions are everything in politics. You understand that as well as any of us here do. You need to provide an explanation as to why this grandfathering should remain in place.
If you can genuinely, hand on your heart, say that you've got a timetable for removing it and that you're going to provide a response to a report—that you've already responded to, by the way, and I'd ask you to go check on that—that's not credible in my eyes and I don't think it's credible in the public's eyes. If you promise us here in the chamber today that you're going to address this issue, then it may cause trouble for Senator Patrick. So perhaps it would be useful for you to consider that as an option—
A government senator interjecting—
Well, Senator Patrick is making a very important point here, and I can guarantee that the Australian people, whether they go to pubs or drink at home—or whether they don't drink at all—would agree with it. There is no reason that big, wealthy benefactors of your party should be given exemptions from disclosing their financial affairs. I don't think anyone would disagree with that.
So could you give us a guarantee today that you will respond to that recommendation, and that you will put in place a process for removing the grandfathering exemptions, including bringing legislation before this place?
The issue raised by the Senate's proposed amendment is the subject of a recommendation in that committee report—the Senate Economics Committee's Corporate tax avoidance report, Part I—You cannot tax what you cannot see. The government, as I said, will respond to that recommendation as part of its response to the Senate Economics Committee's Corporate tax avoidance report.
Let me update the Senate to confirm that since the establishment of the task force that I referred to earlier, the ATO has in fact raised $17.2 billion in liabilities against public groups, multinationals, wealthy individuals and associated private groups, including trusts and aggressive tax planning.
Minister, you mentioned that the ATO has been effective in closing loopholes. There seems to be a swamp which they're neglecting, and that is the broader range of multinationals that are avoiding taxation. You just said that they've earned $17.2 billion, but there is a lot more than that—a hell of a lot more—and we need to address that.
But coming back to the point of Senator Patrick's amendment: do you see a problem with the companies on that list? They've been at it now for 25 years; surely that's enough to get their house in order?
Thank you, Senator Roberts. That's an issue that will be addressed by the government when it responds to that particular recommendation as part of its response to the Senate Economics Committee's Corporate tax avoidance report.
Is there a problem with these companies? They were given a temporary exemption and it's 25 years later. They were given a temporary exemption because of the new circumstances at the time back in 1995. That's a long time to have to learn how to do this.
by leave—I would like to move the amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 8970:
(1) Clause 2, page 2 (at the end of the table), add:
(2) Page 71 (after line 3), at the end of the Bill, add:
Schedule 4—Arts and Entertainment Industry Coronavirus Recovery Fund
1 Arts and Entertainment Industry Coronavirus Recovery Fund
(1) There is to be an Arts and Entertainment Industry Coronavirus Recovery Fund.
(2) The Finance Minister must, by legislative instrument, make rules to provide for and in relation to the establishment, governance and operation of the Fund, the purpose of which is to provide, in relation to the 2020-21 financial year, for a rescue package to support the arts and entertainment industry in Australia.
(3) Money for the Fund is to be from funds appropriated by the Parliament for the purposes of this Act.
Note: Section 10 of the Supply Act (No.1) 2020-2021 and section 12 of the Supply Act (No.2) 2020-2021 provide for advances to the Finance Minister to facilitate urgent and unforeseen expenditure in certain circumstances, to ensure sufficient appropriations are available to support the coronavirus economic response.
(4) The Finance Minister must make the rules under subitem (2) before 30 June 2020.
(5) For the purposes of this item, Finance Minister means the Minister administering the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013.
These amendments go to the crux of the issue that has been festering during this COVID crisis: that the arts and entertainment industry in Australia has been absolutely crippled by the impact of the lockdown and the health restrictions. Of course those were things that needed to be put in place, but it was the arts and entertainment sector that overnight was shut down. Overnight individual workers lost their jobs. Overnight hundreds of thousands—millions—of dollars were lost because of events being cancelled, gigs closed and festivals postponed. We are not even sure when these things are going to be able to reopen and what business as normal will look like going forward. Of course, while the arts and entertainment sector was a hard-hit industry and felt the impacts straight away, we know that, because of those large group gatherings, because of the nature of the arts and entertainment sector, it will be one of the last sectors to get out of this COVID crisis.
Much has been spoken about in relation to these issues, and of course the Prime Minister over a week ago referenced the fact that he understood that there were some industries that would need specific support and help. Some months ago, late in the evening, when we were debating the rescue packages being put forward by the government, I stood in this place and argued that there needed to be an arts-and-entertainment-industry-specific package before more jobs were lost and before more businesses went to the wall. Sadly, that didn't happen. Some people, of course, have been able to access JobKeeper, but many within the industry have been left out in the cold. But the big question will come in September when JobKeeper ends. The arts and entertainment industry will not be in a position come September to resume and to snap back as the government continues to insist. It just won't be.
So several months on I'm now pleading with the government again and for all in this place to insist that the Minister for Finance, who has the ability on rules that have already been agreed to by this place and the other, fund a specific package for arts and entertainment. I understand that this is an amendment that is quite separate to the rest of this bill, but it is important, it is urgent and we are facing an arts and entertainment emergency. It's totally lawful to do it. It's about whether you want to.
I specifically haven't put a figure in this amendment, because I want that to be based on the best advice that Treasury, the finance minister and the arts minister have and on what the Prime Minister is willing to cough up. This amendment requires the government to at least spend something on an industry that is going bust day after day. Every day we wait for something to be put on the table is another day another Australian artist, entertainer or creative worker loses their job. Every day we wait for something to be put on the table another business goes to the wall. Many of these businesses are small businesses. They employ a handful of people, but that is their livelihood.
Other industries have been acknowledged as needing specific support. We heard last week the Prime Minister make an announcement about the housing and construction industry. The arts and entertainment industry have lost almost one-third of their workforce. They are in desperate need of assistance and support. We can't wait until we come back to this place in August to see movement on this. We need to do something about it today.
The Prime Minister is already on the record saying that he understands this is an issue that needs to be dealt with. Here is an opportunity to make sure that something can happen and happen quickly. You can iron out the details. You as the government can decide what figure you want to put on it. This amendment says that the parliament requires it to happen.
I appeal to the Labor Party. They've been quite vocal on this issue as well. Let's make sure something actually happens. Let's make sure that the government is required to deliver a package—not just have the Prime Minister make promises when he's getting a few tough questions on his favourite radio show. Let's make sure that this parliament requires the government to do something for the arts and entertainment sector. Up to this point it has been all hollow promises and nothing has come down the line. It has been over a week and still there is nothing from this government. It has been three months, and the industry has gotten in a worse situation. Hundreds of thousands of Australians are unemployed because this government didn't act when it should have. Hundreds of thousands of Australians will remain out of work if we don't get something done today. I appeal to both sides to pass these amendments and to get on with supporting the arts and the entertainment sector across Australia.
Senator Hanson-Young, the government will be opposing your amendments. We believe that they are inappropriate amendments to this bill. Senator Hanson-Young, you're right—the Prime Minister and the minister for the arts have already confirmed that the government is looking at the issues impacting the arts, screen and entertainment sectors. In addition, a substantial number of organisations within the arts community are benefiting from the JobKeeper program. For example, I understand that Queensland Ballet, the Melbourne Theatre Company, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Opera Australia are all benefiting from the JobKeeper program. I'm also advised that the total support received for the initial JobKeeper fortnights in April by the creative and performing arts under the cash flow boosts and JobKeeper initiatives was around $99.6 million. We've also committed to a $27 million targeted support package for areas of the arts industry identified as being most affected by COVID-19, with dedicated financial support for Indigenous visual art centres and art fairs, regional arts and live music, and the performance industry.
It's very frustrating to see this bill, which has been around for some time, used for hobbyhorse issues by those from across the chamber, whether they be Centre Alliance, Labor or the Greens. We would like to stop playing political games, particularly with the lives of financial advisers, whom we seem to give nothing but banal platitudes of support. Let's let financial advisers have sufficient time to meet the government's new important standards.
It is extremely disappointing, frankly surprising and, I suspect, for many people in the arts and entertainment industries, insulting to hear the minister describe the economic crisis being experienced by the arts and entertainment sector as a 'hobby horse'. That's certainly not the experience of the people whom I've been talking to, and I'm frankly shocked that you would describe it in those terms. This is an industry that has been shut down by the government and then abandoned. First, the government tried to pretend that the JobKeeper and the jobseeker packages were arts packages, which they plainly were not. Then it gave $27 million to some selected parts of the sector, which was welcome but nowhere near enough. Now it is talking about a relief package, but to date there is absolutely nothing to be seen, and those in the arts and entertainment sector could be forgiven for feeling that this government doesn't care about them and, in fact, holds them to contempt, as evidenced this morning by the description of this issue as a 'hobby horse'. How disgusting!
These people are workers, and they are absolutely vital to the beating heart of our nation. They need your help now, and it's only the government that can actually deliver it because it is the government that, at the moment, unfortunately, occupies the Treasury benches. It holds the purse strings.
Labor will be opposing this amendment. It's regrettable, but the truth is that the only way we can get action is for this government to act—this government that considers this issue a hobby horse. These amendments purport to create what is described as an arts and entertainment industry coronavirus recovery fund, but the sad truth is that they create an appropriation with no dollar value. As much as the Greens might try to convince us otherwise, and I commend their sincerity in this regard, the only way to deliver a much-needed funding boost to the arts and entertainment sector is for the government to move. The Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, and the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the missing Mr Fletcher, have been repeatedly found wanting. People cannot wait any longer.
by leave—I just want to indicate Centre Alliance's support for the Greens' amendments.
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: The support from Centre Alliance will be recorded.
Bill, as amended, agreed to.
Bill reported with an amendment; report adopted.