Monday, 15 June 2020
Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to speak on this important private senator's bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, which, if passed, would improve accountability and transparency in government operations. The Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, the PGPA Act, is the key piece of legislation underpinning the financial framework and governance architecture of the Commonwealth. It applies to all Commonwealth entities and companies. The establishment of the PGPA Act was done during the term of the previous Labor government, in 2013. It replaced the Financial Management and Accountability Act and the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act, both of which had been in place since the late 1990s. The PGPA Act was designed to establish the framework necessary for a modern public service. The act, along with the necessary governance and accountability aspects, also contains provisions for the granting of discretionary financial assistance to members of the public.
The bill before us today deals with two aspects of this discretionary financial assistance: waivers of debt and act-of-grace payments. Section 63 of the PGPA Act authorises the finance minister, on behalf of the Commonwealth, to waive a debt owing to the Commonwealth. This waiver extinguishes the debt, meaning the Commonwealth cannot pursue the debt at a later date—even if the financial circumstances of the debtor, person or organisation change for the better. These debts relate to non-corporate Commonwealth entities, so it would relate the debts owed to the tax office or to Centrelink. Debt waivers are granted when the decision-maker—the finance minister for debts over $100,000, and Finance officials for amounts below that—considers that recovering the debt would be inequitable or would cause ongoing financial hardship and that other debt treatment options are not deemed appropriate. Financial hardship, as stated by the Department of Finance, would exist where payment of the debt would leave some unable to provide food, accommodation, clothing, medical treatment, education or other necessities for themselves or their families or other people for whom they are responsible.
The PGPA Act also provides the finance minister with the power to provide act-of-grace payments. Section 65 of the PGPA Act authorises the finance minister, on behalf of the Commonwealth, to make payments to a person if they consider it appropriate to do so because of special circumstances. These special circumstances are not defined in the act; however, the Department of Finance cites examples where such circumstances may exist, such as where a non-corporate Commonwealth entity has taken action or failed to take action which has caused an unintended or inequitable result for someone, or where Commonwealth legislation or policy has an unintended, inequitable or otherwise unacceptable impact on someone. Like waivers of debt, the provision of an act-of-grace payment is discretionary. Each request is treated individually, at the full discretion of the relevant decision-maker, and does not create a precedent for future requests.
While this bill covers both act-of-grace payments and waivers of debt, I want to particularly focus on the waiver-of-debt aspect. At Senate estimates in October last year, it was revealed that the Tasmanian housing debt worth $157 million was waived under the waiver-of-debt power in the PGPA Act. Finance officials also stated that these debt waivers and act-of-grace payments are not reported publicly. Of course, the waiver of the Tasmanian housing debt was a measure in the MYEFO of that year, but I find it interesting in terms of government accountability and transparency that there is no requirement at all for reporting on these debt waivers and act-of-grace payments. After all, we're talking either about taxpayers' money being given in a discretionary fashion to people or organisations, or about debts owed to the Commonwealth—that is, the taxpayer—being waived at the stroke of a pen. This is extremely pertinent, particularly as we now understand the government has to repay debts to the value of $721 million as part of the illegal robodebt scheme. While anyone of course can ask through the estimates process or questions on notice for an update on these figures, governments are not required to and do not voluntarily put that information out into the public domain.
When you look back at what has happened over the term of this government, it's interesting to see that, from 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2019—so, over that five-year period—there were 723 decisions made by finance portfolio ministers or appropriate delegates to waive debts owed to the Commonwealth with a total value of $159.9 million or an average of $220,608 per decision. From 1 July through to October 2019, just in those four months, there were 26 decisions to waive debt with a total value of $158.6 million—so, almost exactly the same total as over the previous five years—and the average skyrocketing to $6.1 million per decision. But note this is in the period of time that the Tasmanian housing debt was being waived. By March this year, those waivers had increased to 62 decisions, with a total value of $159.4 million. So over that 5½-year period, almost six-year period, we saw almost $320 million of taxpayers' funds being waived through the waiver-of-debt process.
I'd also note, and this has come to me through questions on notice, the status of other housing debts in the pipeline. After Tasmania had their housing debt waived—if senators recall, for the vote of Senator Jacqui Lambie for the government's tax legislation which actually passed tax cuts, which passed by one vote in this place, the price was $158 million to Tasmania—as you'd expect, the other states with housing debts to the Commonwealth have all sought to have their debts waived and to renegotiate their loans from the Commonwealth. We know that New South Wales has a $838 million debt in relation to housing debts; Queensland, $278.5 million; Western Australia, $343.2 million; the ACT, $114.9 million; and Northern Territory, $190.5 million. Presuming that these loans were engaged in similar ways to Tasmania's and that all state governments have similar arguments about the fairness or otherwise of those loans, and Tasmania have had theirs waived, you would think the other states would have equally strong arguments on the same grounds. If those grounds were applied as they are required to be under the PGPA Act, there will be more waivers of debt coming our way for the finance minister to sign off in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, when I pursued this at estimates in March this year, Treasury confirmed that they had provided advice to the government on state housing debt forgiveness in relation to the further applications they've had, but the Treasury is unable to comment on the specific nature of the timing of the advice or indeed, I presume, when the government will make a decision on that.
I can certainly say from the ACT government's point of view, when engaging with the Commonwealth on loans, that my experience is they haven't been as generous as they've been with Tasmania in any way—perhaps because they know my vote doesn't count as much as Senator Jacqui Lambie's does for the purpose of particular legislation. I presume that's the reason why they haven't waived the ACT's debt. When we negotiated with them about the asbestos dump and the houses riddled with asbestos in this town from when they actually administered the territory, they wouldn't even give an inch on that loan. In fact, it's a billion-dollar loan which the current Chief Minister has paid out after going and getting cheaper debt from the private sector because of the terms of that loan. The Commonwealth has been reluctant to waive debts for any other state government in any other situation other than what it serves their purpose to get one vote in this chamber. All of a sudden, the waiver of debt requirements have been met and the debt is washed away with the designing of an instrument. Tasmania is certainly better off for it, but all the other struggling state governments with similar debts are left to manage their debt with the Commonwealth with a closed ear, it would seem.
This bill would improve in a small but important way the level of accountability and transparency to the creating of debt waivers and act-of-grace payments. I think accountability and transparency are issues that this government has a problem with. We know this from all the OPDs that've come back that have been mostly ignored. We know from the committee processes that we're involved in how often cabinet-in-confidence is used or how questions come back from the Public Service not answered or answered in a way that doesn't provide any information. So we know this government doesn't like providing information to the parliament and therefore to the community. This is an important way of requiring that. We shouldn't have to pursue it and wait 30 days. This is information that the community is entitled to. It is the community's money. It is not the government's money to do secret deals with and hide away and hope people don't ask about. It's the community's money, and it should be reported. That is what this bill seeks to do.
It increases transparency without infringing on the privacy of individuals and organisations. I know that would've been a response from the government—that you can't identify who you are providing debt waivers or act-of-grace payments to, and fair enough. That's why this bill has been drafted in a way that would require the Department of Finance to report in its annual report 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. As the explanatory memorandum to the bill states, I would anticipate this looking like, for example, 'In 2019-20, X debt waiver authorisations were made with Y in debts waived and, in 2019-20, X act-of-grace payments were made totalling Y.' And then, if people have further questions about that, of course they can pursue it. It's simple, straightforward and adds a layer of accountability but, importantly, sends a message to the Public Service and to executive government that this is information that is legitimately in the public interest and should be provided as a matter of course, as other details are in the annual reports. Given that all the bill is asking for is for the publication of aggregate or global figures for the total amount, no private information would be made public and the identities of recipients of a debt waiver or act-of-grace payment would not be made known.
When you look back at the last six years of decisions made under this government, we know that the total involved is about $320 million. It's not a small or insignificant sum by any means. We know that the applications keep coming in. We know that the Tasmanian housing debt was one of them. We know that there are applications in from five other jurisdictions to have their housing debts waived. So, potentially, this is going to be a mechanism that is used to offset in excess of $1 billion—$1.3 billion worth of loans. It's only appropriate that the government report this clearly and that it become standard practice in terms of information that is required to be put in the public domain. It's not controversial. I can't see any reason why any senator in this place wouldn't support it. It's about providing taxpayers with a level of transparency they don't have at the moment. It also requires a more open government in terms of information that is provided to the community. These are both positive initiatives. Hopefully, the Senate will support this bill.
The purpose of the opposition's bill is to amend the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 to increase transparency in government operations relating to act-of-grace payments and waivers of debts. It would require the Department of Finance to include in its annual report details of decisions made under the act to authorise act-of-grace payments or to waive debts owed to the Commonwealth. I note that, in recognition of privacy and confidentiality concerns, the bill only seeks that the total number of matters authorised and the total value of those authorisations be published.
The act-of-grace and waiver-of-debt powers exist under the PGPA Act to enable the consideration and resolution of matters that fall outside the usual legislative frameworks. They're intended to be exercised as a last resort as they provide flexibility for the Commonwealth to deal quickly and effectively with issues where special circumstances arise. The government does not use these powers lightly, but they are a necessary capability to respond to fast-moving events where existing legislation may not be able to be used. For example, these powers are an important part of the government's response to COVID-19, enabling the waiver of annual levies in the fishing industry and the waiver of the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students levy in the education sector to help support those sectors in this challenging time.
In considering this bill, it is important to note that there is already a robust system for the exercise of these powers. Debt waivers and act-of-grace payments are discretionary: there is no automatic entitlement. Each claim is carefully assessed on its merits. The Department of Finance consults broadly and confidentially with the applicants and impacted Commonwealth agencies to ensure that decision-makers have all the relevant information in considering each claim. Further, consideration of the exercise of these powers for amounts over $500,000 can only occur after an advisory committee has been established and provided advice to the Minister for Finance or the Assistant Minister for Finance. The advisory committee is comprised of relevant public servants with knowledge of both the process of debt waivers and act-of-grace payments, as well as specialist knowledge of the policy issue.
There is some merit in the disclosure of some data of payments made under the PGPA Act provided that individual payments are not able to be identified. Indeed, the Minister for Finance has reported some aggregate data in answers to questions on notice. Most recently, debt waiver data was provided in response to a question from Senator McAllister during the October 2019 Senate estimates. Many payments are to individuals, small businesses or small organisations. Sometimes the value of payment can pertain to sensitive information such as the value of lost income. We therefore need to be very careful about how any data is released to ensure the privacy of applicants is maintained.
That being said, amending the PGPA Act, as proposed by this bill, to mandate disclosure in Finance's annual reports is an unnecessary and inflexible expansion of the PGPA Act. The normal approach is for annual report requirements to consist of fixed requirements that do not change from year to year. That model for reporting is, however, too rigid for discretionary payment data, where some years can yield relatively few discretionary payments and a risk can therefore arise that the value of an individual payment could be deduced.
There is also the issue here of ensuring appropriate consultation. Ordinarily, annual reporting requirements are not changed without consultation with the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit. If the JCPAA had been consulted, they might have suggested that the intent of this bill could be better addressed through an amendment to the PGPA annual reporting rule or through a direction from the Minister for Finance to our department to make this information available while taking into account the risks of disclosure and amending the presentation of data to reduce that risk.
Requests for act-of-grace payments or waiver of debts are made with the utmost privacy and confidentiality. This bill creates the risk that, in those years where there are a small number of matters authorised, rigid reporting, as is envisaged by the proposed bill, could serve to identify a particular claimant. There are no safeguards in the proposed bill to protect against this possibility. Rather than the approach in the proposed bill, it is preferable that the government release data in a way that ensures there are no inadvertent disclosures that may compromise the Commonwealth's commitment to treating claims in confidence. As such, the Minister for Finance has directed our department to commence disclosure of annual and five-year aggregate data in relation to act-of-grace payments and debt waivers, including for the 2019-20 financial year. There are sufficient payments in the 2019-20 year that there is not a concern about privacy. I understand that this data will be made public on the transparency.gov.au website later this calendar year.
This bill is an unnecessary and inflexible expansion of the PGPA Act and has not been considered by the relevant joint committee of parliament. This government strongly believes in transparency in government operations. That is why the Minister for Finance has directed our department to release the information that the proposed bill is seeking in a manner that is flexible enough to ensure the privacy of applicants is maintained.
I rise to make a contribution to the discussion of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This bill requires the Department of Finance to include information about debt waivers and act-of-grace payments in its annual report. It requires the department to report on the total number of debts waived and act-of-grace payments made. The Minister for Finance already has the power to extinguish debts owed to the Commonwealth, including ATO and Centrelink debts. This bill would provide for additional transparency by requiring the department to report on those figures. However, this bill would not fix the robodebt mess or deliver justice for robodebt victims, and it shouldn't distract from the bigger problems at hand.
The robodebt debacle highlights the need for transparency. The fact that members of this place and members of the Community Affairs References Committee have not been able to find out some very basic details about robodebt and the way the government has handled it is a very good example of the need for increased transparency. It demonstrates the way the government hides behind its public interest immunity claims and privacy claims and its lack of accountability measures. That's why the Greens think it's very important for this sort of information to be released. This bill is a step in that direction.
Over many years, the government have been absolutely intransigent on releasing critical information about robodebt and admitting that they got it wrong—that the debts were illegal. They put a machine in charge and continued to claim that, yes, there was human oversight. But the debts still kept going out to people; they were still wrong, and they were still based on income averaging. The government said debts were eyeballed before they went out, but either they weren't doing it properly or they didn't actually do it, instead relying on the algorithm to be right every time. Quite clearly it was wrong on many occasions, but, most importantly, it was illegal. The government has finally admitted that, by now saying they'll refund some of the debts—but only if you've got a debt past 2015.
It's impossible to put a dollar figure on the harm done to hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Australians. The robodebt scheme has made people feel worthless and humiliated. They talk about their feeling of shame. They are embarrassed. And it has strongly affected people's mental health. It has endangered people's jobs, health and education. Just imagine the mental and physical cost of dealing with Centrelink as they chase you over a debt. People talk about being 'hounded'. They talk of feeling harassed and of never being able to get away from the fact that the government said they owed a debt. The government has sought to demonise people on income support, through the robodebt program; the very people who need assistance and have a right to access social security have been made to feel worthless and that they have cheated because they have accessed our social safety net.
What's even worse is that this government won't rule out doing this again—changing the legislation so that they can continue the income compliance program into the future. We still haven't received a genuine apology from the government on this issue. When the Prime Minister commented in the other place on this matter, it was as if he didn't understand the depth of anguish, harm and trauma that had been caused by this program. I strongly believe that we need to get to the bottom of this and to actually forensically look at all the files because, quite frankly, I don't trust the government to acknowledge all the income-averaged or partly income-averaged debts. The government don't even know how to contact some of those people, and they claim that, as to debts going back to before 2015, they can't actually find those people. I think those people know very well who they are, so I'm very confident that they would come forward. The government knew about the illegality of the debts, way before they acknowledged that and suspended the program. If they keep up this facade about not really knowing that it was illegal, the question is: where was the due diligence in terms of actually thoroughly investigating it? We saw the farce of their claim that they did not have a duty of care. Well, Australians believe that our government does have a duty of care.
A royal commission would allow us to examine all elements of the robodebt program, including debts that were issued before 2015 using income averaging or that were partly income averaged. It could look at what decisions were made, when and by whom, and the human cost of the program. It could look into all of the debts and do a proper forensic analysis of the process. Australians agree that robodebt victims deserve justice, and they support the concept of a royal commission. Recent polling showed that, when people were asked if there should be a royal commission into robodebt, 53 per cent of respondents agreed. The poll also found that 74 per cent of people said the government should apologise, and 66 per cent believe that victims should receive interest and damages on top of their refunds. The government won't do its job, and it can't be trusted to actually hold itself accountable when it comes to this unlawful scheme. That's why we need a royal commission. Victims deserve justice, and someone needs to be held accountable. This government needs to be held accountable.
In terms of this particular bill, anything that helps transparency and helps people to understand the act-of-grace system is good. There have been Senate inquiries into act-of-grace payments and into compensation and act-of-grace payments. I think it's fair to say that many in the community, or most in the community, don't actually understand how decisions on act of grace are made, how much the government spends on them or how many there are. And I don't accept the argument put forward by the minister that, if it were a small amount, it would identify people. There are ways that the government deals with releasing public information when there are only a small number of people involved. For example, in the community affairs committee we often ask for information on various payments, and, where there are a small number, the government then says, 'It is less than five,' so people aren't able to be identified—although, quite frankly, I think just telling us numbers does not identify people at all. This asks for public reporting on how many waivers of debt or act-of-grace payments have been made, and what amount of debt has been waived or what amount has been paid out in act-of-grace payments. I think that is fair enough.
I also think the government needs to be looking at how it's using these provisions to actually deal with the issue of debts to Centrelink right now, or supposed debts to Centrelink right now. These are issues that I think need to be very clearly identified.
This bill does help. It doesn't fix everything, but it does help. And I don't see why the government can't support this sort of information becoming public to increase transparency. It does not go as far as the Greens want the government to go in terms of transparency. There's a long, long, long way to go, and I'm sure my colleague Senator Waters will be addressing some of those other areas when she makes her contribution to the debate on this bill. But I fail to see why this sort of transparency is not acceptable to the government, given that this is public money and given that the community have a right to know this type of information.
I rise to add my contribution to the debate on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This bill does indeed amend the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act of 2013 and, in doing so, it requires the Department of Finance, in its annual report, to report on the number and dollar amount of waivers of debt granted and act-of-grace payments provided.
At present, waivers of debt and act-of-grace payments are not publicly reported, and there is no requirement for there to be any publication of this information. The bill will require the Department of Finance, in its annual report, to provide information on the number of debt waivers granted in the financial year and to cover the total amount of debt waived as well. Very importantly, by putting that information in the annual reports, it then becomes available to us as senators to review at the relevant estimates period, generally towards the end of the year.
The bill will also require the Department of Finance to provide information in its annual report on the number of act-of-grace payments made in the financial year that the annual report covers, as well as the total amount provided through these payments. It does not—and it will not—require the publication of any personal or sensitive information about any individual or organisation who received a debt waiver or act-of-grace payment. But, in the interests of government accountability and transparency, this amendment is important, as it goes to rectifying this lack of publication. It's a small but nonetheless important step.
The bill for debate that is before us today is a sensible bill, and it strikes a good balance between transparency of government operations and protection of the privacy of individuals and organisations. This is something that we have found very much wanting in the modus operandi of this L-NP government. They've been found wanting on far too many occasions when it comes to any notion of transparency or the implementation of necessary transparency in the laws that they have brought into being in this country.
Take, for example, the issue of foreign investment. Just one case—the Alinta Energy privacy scandal, which involved the data of 1.1 million Australians being stored offshore, put the identities of a million people at risk. That was not revealed and not known to the Australian public, because of failures of governance by this government—a lack of transparency and a lack of commitment to it. This put a spotlight on the Morrison government's lacklustre record when it comes to scrutiny. The Alinta Energy privacy scandal exposed the darker side of foreign investment and the slow and ineffective compliance regime that is managed by the Treasurer and his department. It highlighted a regime unfit for purpose and the critical need for urgent and sustained scrutiny in the national interest. My jaw hit the ground when I received evidence in a recent Senate hearing that, in 2019, there were only two brave souls in the whole of the country overseeing international investment compliance with conditions that were set by the Foreign Investment Review Board and approved by the Treasurer. I do want to put on the record my concern for the sullying of the name of those on the Foreign Investment Review Board, because it should constantly be made clear to Australians that the board is simply a place in which recommendations are delivered. The person who makes the decision and who is responsible for implementing those recommendations is none other than the Treasurer. All responsibility must be sheeted home to the Treasurer at the time. We're talking about tens of billions of dollars, a huge footprint right across the country, swathes of agricultural land, essential services like gas and electricity and two—yes, just two—Australians in Treasury on watch for the nation. Are you serious? But this is the level of the gap between the public perception that this government tries to create—a sense of confidence that it is looking after people right across this country—and the reality that it is allergic to transparency, in fact.
To give you a sense of the scale of how big this is and how disingenuous this lackadaisical government has been on this matter, those opposite told us, as a nation, that they'd fixed the problems within the Foreign Investment Review Board, and then they described earlier this month that they had introduced their Foreign Investment Review Board changes in response to a problem they said they'd already solved. This goes back to 2018, when they introduced a bill into parliament, which was passed, called the critical infrastructure act 2018. At that point in time, the government told Australians that they'd fixed this problem about making sure infrastructure security was in order. The Treasurer at the time was our now Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison. He was not truthful or transparent then and continues to be loose with the truth. We just have to look right now, at the moment—people are voting in the seat of Eden-Monaro, devastated by bushfires, and they were promised by this Prime Minister that they would have an immediate response to the bushfire challenges that they face. Here we are, half a year later, and we know that only four per cent have received help. This is the problem with this government: the gap between what it says it's doing, the frequency of its announcements, and its constant failure to deliver on the things that it makes a song and dance about and gets a headline on. The transparency gap is widening by the day. This is a critical failure that I am recounting today because it's a matter of failure on national sovereignty and security.
In that same year of 2017-18, those opposite harped on that they'd fixed the Foreign Investment Review Board and Treasurer oversight problems.
A government senator interjecting—
The Foreign Investment Review Board made recommendations that the Treasurer ticked off on—nobody else other than the Treasurer can tick off on them—and those approved proposals amounted to a total of $163 billion, including $16.6 billion alone for the areas of manufacturing, gas and electricity. And believe me, the senator opposite might be upset about a little light being shone on a lack of transparency by this government, but Australians are interested in manufacturing. They are very interested in chains of delivery. They are very interested in the price of gas. They are very interested in national security around gas and electricity. This government has failed to be transparent about what it is doing. And that is absolutely relevant to the debate here this morning.
A government senator interjecting—
A little bit of scrutiny and you can't even stand it here in the chamber, bleating and moaning over there. This is the scale of the work that has to be done by the Treasurer and his department to make sure Australia's interests are looked after. The former Treasurer, Mr Morrison, handed over to Mr Frydenberg a Foreign Investment Review Board structure with $16.6 billion to be managed with terms and conditions and two people allocated to the task of looking after the nation. The government is not up to the job, and it's certainly not interested in transparency. The critical infrastructure act of 2018 was supposed to fix the problem but didn't do the job and the Foreign Investment Review Board was left to operate in a black box, with no transparency or accountability. That is why today's private member's matter that is being debated is of some importance. It is because it is a tiny indication, a minuscule indication, of some interest in transparency. In the Senate Economic References Committee last month I was shocked to find out that at no time has Alinta Energy, since the federal government's approval of its purchase by Chinese company Chow Tai Fook, been compliant with all set conditions of the Foreign Investment Review Board. We're talking about April 2017, and here we are now, having clicked into June. That evidence was received on 15 May. That is a failure of governance at a national level, in terms of national interest and security.
Also, just last month the Foreign Investment Review Board indicated it was unaware of known and reported investment links between Mr Henry Cheng, the principal of Chow Tai Fook, which now owns Australia's Alinta Energy, and the Ho family of Macau gambling infamy. Concerns about the Ho family were sufficient to prevent them from being allowed to invest in gambling ventures in Australia, but, unknown to Treasury officials. Mr Cheng, who owns Alinta Energy with his company Chow Tai Fook, also owns a 9.7 per cent investment with the Ho family in another entity, SJM. It strikes me as very peculiar that standards for buying into a casino appear to be much higher than the standards set and supervised by this government for the purchase of an electricity retailer with over a million Australian customers, with all their data and identities in the hands of Alinta.
But this is what this government is all about, isn't it? A smoke-and-mirrors game, a charade, of doing more than they actually are. In the upcoming months, Australians will see how wanting this government actually is when it comes to the tasks of proper governance, transparency, and accountability. That's why the legislation before us today is just one part of an important and necessary mechanism of accountability that brings some accountability to this government.
The bill before us today is a sensible and reasonable step forward with regard to the waiver of debts. Let's talk about debts and those who did not get a debt waived—in fact, those who were pursued by government, hounded in some cases, to their ultimate demise, through the robodebt scheme. It's incredibly relevant that we discuss transparency and debt with regard to the recent revelations that the government has now agreed to repay $721 million in illegal robodebts that they generated. They created the invoices and sent them out to hundreds of thousands of Australians. If you were in a business and you sent out debts that you made up on half of the information, you would not be able to operate. No small business that I've ever seen, known or been a part of has ever been able to carry on with a lack of transparency of the scale that we've seen from this government.
I spoke last week in this place about the everlasting and damaging impact of the government's robo scheme on trust in this nation. Last week, in response to a question from my colleague and friend the honourable Mr Bill Shorten, the Prime Minister apologised, in a half-hearted way, for any hurt and harm people suffered from the government's robodebt scheme. But that was after stonewalling for months, and after implementing a scheme, by his design, that inflicted pain and suffering on Australians for years. Let me be very clear to those opposite. Firstly, your apologies, five years too late, are completely inadequate. Secondly, do not think for one second that an apology, given late and half-heartedly, will do what needs to be done to redress the shame of robodebt and the stench of it that hangs around this LNP government. Your robodebt extortion racket has ravaged people's lives and left a trail of carnage through people's lives, in credit issues, personal trauma, and in loss of life. Answers to Senate questions on notice revealed that 2,030 people died after receiving robodebt notices. That's a lot of Australians—a lot of Australians severely impacted by the decisions of Mr Morrison and Mr Porter, implemented by Mr Stuart Robert.
Robodebt has targeted members of my community on the Central Coast. I'm aware of three students in one family in Empire Bay who were collectively sent debts of nearly $10,000 as they tried to work their way through university. Now, I'm a mother of three young people. When this government demanded that people go back and find their receipts, or find their documents for payment received for any work, going back seven years, it revealed that they had no sense of understanding of how young people in Australia might keep records. This was a critical change that they undertook. Instead of doing the work to check, with the resources of government, they took people out of work at the highest level here in government and transferred all responsibility to 17-year-olds who reached the age of 24, trying to struggle through university, saying, 'Go back and get your payslips'—from entities that no longer existed. That's what they did with robodebt.
I also know of a teacher on the Central Coast who was sent a robodebt of nearly $7,000. She couldn't get a response from Centrelink, despite numerous efforts, and was harassed and publicly shamed in her home by the arrival of debt collectors. I won't forget the man who was robodebted $17,500. It would have taken him 22½ years to pay it back, but this government pursued him mercilessly. That was all unlawful, causing needless harm.
Only when confronted with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of Australians getting their day in court has this government executed a backflip for the ages and announced a plan to repay the victims of robodebt. They've been dragged kicking and screaming to this point. An apology will never be enough for this robodebt extortion racket. Victims and their families need a solemn promise that this scheme will never rear its ugly head again. I call on the Prime Minister to genuinely and penitently acknowledge the needless pain that they've suffered. All those responsible for the program ignored the mountain of evidence, because they're not interested in transparency. (Time expired)
I rise to make a contribution on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. I listened very carefully to the contributions made by Senator Siewert, substantially about robodebt, and by Senator O'Neill, substantially about the Foreign Investment Review Board and also robodebt. I will be making some concrete observations about the bill itself later in my speech, but, like Senator Siewert and Senator O'Neill, I'd like to make some closely related observations about transparency in general—the principle of transparency and the importance of transparency in government, in public life and for political parties.
In a way, it's very apposite that Labor senators—Senator Gallagher, in particular—have moved a private senator's bill this morning that goes to the issue of transparency, because it is an issue which has been very prominent in the media in the last 24 hours. I know that transparency is something that's important to all senators, Labor senators included; in fact, they have a great opportunity today to contribute to the transparency that we know is so important in our public life. I encourage them to make that contribution here in the chamber, or through the media, or by whichever means that they feel is most appropriate. I'm referring, of course, to the matters in the media this morning, and last night on the 60 Minutes program, and in The Age regarding Mr Somyurek, the now-former member of Mr Andrews' cabinet in the Labor government of Victoria.
In the interests of transparency, there are some fairly important issues to be answered about this affair and the extent to which it involves the federal Labor Party here in Canberra. I'm sure, of course, that federal Labor MPs will be going out today, their lines given to them by the Leader of the Opposition's office, to say: 'This is a state matter. This is a matter for Mr Andrews. This is not a matter involving the federal Labor Party.' In fact that's not the case, and we know that's not the case for a number of reasons.
Mr Albanese said in one of his interviews this morning, in the morning media, that he barely knows Mr Somyurek—he might have met him a couple of times—and that most people outside of Victoria wouldn't have even heard of him. I thought that was a little bit strange, given that Mr Somyurek is a member of the national executive of the Labor Party, attends national executive meetings with Mr Albanese—presumably sits alongside him in some of those meetings—and engages in matters of state that concern the Australian Labor Party and its national governance. As I understand it, in fact he's a significant and quite influential figure on that national executive, so it would surprise me if Mr Albanese doesn't know Mr Somyurek and doesn't know him very well.
We heard in the recordings last night, televised by 60 Minutesboth audio recordings from telephone calls and, in fact, sensationally, video evidence, which I'll come to in a minute—that Mr Somyurek claims to effectively own, control and have great influence over a number of members of Mr Albanese's caucus. He claimed to have called in the member for McEwen, Rob Mitchell, to inform him that his career was coming to an end. That's an interesting power for a state politician who's got no connection to the federal Labor Party to have. But he called Mr Mitchell in and said, presumably, that his performance was not up to standard by Mr Somyurek's estimation and that his career would be coming to an end. He boasted of how the career of the member for Bruce, Mr Hill, would be coming to an end—that he'd be sacking him from the federal government in the same way he had sacked a number of local government authorities in Victoria. He even claimed, and quite amusingly re-enacted, his engagements with the member for Gellibrand, Mr Watts, who apparently bows—
He genuflects, as Senator Scarr has interjected, to Mr Somyurek in respect of his authority and control over the federal parliamentary Labor Party. He made similar claims about the influence he exercises over the member for Macnamara, Mr Burns, and the member for Holt, Mr Byrne.
These claims of influence and control might just be boasting—they might just be big claims made by Mr Somyurek—or there might be some truth to them. It is incumbent on all Labor MPs named and those not named, including the Leader of the Opposition, to front up today in the interests of transparency and explain exactly what their connections to Mr Somyurek are, exactly what their involvement with Mr Somyurek is and exactly what knowledge they have of Mr Somyurek's activities. Are we seriously to believe that last night was the first time that Mr Albanese had a whiff that maybe something was not completely kosher about Mr Somyurek, that maybe something was amiss and that maybe he was engaged in multiple recruitment or even branch stacking in the Labor Party? His activities in the Victorian Labor Party are notoriously well-known. No-one involved on any side of politics would be unfamiliar with Mr Somyurek's reputation, so it beggars belief that Mr Albanese, who was happy to sit on the national executive with him yesterday, suddenly has a problem and is going to act on it today.
On the involvement of federal Labor parliamentarians with Mr Somyurek and in the interests of transparency, it appeared from the footage last night that at least some of it was filmed inside the office of a federal member of parliament. You could clearly see from the footage an Australian Parliament House login displayed on one of the computer screens. I don't think they have those in state parliamentary offices. I could be wrong, but I think they're only in federal parliamentary offices. Also in that footage were some electoral maps, particularly one that came up time and time again, a map of the electorate of Holt. I don't know why a state member of parliament would have that in their office. Perhaps it was, indeed, a federal parliament office. And in fact, later in the program, you could also see a close-up shot, where Mr Somyurek was pacing up and down while on the phone, of some corflutes that appeared to have Mr Byrne's name on them. They appeared to, in some way, be connected to him.
Clearly, in the interests of transparency, it's up to Mr Byrne, Mr Albanese, and the other MPs named in last night's episode and in the papers today to come forward and explain what they knew about Adem Somyurek's activities. It is not sufficient for them to say this is a state matter. It is not sufficient for them to say this is a matter for Mr Andrews. If they don't do that then I think Mr Albanese has failed a very important test of leadership. Mr Albanese made a big song and dance about how he was expelling John Setka from the Labor Party. That didn't quite go to plan. Finally, Mr Setka left the Labor Party, although certainly not by Mr Albanese's hand. This is yet another test for him and his leadership. Is he actually going to ensure that Mr Somyurek is out of the Labor Party? He has been sacked from Mr Andrews's cabinet, but he remains a member of parliament, he remains a member of the Labor Party and, while he does so, that reflects very poorly on Mr Albanese's leadership.
The key question that, in the interests of transparency, I think all Australians would like to have answered is: who runs the Labor Party? Is it the faceless factional men like Mr Somyurek, who boasts that he will be choosing who replaces Mr Andrews when he retires as Premier and who says that Mr Albanese cannot be protected and that he in fact runs the Labor Party, or does Mr Albanese run the Labor Party? Does the federal parliamentary leader of the Labor Party run the Labor Party? That is the key test today. The fact that Labor MPs have been willing to tolerate this behaviour for so long in such an open and acknowledged way up until today reveals a lot about them and their commitment to transparency. Many speeches will be given in the Senate this morning about transparency. Any speech that doesn't deal with this core issue on the front of everyone's mind today, on the matter of transparency, I think reflects on the contributions of those that are making them.
Turning now to the bill, as I understand it, the purpose of the—
Thank you for the interjection, Senator McCarthy. You weren't in the chamber, previously, when your colleagues were making contributions to this debate. Senator O'Neill gave a very long speech in which I'm not sure she even referred to the bill, on any occasion—certainly not any provisions or detail of the bill. I think others were the same. Anyway, I'll turn to the bill now, and I promise in the six minutes and 53 seconds I have remaining I'll talk more about the bill than any Labor senator has so far in the debate. Maybe others will rise to the challenge as they come to speak next.
As I understand it, the purpose of the opposition's bill is to amend the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, otherwise known as the PGPA Act. It's to increase transparency in government operations, relating specifically to act-of-grace payments and waivers of debts. I'm advised that it would require the Department of Finance to include in its annual report details of decisions made under that act to authorise act-of-grace payments or to waive debts owed to the Commonwealth.
I note that in recognition of the privacy and confidentiality concerns the bill only seeks that the total number of matters authorised and the total value of those authorisations be disclosed. The act-of-grace and waiver-of-debt powers exist under the PGPA Act to enable the consideration and resolution of matters that fall outside the usual legislative frameworks. They are intended to be exercised only as a last resort, but they are important powers as they provide flexibility for the Commonwealth to deal quickly and effectively with issues where special circumstances arise.
The government does not use these powers lightly, but they are a necessary capability to respond to fast-moving events where existing legislation may not be used. For example, these powers were an important part of the government's response to COVID-19, enabling the waiver of annual levers in the fishing industry and the waiver of Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students levy for the education sector to help support these sectors in this challenging time.
In considering this bill, it's important to note that there is already a robust system in place for the exercise of these powers. The Department of Finance consults broadly and confidentially with the applicants and impacted Commonwealth agencies to ensure that decision-makers have all the relevant information in considering each claim. Further, the consideration of the exercise of these powers for amounts over $500,000 can only occur after an advisory committee, comprising relevant public officials with knowledge of both the process and the policy issue, has been established and has provided advice to the Minister for Finance or to the Assistant Minister for Finance. There is, of course, merit in disclosure of some data where individual payments will not be identifiable. Indeed, the Minister for Finance has reported some aggregate data in his answers to questions on notice.
The Senate estimates process provides a very important oversight to powers exercised like these by ministers and is a very welcome part of this Senate, and I note the recent 50th anniversary of such oversight committees. Most recently, the debt-waiver data was provided in response to a question from Senator McAllister during the October 2019 Senate estimates, and, no doubt, in our upcoming Senate estimates, in October later this year, senators will have further questions about how this power was exercised, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is an appropriate question to ask. They could also explore this issue through the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19, of which I serve as deputy chair, which is conducting ongoing oversight of all decisions of government and advice to government in this period.
Many of these payments are to individuals or small businesses and small organisations, and sometimes the value of that payment can pertain to sensitive issues such as the value of lost income. However, amending the PGPA Act as proposed by this bill to mandate disclosure in Finance's annual reports is an unnecessary and inflexible expansion of the PGPA Act in the view of the government. The normal approach is for annual report requirements to consist of fixed requirements that do not change from year to year. That model for reporting would be too rigid for discretionary payment data, where some years can yield few discretionary payments and a risk, therefore, could arise that the value of an individual payment could be deduced.
There's also an issue of appropriate consultation. Ordinarily, the annual reporting requirements are not changed without consultation from the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit. If the JCPAA had been consulted, they might have suggested that the intent of this bill could be better addressed through an amendment to the PGPA annual reporting rule or through direction from the finance minister to his department, taking into account the risks of disclosure and amending the presentation of the data in a sensitive way to reduce that risk.
Requests for act-of-grace payments or waivers of debt are made on the basis of utmost privacy and confidentiality, as is appropriate. This bill, though, could create a risk that, in those years where there are a small number of matters authorised, as I said earlier, the rigid reporting as envisaged by the bill could serve to identify a particular claimant and therefore breach their privacy. There are no safeguards in the proposed bill to protect against this possibility. Rather than the approach that's proposed in this bill, it is preferable that the government releases data in a way that ensures there are no inadvertent disclosures that may compromise the Commonwealth's commitment to treat claims in confidence. I am advised that the Minister for Finance has directed his department to commence disclosure of annual and five-year aggregate data in relation to act-of-grace payments and debt waivers, including in the 2019-20 financial year. There are sufficient payments, I am advised, in the 2019-20 year that there is not a concern about privacy this year, and I understand this data will be made public later in this calendar year on the Finance website and on the transparency.gov.au website, and no doubt that will be able to be pursued in the appropriate way through Senate estimates and other means.
In conclusion, the government believes that this bill is unnecessary and an inflexible expansion of the PGPA Act—and it has not been considered by the JCPAA. The government of course strongly believes in transparency in government operations, and that's why the finance minister has made that direction to his department to release the information the proposed bill is seeking, and that will be publicised later this year through appropriate public mechanisms.
In closing, I just want to return to the point that I made in opening. It's all very well and good for Labor senators and others to come into this chamber and extol the virtues of transparency, but we should take them at their word when they seek to choose to exercise that transparency about their own activities, about their own affairs, about their own misdeeds, which we have seen so prominently displayed in the media today.
I rise to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This bill would require amounts that the Commonwealth forgives in the way of debts to the ATO or to social security payments to be made public. It would also require act-of-grace payments made by the government to be made public. In that sense, it's a bill that improves transparency, and we welcome it. But it's not exactly a groundbreaking bill, let's be honest. We're spending 2½ hours of the chamber's time talking about these issues, when actually we think far broader transparency mechanisms are required. That's why we had a bill for an independent federal corruption watchdog passed through this Senate late last year, which has been lying in abeyance on the House Notice Paper because this government refuses to bring that bill on. So, if we really want transparency and accountability and integrity in this place, the government know what to do, but instead we've had 18 months of them saying that they're going to deal with this matter, describing it as 'imminent', and then of course we saw them, two weeks ago, saying, 'Sorry. Coronavirus. We can't do anything. Everybody just keep up with the rorts, because we're not going to have an ICAC anytime soon.'
As I say, whilst we welcome this bill for disclosure of when the Commonwealth actually does do the right thing and waives some debts or provides act-of-grace payments to people, it's a pretty low bar in terms of a transparency reform. There was some concern about the administrative burden, but, to be honest, this government is not known for forgiving debts by vulnerable people to the government, so I don't imagine the list is going to be very long. So I don't think there will be much of an administrative burden in complying with this bill should it be passed—unless, of course, we're talking about corporate tax avoidance, which the government is indeed very forgiving of.
As my colleague Senator Siewert spoke of in her contribution, the real debt, which should never have existed in the first place, let alone now be waived, is robodebt. It's very interesting that this bill is coming on for debate in that context. As I understand it, this bill would not have affected the hundreds of thousands of people that were issued with an incorrect and illegal robotically issued debt notice. This government presided over that, and last week the Prime Minister gave what was in my opinion a very half-hearted, not really fulsome apology for it.
Hundreds of thousands of people were affected by that debt scandal and—trigger warning—we know that for many people robodebt was a contributing factor to them taking their own lives. It must never happen again. So if we're talking about debt waivers and transparency we need to be talking about ICAC and we need to be talking about robodebt. It is of course why we pushed for a royal commission into robodebt. Otherwise, we won't get to the bottom of how this happened, how many people it truly damaged and how many people, sadly, took their lives as a result of the financial imperilling and dogged pursuit by debt collectors thanks to this government's sicking them onto people.
This bill is a step towards transparency, and we welcome that. Look at the history books, folks: in the last few years you can't blink without there being another rorts scandal exposed. We had sports rorts 1, hot on its heels we had sports rorts 2, we've now had the community development grants rorts, we've had the export grant rorts, we've had the urban congestion fund rort and we've had the environmental restoration grants rort. That is six buckets of public money that have been used as pre-election slush funds to bankroll the government of the day to keep government. They are absolutely election slush funds. We're up to six now, and no doubt they'll keep on being revealed. This government, of course, has delayed its own, weak federal corruption watchdog bill because it doesn't want those rorts investigated. It should be embarrassed by them, and I hope it is embarrassed by them. It's no wonder that their own ICAC bill has been delayed, but of course their own ICAC bill is so weak it's been criticised for not even being able to stop such rorts. It's a Clayton's ICAC that is just on the never-never. That's why later today we will be moving a concurrence motion to call on the government to bring on the Greens bill for a strong federal corruption watchdog with teeth that we expect will pass the Senate and that will then compel the House to bring on that bill for a vote. We did this late last year, and of course the government ganged up to gag debate on that motion, the effect of which was that the bill for a corruption watchdog could not be debated and could not come on for a vote in the House of Representatives.
This is a government that has been plagued by scandal and plagued by rorts, that is stopping all attempts to bring on debate for an integrity watchdog, that is delaying its own weak version of an integrity watchdog and that then has the cheek to criticise this bill and to use the time set to debate this bill to simply attack its political opponents. I think the Australian public know full well what's going on here. This is institutionalised corruption. These are slush funds en masse.
Sadly, the list of rorts doesn't stop there. We've got a whole series of sagas which are contracts-for-mates scandals. We saw the grant of a contract to Paladin, a two-bit shelf company that had no experience running these offshore gulags which have been known to torture people and send people to their graves, something my colleague Senator McKim has long spoken of and raged against. That is one of the most egregious examples of contracts for mates that the ANAO has criticised. There is still nothing from this government to explain why that company was chosen. Of course, the fact that there's a personal connection there is the reason—we all know that. We've had the numerous scandals involving Minister Taylor, whether it's allegations that he's doctored documents to try to impugn the climate credentials of a local council—I mean, dude, haven't you got better things to do? You're a minister for heaven's sake! Or that he's tried to get his mates off an environment law prosecution and tried to change the listing of a critically endangered ecosystem so that—whoops!—the fact that his brother's company poisoned it won't get him into strife, or whether it's the dodgy water dealings that have plagued Minister Taylor and also former minister Barnaby Joyce. We saw a couple of weeks ago now that a big pharma donor got the contract to do the COVID vaccination work for aged-care organisations. Again, it's contracts for mates, it's election slush funds and it's special treatment for people with personal connections to this government.
Then we come to the COVID commission. It's a so-called advisory body that is stacked with people who are recommending their own industry's projects and getting paid a pretty penny while doing so—and they don't even have to disclose their conflicts of interests if they're on that task force, the manufacturing task force in particular. I asked the government about this last week, and Senator Cormann thinks it's fine—why was I asking about this? 'Sit down, little girl.' That was the short version of what he said. He said that he missed Senator Di Natale and that I was going a bit far. Well, get used to it, folks. When you are putting your mates in charge—
Thanks, Acting Deputy President. I withdraw if the interpretation was that that's what he said. What I thought I said, and what I meant to say, was how I interpreted what he said. I acknowledge he didn't say those words.
Senator McGrath interjecting —
I'll take that interjection from that great bastion of morals there, who hails from my state of Queensland. I'll take that interjection, but I don't have a glass jaw, so I don't mind if you don't withdraw that. I can actually handle it.
Senator McGrath interjecting—
Thanks very much, Acting Deputy President. We'll get back to the matter at hand, which was, sadly, the very self-interested appointments made to the COVID commission—a bunch of big business folk who are all steeped in the gas industry. Of course, we all know that gas is a dirty fossil fuel that will simply delay the transmission to genuinely clean, cheap renewable energy, which will create more jobs and help us to address the climate crisis. But this government thinks, 'Actually, no, they don't even need to disclose their conflicts of interest.' They are trusted to manage those conflicts.
We saw that of the six COVID commissioners—essentially the umbrella body under which those task force members sit—five don't want to put in the public domain what their personal financial interests are. So, once again, there is a complete lack of transparency by this government. The government's not going to require those conflicts of interest to be disclosed. It's certainly not going to do anything to manage them. It trusts those people to manage those conflicts. Well, we don't. The Australian public doesn't. This is exactly why your government has no credibility on integrity or transparency matters. I've listed the six pre-election slush funds that have been rorted to help this government retain government, I've listed many of the 'contracts for mates' scandals that have been exposed, and we now see the favours for donors with the appointments of gas industry luminaries to an advisory body that then recommends investment in gas in a climate crisis when farmers are desperate to have some security of water supply and when the Great Artesian Basin is at stake.
Today we're debating a bill for transparency, which the Greens welcome and support, but what we really need to be doing is bringing forward a vote on the Greens bill for a federal corruption watchdog, which passed this Senate. Thank you to all of those folk in here that supported that bill—not the government, of course. But we need the House to actually vote on that, because it is long past time that this level of government had a corruption watchdog. It's going to be very busy. There's an awful lot for it to look at, and notions that somehow it's not necessary are just ridiculous. This government's own version is so weak that it's been roundly criticised by anyone who knows anything about integrity or this subject matter. It's a fig leaf of a body, and it's been delayed yet again after being described as 'imminent' more than a year ago. So we welcome the moves for increased transparency, but let's do the job properly and finally have this government held to account for the litany of rorts, contracts to mates and appointments of donors to advisory positions on policy for donations which is bringing this government and this institution into disrepute.
I rise to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. I note that many of the speakers who have spoken in the debate haven't necessarily spoken in relation to the bill, so I am going to try to do my best to stay to the actual content of the bill. I want to place on the record how important it is that there be a regime under which the Commonwealth can waive debts and set off debts against other debts and how the government can make act-of-grace payments.
One of the things I've learned since becoming a senator on 1 July last year is that there are many people out there battling the Commonwealth bureaucracies—doing their best—and sometimes the result is not just. There are cases where waivers should occur and there should be acts of grace. It is an extremely important part of the fiscal arrangements of the nation that we have this scheme whereby the federal government can exercise its discretion in certain matters and provide justice to people who genuinely are aggrieved—and have every right to be aggrieved—where their engagement with the federal government bureaucracies has not led to a just result. So I think that's the context in which this debate should be set up, and I think all of us should bear that in mind as we engage in this debate.
I'd like to turn to the clauses of the bill which would provide that the annual report prepared by the Department of Finance and given to the finance minister under section 46 for a reporting period must include, in relation to authorisations waiving amounts under section 63, the number of such authorisations during the period and the total amount that was waived as a result of those authorisations; and, secondly, in relation to authorisations of payments under section 65, which is the grace-payments provision, the number of such authorisations during the period and the total amount that was paid as a result of those authorisations.
In considering the amendments contained in this bill I turned my mind to the sections in the act, and a number of things concerned me arising from this bill. I don't think it necessarily does what it's trying to achieve. I think greater care should have gone into the drafting of this bill, and it would have assisted if the bill had gone through a committee process of the JCPAA, of which I am a member—and I'll go to the role of the JCPAA shortly.
The first limb of the proposed amendment deals with waivers. But section 63 of the act refers to the waiver or modification of the terms and conditions in which an amount owing to the Commonwealth is to be paid. So the actual section of the act doesn't just deal with a waiver per se—for example, if I owed someone $100 and they waived the debt, I would no longer owe them $100. It also includes circumstances where a debt is modified. If the debt is modified, that might mean instead of owing $100 I owe $50. That comes within section 63 of the existing legislation but it isn't covered by this bill. Another circumstance might be where the terms and conditions on which I owe that $100 are modified. The payment time might be modified. The date for payment might be modified. A quid pro quo—something given in return—could be added as a condition of that payment being made. But none of that is covered by this clause in the bill as well. It is not covered. So there is a yawning gap in terms of what this bill is trying to achieve.
There is then the curious matter as to why section 64, dealing with set-off amounts, isn't covered. A set-off of an amount of $100 million would be of more concern to me than the waiver of an amount of $1,000. The waiver of the amount of $1,000 is covered by this bill but the set-off of an amount of $100 million wouldn't be covered by the bill—under section 64 it would not be covered by the bill. So a waiver of $1,000 is covered but a set-off of $100 million is not covered—and there is absolutely no explanation for that. I've read the explanatory statement. I've read the remarks of Senator Gallagher when she introduced the bill. I can find no explanation of that whatsoever. So that is another yawning gap in terms of this bill. It doesn't cover modification of debts, it doesn't cover terms and conditions varied with respect to debts, and it doesn't cover the set-off of amounts where amounts are owed between parties and one amount is set off against another. None of that is covered by this bill, which is calling for greater transparency, and that is disappointing.
If this bill had been referred to the JCPAA, I would have raised those matters, as a member of that committee, and I would have teased out those issues. But I wasn't given that opportunity, so I'm here to raise those issues, those flaws with this bill, in the context of this debate. If those concerns had been raised through the committee, in good faith—and it would have been in good faith—I would have raised them. Instead, the committee process has been denied the opportunity to improve this bill and to make it workable, and that's disappointing. I would seek that Senator Gallagher would refer bills such as this to the committee, and she might see that the committee process can, indeed, add some value to these pieces of legislation.
The second point I would like to make is in relation to the allegation of transparency. When this bill was first introduced, I was curious as to what the concern was. What was the mischief? What was the opposition trying to achieve? What was the private senator trying to achieve through the introduction of this bill? In the remarks we heard earlier this morning, the senator referred to the waiver of the Tasmanian housing-related debt to the Commonwealth. Is that a transparency issue? I've got here before me a media release dated 8 September 2019 which is entitled 'Morrison government to waive Tasmania's housing debt to Commonwealth'. I'll read from the announcement:
The Australian Government is continuing to address housing affordability and homelessness concerns by today agreeing to waive Tasmania's housing-related debt to the Commonwealth.
This is in a media release. You didn't have to go down any rabbit warren to find out that this occurred. This was on 8 September 2019. On 22 October, my friend Senator McAllister, in questions on notice in the Finance portfolio, asked questions in relation to the number of waivers and the amounts that had been waived with respects to these debts. On 22 October the questions on notice were asked, but the media release from the government was on 8 September 2019. So it was actually publicly announced 1½ months before the questions on notice were asked, and months and months before it would have been released through an annual report. So where is the transparency issue? I'll continue reading from the media release:
"The Morrison and Hodgman Governments have worked hand in hand to support the growth ambitions of Tasmania. Waiving this loan will support the Tasmanian Government's efforts to reduce homelessness …
Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what we should be trying to achieve here? It continues:
… increase access to social housing and improve housing supply across the state …
Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what we're trying to achieve here? So what is the problem? What is the problem that this bill is seeking, in a very amateurish way, to try and address? I can't see it.
Let's go to the questions on notice and the answers given to my friend Senator McAllister. I was actually sitting on this committee when these questions were put on notice. I always listen very carefully to any contribution Senator McAllister makes on a committee, because I do value her insight and intelligence. She asked a question with respect to the number of debt waivers that have been granted and the total dollar value, and she also asked a particular question with respect to the 2019-20 financial year to date. She received a response from the department on 13 January 2020. The first part of the answer states:
Over the period 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2019, there have been 723 decisions by the Finance portfolio ministers or delegate to waive debts, with a total value of $159.5 million.
Under my arithmetic, that means each debt was for an average amount of $220,000. That was over the period of those five years. Full disclosure. The second part of the answer is:
For the 2019-20 financial year to date there have been 26 debt waiver decisions by the Finance portfolio ministers or delegate, with a total value of $158.6 million.
Now, we know—and I knew, when this question was asked, and I knew, as the Australian public knew, when these questions were answered—from the press release on 8 September 2019 that of that $158.6 million, referred to as the amount of debts waived up to that point in time, $157.6 million was in relation to the Tasmanian debt, which meant that the other 25 matters amounted to the princely sum of $40,000 each! That's it!
Can I say to those who've been making the point that we can disclose this in a way which doesn't reveal the identity of those who received the waiver et cetera: I don't think you are being transparent enough. Let me tell you why. Under your own scheme as you have proposed it, if nothing else had been disclosed, you wouldn't have known that, of this $158.6 million, a total of $157.6 million went to one party. So someone just looking at that general statement might well say, 'Oh, so there are 26 debt waivers with an average of $220,000 each,' when in fact there was one debt waiver of $157.6 million and the other 25 were, on average, $40,000. It just shows why matters such as this should be going through a committee process so they can be carefully considered instead of being put up in a way which has not taken into account all the ways in which the matter should be considered in terms of reporting, because, if you'd just reported that bland statement on an aggregate basis, you would have had no insight into the fact that over 99 per cent of that waiver was in relation to one debt.
But of course, as I said earlier, the government had already made the announcement on 8 September. It was already public. It was in the public domain. How can you be more transparent than that? Would those sitting opposite have liked the government to sit on that information and wait until the annual report, so many months after? Absolutely not. I think it was entirely appropriate that the matter be dealt with in a media release, the way it was, and an announcement be made to the public as soon as possible.
I'd like to make some comments in relation to the robodebt issue, and I would simply say that, on the basis of what has occurred, the issue with respect to robodebt, which has impacted tens of thousands of Australians, simply has not been dealt with under the waiver and grace period legislation. It hasn't come under the terms of that legislation. As all senators here would know, a class action was launched and the litigation involved thousands of recipients. In response to the claims which have been made, the government is in the process of making refunds to 190,000 Australians. And so be it. But it doesn't come under these bills. I wouldn't have expected anyone here would have wanted those 190,000 Australians to have to go through the process contained under section 63 or section 65 of the legislation which this bill seeks to amend. So, again, why is the issue of the robodebt being raised in the context of that bill? If you've got hundreds and hundreds of people affected by a policy decision, the last thing you want to do is to force every single one of them to go under the provisions of this legislation.
With that, I'll cease my contribution to the debate. I'd just ask senators to reflect on the usefulness of the committee process.
This bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, seeks to increase transparency and accountability of government decisions by amending the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act to require the Department of Finance to publish details relating to waivers of debt and act-of-grace payments in its annual report. I want to talk about two aspects of this bill: firstly, the need to increase transparency of and accountability for government decision-making and spending; and, secondly, in the context of the housing debt that was waived by the Commonwealth for Tasmania, the possibility of waiving similar debts for other states to improve social and Indigenous housing outcomes, particularly in my home state of Queensland.
Under division 7 of part 2-4 of the PGPA Act, the finance minister has the ability to extinguish debts owed to the Commonwealth, meaning that debts are completely forgiven and cannot be recovered. Under the same division, the minister has the ability to make act-of-grace payments to a person if they consider it appropriate to do so because of special circumstances. These debts relate to non-corporate Commonwealth entities, such as the Australian Taxation Office or Centrelink, and departments of state. Right now, waivers of debt and act-of-grace payments are not publicly reported and there is no requirement for them to be made public in any way, such as how many have been made and for what amounts. As senators would be well aware, in recent times a pretty significant debt waiver was made, which made headlines, when the government did a deal with Senator Lambie to waive Tasmania's historical housing debt, the substance of which I'll talk about a little bit later.
This private senator's bill, introduced by Senator Gallagher, seeks to provide more transparency and accountability when such debt waivers are made. As Senator Gallagher said in her second reading speech, in the interests of government accountability and transparency, rectifying this lack of publication is a small but important step. It is important to note that the amendments to this bill do not and will not require publication of any personal or sensitive information about any individual or organisation who receives a debt waiver or an act-of-grace payment. I think that's a very significant and important point to make. Making this information public will not require the publication of any personal or sensitive information, and that's an important step to take.
The accountability of the executive, and the transparency of its decisions, is fundamental to our system of government. In particular, when decisions of the executive relate to financial matters there should be increased levels of transparency that not only allow parliament to hold the executive to account on its decisions but also allow the public to know what decisions are being made and why. An increased lack of transparency and accountability has, sadly, been a feature of the Liberal-National government. The cumulative effect of this increased secrecy and lack of accountability should raise alarm bells in our community. Some previous examples come to mind: the backlog of FOI requests; refusing to answer questions during estimates, instead repeatedly putting them on notice; refusing to comment on on-water matters; shifting $500 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation so that decisions about the spending of that money can no longer be scrutinised through estimates or other methods; and the Prime Minister dismissing genuine questions from journalists as the 'Canberra bubble' or gossip. Most recently, the sports rorts debacle has shown that the government is willing to undermine the important values of transparency in government to avoid embarrassment. The failure to release the Gaetjens report, despite relying on it to claim that there was no biased decision-making during the notorious sports rorts scheme, shows a new level of secrecy and deception.
But, as I foreshadowed, the details of debt waivers, which sparked inquiries leading to this bill, are of particular interest to me as a Queenslander, because we need more social housing in Queensland and we need it now. So I was curious when, in September 2019, the Morrison government waived $157.6 million owed to the Commonwealth by the Tasmanian government. The debt was accumulated to pay for the construction of public housing between 1956 and 1989. At the time the debt was waived, the minister said:
… the Tasmanian government demonstrated unique challenges relating to housing affordability. It committed to state-wide planning and zoning reform to support housing supply targets consistent with economic and population growth projections.
The minister also acknowledged various members of the state government and Senator Jacqui Lambie for their advocacy for the significant reforms. As we all know, the subtext of that ministerial media release was that a deal was done to guarantee the passage of the government's tax cuts.
Now, I also understand the social housing challenges facing Tasmania, although I'm a Queensland senator. I certainly do not begrudge Senator Lambie for securing that deal and that debt waiver. However, Queensland, and particularly Far North Queensland, also has unique challenges relating to housing, and it is time for the government to consider that historic housing debt and the possibility of waiving that debt for Queensland.
Answers to questions on notice show that, as of 1 July 2019, Queensland's historic housing debt was $278.5 million. State housing minister Mick de Brenni said at the time:
If the Morrison Government forgave that historic debt to Queenslanders, the Palaszczuk Government could deliver another 957 new homes for vulnerable Queenslanders, creating 919 housing construction jobs in the process.
He went on to say:
We welcome the Prime Minister's willingness to potentially deliver more social housing in Tasmania, but it's galling that once again it's part of a last minute back room deal.
Those 957 homes would go a long way in regional Queensland.
Last year I attended a Homelessness Week seminar where Dr Kathleen Flanagan from the University of Tasmania was the keynote speaker. She discussed the Tasmanian housing crisis and compared it with the Cairns housing market. It was significant to note that there are some similarities, and both communities are in acute need of more social housing. The current waitlist for social housing in Cairns is over 2,000 people. On top of this waitlist, the federal electorate of Leichhardt last year made a list of areas experiencing the highest rental stress in the state. According to a survey by the University of New South Wales, 29 per cent of tenants in Cairns are experiencing rental stress. This percentage equates to almost 8,000 households.
Queensland had eight of the 20 electorates in the country with the highest proportion of tenants in rental stress, and yet, from the federal government, there's no support and no plan—just a tired refrain about it being the state government's problem. It always surprises me when you hear that, especially in this place, because there are 29 members of the government who are from Queensland, and they want Queenslanders to believe that, when they come down here, their hands are tied. Where's their press release? Where's their acknowledgement of their advocacy? Why aren't they advocating for something to be done about these levels of rental stress or the social housing backlog? At least waive the debt—why aren't they calling for that?
The top 10 electorates experiencing rental stress in Queensland are in coalition-held seats. But what are they doing about it? I've got the list here: Hinkler, Moncrieff, Longman, Wide Bay, McPherson, Fisher, Fadden, Fairfax, Forde and Wright. That's 10 members of the government who know that their electorates are right now experiencing extreme levels of rental stress. In the electorate of Moncrieff, 40 per cent of renters are experiencing rental stress—that's 10,000 households. In Hinkler, 41 per cent of renters are experiencing rental stress. For a regional area, that is a big number. And yet, with all their numbers and all their might and all their bravado, those members of the government are doing nothing to address that rental stress or our need for social housing. There are 29 of them, and yet they're so impotent they can't get this one thing done. So what is the point of having them here?
The government had an opportunity to do something about social housing when they announced the HomeBuilder scheme a few weeks ago, but the announcement falls a long way short of what is needed to prevent massive job losses in the building industry and it also does nothing to fix our social housing problem. It is incredibly disappointing that the Morrison government could not fund a housing construction program that included one cent for social housing. HomeBuilder will not build a single home for the people who need homes the most—mums and kids fleeing domestic violence, veterans sleeping in parks, or essential workers. No wonder members of the government called the policy a dud! Our country lacks adequate social housing, and that is a disgrace. It impacts the health and safety of our community and the strength of our economy.
Building affordable housing and social housing also creates jobs, and, as we know, we are in desperate need of them right now. This crisis has also shown us how important it is for the good of our country for every Australian to have a good home not just to isolate in during a pandemic but to keep safe during the recovery. We're about to face an economic cliff when stimulus is pulled back, when bank payments begin again, and when the flow-on effects of job losses start to impact spending and savings. We need to do something about housing affordability, but this government, once again, has put its head in the sand.
In addition to social housing, Queensland is in desperate need of more housing for Indigenous communities, and waiving the housing debt owed by Queensland to the Commonwealth would go a long way to fixing this problem. As many people in this chamber know, the communities in Far North Queensland and our Indigenous communities in the Torres Strait have been isolated in such ways and have had such restrictions in place that we will never fathom how difficult those restrictions have been. One of the main reasons why it was so important to isolate and restrict access to those communities is the very poor health and housing outcomes of those communities. This should be a huge wake-up call to this government that it is time to get Indigenous housing right. It is not time to push it off into the never-never. If we have a community that needs to be cut off and isolated so severely because of its health and housing outcomes, that should ring alarm bells for this government.
But, unfortunately, their track record on Indigenous housing has been woeful. In Queensland last year, the federal government walked away from NPARIH, an ongoing housing agreement, and instead said that they would invest a one-off payment to councils in the area to build social housing. Those councils want that money, and they're supportive of getting that funding, but they also know that it's not going to build all of the houses that they need. In the Torres Strait, there's a seven-year waitlist for housing. They will be building houses, and they will not get through that seven-year waitlist with a one-off payment. What we need is ongoing funding. The NPARIH program wasn't perfect, but the government's own review of it in 2017 found it was making good progress on overcrowding. In Queensland, the program built 1,114 new dwellings and refurbished a further 1,419. That's what we need at this moment. At the moment, all we've got is $5 million that has been delivered, or will be soon, out of a $105 million program of funding that was promised over a year ago now, and there are people in communities who have been cut off. How much longer do they have to wait? When will this government understand that housing is a fundamental right and that it is a responsibility for them to get it right?
This bill is about transparency and accountability, and what we do not want to happen during this crisis is for governance or public accountability to be pushed aside. But we also need to use this crisis as an opportunity to recognise and fix the very grave problems with social housing and Indigenous housing in our country, because, if not now, when will we do it?
I too rise to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, which will amend the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 to make public the number and dollar amounts of act-of-grace payments and waivers of debt.
We have here another grand gesture by those opposite to create optics that they have the monopoly on the idea of good government. Yet again, we have another example of something they've put forward which may look quite reasonable on the face of it, but, when you peel back a few layers, you discover exactly what it is: just a facade. It's nothing more than a set on a movie sound stage. If you go up to it, you'll see that it has got a thin veneer, has no substance to it and wouldn't really stand up to any serious scrutiny.
This bill was thought up and drafted without the appropriate consultation. It just seems like another one of their back-of-the-envelope kinds of ideas. As a member of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit—the committee responsible for the oversight of these matters—I would have expected this to have been raised in some forum, socialised and consulted on with that committee. But, sadly, it wasn't. And I think there's a very clear reason for that—because, had that been done, those opposite would have discovered that this bill is in fact not required. If the JCPAA had been consulted, they might have suggested that the intent of this bill could be better addressed through an amendment to the PGPAA annual reporting rule or through a direction from the finance minister to his department to make this information available while taking into account the risk of disclosure and amending the presentation of the data to reduce that risk. But, sadly, those opposite did not consult on this, and I think this alone has demonstrated how high this bill really is on their list of priorities.
The fact remains that we already have robust accountability and transparency procedures in place, and forums where these payments can be explored, as we do, in fact, for the whole of government. That's demonstrated both through the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and, importantly, through the estimates process. Without going down the path of detailing the role of the parliament and its committees—because we'd expect that everyone in this place would in fact know what that's all about—there are mechanisms which exist that can examine these kinds of issues in detail; they are there already. If there is a payment or waiver which we—and I mean any of us here in this place—believe warrants particular attention or scrutiny, then we can already deal with that. We have inquiries, estimates and questions. These are all important accountability measures in our democratic tradition.
Indeed, in certain cases, the government also make public the details of waived debts to the Commonwealth and open these decisions up to broader scrutiny. Recent challenges have demonstrated where this is the case. As a senator for Western Australia, I can point to the fishing industry in particular, where there has been a case recently where certain liabilities to the Commonwealth were waived. But, if you then look at some of the minor or individual waivers of payments that would have been covered under this amendment, a number of privacy concerns come to mind. I note, as a number of other contributors have in this debate, that, in recognition of privacy and confidentiality concerns, the bill only seeks that the total number of matters authorised and the total value of those authorisations be disclosed. But this is not sufficient.
There is merit in disclosure of some data where individual payments will not be identifiable. Indeed, the Minister for Finance has reported some aggregate data in answers to questions on notice. For example, data on waivers of debt was provided in response to a question from Senator McAllister during the October 2019 Senate estimates. But many payments are to individuals or small businesses and small business organisations, and sometimes the value of a payment can pertain to sensitive information such as the quantum of lost income. Requests for act-of-grace payments or waivers of debt are made on the basis of the utmost privacy and confidentiality. This bill creates the risk that, in those years where there are a small number of matters authorised, rigid reporting as envisaged by this bill could serve to identify a particular claimant. There are no safeguards in the bill to protect against such a possibility. The act-of-grace and waiver-of-debt powers under the PGPA Act are to enable the consideration and resolution of matters that fall outside the usual legislative frameworks. They are provided to be exercised as a last resort but are important powers as they provide the flexibility for the Commonwealth to deal quickly and efficiently with issues where special circumstances arise.
The government does not use these powers lightly, but they are a necessary capability to respond to fast-moving events where existing legislation may not be able to be used. For example, these powers were an important part of the government's response to coronavirus, with the waiver of levies on the fishing industry, as I touched on earlier, and the waiver of the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students levy for the education sector, for example, to help those in those sectors during challenging times.
I touched earlier on the transparency and accountability measures. The process by which these powers are exercised is equally rigorous. The Department of Finance consults broadly and confidentially with the applicants and the impacted Commonwealth agencies to ensure that decision-makers have all the relevant information in considering each claim. Further, consideration of the exercise of these powers for amounts over $500,000 can only occur after an advisory committee, comprising relevant public servants with knowledge of both the process and the policy issue, has been established and has provided advice to the Minister for Finance or the assistant minister for finance.
Mending the PGPA Act, as proposed by this bill, to mandate disclosure in Finance's annual reports is an unnecessary and inflexible expansion of the PGPA Act. The normal approach is for annual report requirements to consist of fixed requirements that do not change from year to year. That model for reporting is, however, too rigid for discretionary payment data, where some years can yield few discretionary payments, and risks could therefore arise that the value of an individual payment could be deduced.
There is an issue here of an appropriate consultation. Ordinarily, annual reporting requirements are not changed without consultation with the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit. Rather than the approach in this bill, it is preferable that the government release data in a way that ensures that there are no inadvertent disclosures that may compromise the Commonwealth's commitment to keep claims in confidence.
I understand that the Minister for Finance has directed his department to commence disclosure of annual and five-year aggregate data in relation to the act-of-grace payments and debt waivers, including in the 2019-20 financial year. There are sufficient payments in the 2019-20 year that there is not a concern about privacy in this particular year. I understand this data will be made public later this calendar year on the Finance website and through the transparency.gov.au website. The government strongly believes in transparency in government operations, and that is why the finance minister has directed his department to release the information the bill is seeking on the Finance website and the transparency.gov.au website later this calendar year. This bill is not required, and, as such, I will not be supporting it.
I always listen carefully to Senator O'Sullivan's contributions on these bills. He always makes a thoughtful contribution and is always very well prepared. He's dedicating himself assiduously to the task of performing his role as a backbench defender of the government's position, and he's done that again today. He's a thoughtful contributor in our committee system, and he plays that role well as well. Sometimes that means he's passionately defending the government's interests, when it comes to a bill that will really enliven public debate, and sometimes that means he's making a more workmanlike contribution over a bill that's unlikely to be on the front page of tomorrow morning's The Border Mail or the Sydney Morning Herald or any paper—except some obscure government gazette, because the bill that's in front of us is an amendment to the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act. It's the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, not something that's likely to breathe excitement and passion into people out there. It is, nonetheless, important.
Firstly, Senator O'Sullivan's described the bill and the Labor Party's approach to the amendment as a facade, a veneer, conducted with no consultation, a bill that's not really necessary. The truth is, someone's got to be paying attention to public accountability in this place. Someone's got to be working on evolving the legal position, evolving the laws to improve public accountability, and during the term of this government that so often falls to the Labor Party because the government's just not up to it. His first argument, I think, was that there's got to be some other way. That's not a very strong argument, really. The amendment would achieve—if it's supported here—what it sets out to achieve: a higher level of transparency and accountability of act-of-grace payments.
Secondly, Senator O'Sullivan says, if I can put words in his mouth, that there are profound privacy issues. I'm not persuaded as much as the drafters of the amendment are that there are deep privacy issues here. I think, if a decision is made by the Commonwealth to pay an act-of-grace payment or to do a debt waiver, there are deep issues of public accountability and transparency involved here, and I would lean towards transparency over the rights to privacy of individuals or companies that have received either a debt waiver or an act-of-grace payment. However, the amendment does deal with that question. There is no proposal here to name the recipients of those payments. It is to, simply, record the amount of those payments and to record the number of those payments that are made in the annual report of the Department of Finance, which I'm sure is read very deeply out there.
The original legislation, in 2013, was developed to merge two existing pieces of legislation that went to accountability. It was designed to reduce complexity, increase operational efficiency and provide for clear accountability requirements. This bill, this amendment, strengthens the original purpose and intention of the bill. There is a power for the Minister for Finance, circumscribed, as Senator O'Sullivan pointed out, by the processes set out in the legislation, to waive debts owed to the Commonwealth. That means debts are no longer payable. There's a $100,000 threshold below that. Public servants can simply make a decision to waive a debt to the Commonwealth. Above that, there's a requirement for the minister to do that work himself or herself.
Where an individual or a company is impacted by a decision of the government or a failure to make a decision and they had a loss of earnings as a result, it may be appropriate for the government to make an act-of-grace payment in those circumstances. Those payments are currently not publicly reported, and there is no requirement for there to be any publication of details about how many act-of-grace payments have been made or the amount provided through those payments. That is an impossible proposition, in my view, for the government to defend. It would be alright if the government came in here with an alternative proposition to the one that is outlined in the amendment, but there is no alternative proposition, and the position that the parliament is left with is that there is an unsustainable weakness in accountability and transparency in the legislation.
These payments are made when there is some inequity that causes hardship, an act of grace in special circumstances for non-government corporate entities that have taken or not taken an act that causes harm or have legislation or an intention to have legislation that causes economic harm. There is a very simple requirement in this very straightforward amendment: that the Department of Finance report in its annual report the number of waivers, their total dollars, the number of act-of-grace payments and their total dollars. It can't infringe privacy; there is no requirement to report on the individuals or the companies.
In recent times, in the Senate estimates process, it came to light that a debt waiver of $157 million was provided to the Tasmanian government. It was performed in a way consistent with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment Act 2013. There was no requirement for that decision, which was one of immense political and fiscal significance in Tasmania, to be reported. What mechanism the government used to provide debt relief to the Tasmanian government only came to light in Senate estimates. That is a big public policy call—to exempt one state from its obligations in housing related loans. When one looks across the Commonwealth, there are vast liabilities from the states to the Commonwealth in relation to public housing. New South Wales, as of the middle of last year, owed the Commonwealth $838 million in public housing related loans; the Queensland government just over $27 million in housing related loans; the West Australian government $343 million; and the Australian Capital Territory just over $115 million in total. The Northern Territory, with vast housing needs, particularly in remote communities, owes a disproportionately large $190.5 million.
The illusion is created whenever the Commonwealth government gets up to talk about housing, public housing and social housing. Somehow, every time it makes an announcement, it creates the idea in the public that these are grants to the states. Well, they are termed 'grants' but, for accounting purposes, they are loans. They have concessional rates of interest, but they are loans and they create a long-term obligation for those state governments and, I believe, create long-term inertia between the Commonwealth and the state governments in dealing with the public housing crisis and the crisis in accommodation for workers and families on low incomes, a crisis that grows every day.
It seems to me that public housing is a total mess in Australia. There is a growing queue of families and workers lining up for public housing. How is it that we've allowed this position to evolve? In 2008 and 2009, as a response to the global financial crisis, and over the course of the rest of the Labor government, Labor built and refurbished 70,000 social housing dwellings. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's response to this crisis has been to wind back capacity, to fall further behind. In response to the economic crisis that's the result of the government's steps to deal with the public health crisis of COVID-19 the government's only announcement so far has been HomeBuilder. There has been zero in terms of social housing and zero in terms of support for low-income workers and low-income families to build homes and to buy homes, and that sits across the back of a long-term legacy of policy failure in this area.
There has been an entire refusal to countenance reform of the taxation arrangements that surround new home construction and the renovation of existing homes. There's been no attempt to deal with the taxation arrangements in the real estate market that constrain the building of homes, particularly in our big cities. The government closed the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which provided 38,000 new, affordable housing units and was on track to achieve its target of 50,000 new home dwellings. The government scrapped the First Home Saver Account scheme, which was helping people save for their first home. The government closed its eyes and its ears by abolishing the National Housing Supply Council and the Prime Minister's Council and Homelessness. The government has cut $44 million a year in capital funding from homelessness services. The government defunded Homelessness Australia, National Shelter, and the Community Housing Federation of Australia because the government doesn't want to hear the voices of people who can't find a home. It doesn't want to hear solutions for homelessness or arguments in favour of increasing the federal and state governments' public housing stock. And, until 2019, the government failed to appoint a dedicated minister for housing.
The only sign of any activity is the HomeBuilder scheme. If you got the smartest people in Canberra together in a room, gave them the remit to design a hopelessly complex scheme that was impenetrable to outside observers, that had such a narrow base it was hard to identify who fell into the category of people who could actually use the scheme and that was so profoundly inequitable, if you asked those people to design a scheme that would provide zero stimulus to the economy and to the construction industry I think that even the smartest people in the public sector in Canberra brought together could not design a scheme as dumb as the HomeBuilder scheme patently is. If we had some sensible transparency and capacity in terms of the arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states that this bill is designed to assist develop— (Time expired)
I'm aware we are about to hit a hard marker at 12.20, but I will begin my contribution on this bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, today. As has been explained by previous speakers, this bill is about increasing transparency from the Morrison government—increasing transparency and accountability for very large payments that it has the power to make using public funds. In the last 12 months we have seen one example of that—