Monday, 9 August 2021
Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This bill, introduced by my colleague Senator Gallagher, forms another part of Labor's campaign to ensure that the actions of this government are subjected to the scrutiny that Australians expect and deserve but which this government tries so hard to shirk. This bill would improve accountability and transparency in government operations, specifically with regard to the granting of debt waivers and act of grace payments by the federal government.
Under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013—the PGPA Act—the government can provide discretionary financial assistance. This includes the finance minister waiving a debt owed to the Commonwealth, such as debts owed to the Australian Taxation Office or Centrelink. Debt waivers are granted where recovery of the debt would be inequitable or cause ongoing financial hardship, and where other debt treatment options, such as deferral of payment, are not appropriate. The act also provides the finance minister with the power to provide an act of grace payment to a person if they consider it appropriate to do so because of special circumstances. 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.
There is currently no mechanism for reporting to the public how many waivers of debt or act of grace payments have been made, what amount of debt has been waived, or what amount has been paid out in act of grace payments. This bill seeks to address this opacity and shine a light on an otherwise unscrutinised area of government discretion by requiring the Department of Finance to state in its annual report the number of waivers of debt granted and act of grace payments made, and the total dollar amount of debt waived and act of grace payments made. It would do so without infringing on the privacy of individuals and organisations. No names would be released. This is a simple and straightforward proposition to increase transparency and, through that, accountability.
The government knows this is good policy. Since Senator Gallagher began her call for reporting on these discretionary payments, the department suddenly started to release details on its website of the number of debt waivers and act of grace payments approved over five years. Labor will absolutely take credit for this increase in transparency. It has been our mission to hold this government to account. If this government needs to copy Labor policy, we will see that imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. But Labor wants the government to go further. A one-off drop of information is not enough. It is vitally important that mandatory reporting is enshrined in law, because transparency and accountability around the spending of taxpayers' money is always important, but even more so when decisions around granting payments or waiving debt are made in a totally discretionary fashion.
Of course, this isn't the only bill we have before this chamber that will improve accountability and transparency. Senator Gallagher also has an antirorting bill that's designed to increase the transparency around the awarding of funding from grants programs. We simply can't trust this government to award grants to those who are most deserving. Instead, this Liberal government is blatant in its rorting and pork-barrelling. It's quite simple really. Mr Morrison spends taxpayer money like it is Liberal Party money. How does the Prime Minister rort thee? Let me count the ways. First there were the sports rorts with the colour-coded spreadsheets, then the Safer Communities Fund rorts where political expediency outweighed community safety and then the Building Better Regions Fund rorts where once again the departmental recommendations were overruled. The most egregious of all—well, so far at least—has been the Commuter Car Park Fund rorts where $600 million of taxpayer money was handed out using a list by the Prime Minister entitled 'The top 20 marginal seats'.
Time and time again the Prime Minister has spent taxpayer money like it is Liberal Party money. At every stage the Prime Minister and his ministers have ducked, weaved and smugly avoided questions Australians deserve to have answered. That's why this bill calls for compulsory reporting. The Morrison government will not be honest and accountable unless we make them.
Another area the Prime Minister has tried to hide from the Australian people is the work of the national cabinet. We saw last week a decision from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that finally acknowledged what we have all known for some time—that national cabinet is not a cabinet. Justice Richard White blew up Mr Morrison's fig leaf of an excuse to hide information from the Australian people. He found national cabinet documents were not eligible for a blanket exemption from freedom of information requests, because 'none of the subject documents are an official record of a committee of the cabinet'. This is very important in the context of the work of parliament and the work of the Senate in particular. The Morrison government has regularly failed to provide the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 information that is vital to understanding how it has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate is the house of review—it is our duty to the Australian people who elected us and it is what they expect—yet the Prime Minister, possibly knowing he would be found wanting, seems determined to hide. Even when ordered by the Senate to produce documents in the public interest the Morrison government has been flagrant in its disregard for the powers and responsibilities of the Senate and continues to avoid legitimate scrutiny.
The lack of transparency, accountability and, quite frankly, integrity has been breathtaking. In fact, the ever-growing list of scandals surrounding the Morrison government shows why Australia needs a powerful and independent anticorruption commission and why the Prime Minister and his colleagues will do everything they can to stop one from being established. The Liberals in particular deny that there is a problem, they make and list excuses and they have put forward a draft bill for a national integrity commission that's designed to be so weak, so secretive and so lacking in independence that, instead of exposing corruption, it would cover it up. Every state and territory in Australia has its own anticorruption commission, and Labor believes it is now long past time for a Commonwealth body to be established to tackle corruption in the federal Morrison government.
While we cannot yet make a national anticorruption commission a reality, what we can do is continue to argue for transparency and accountability measures, such as the one that Labor is proposing through this bill. Labor won't stop advocating for more transparency and for greater accountability, because we know the Prime Minister treats taxpayer money like it is Liberal Party money and because we know that the Prime Minister is not on your side.
I rise today to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. I will limit my comments today to actually referring to the content of the bill at hand. I must admit, I'm not entirely sure Senator Keneally did so in her contribution. There was certainly a lot of hyperbole about a few different things in that contribution that I don't think were necessarily factually accurate or relevant to the bill that we have in front of us today.
The act of grace and debt waiver powers exist under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 to enable the resolution of matters that fall outside usual legislative frameworks, based on consideration of individual circumstances. These measures are intended to be exercised as a last resort, but they are incredibly important powers because they provide the flexibility for the Commonwealth to deal quickly and effectively with issues where special circumstances arise and where there is a moral but not necessarily a legal obligation to provide financial relief to an individual or to an entity. These powers are a necessary capability to respond to fast-moving events or unique individual circumstances where existing legislation may not be able to be used.
Over the last 18 months, almost two years, we've had many debates in this place about the unprecedented nature of everything that our country is experiencing at the moment: the COVID-19 health pandemic and the economic situation that followed from that. So, affording the government flexibility to be able to respond to these fast-changing events is incredibly important. Indeed, these powers were an important part of the government's response to COVID-19, enabling the waiver of certain levies in the fishing industry and the education sector at a time of economic strain. This type of assistance, which needs to be provided quickly, simply and efficiently, is a good example of why this framework is needed and is incorporated into the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act. Also, these powers were used by the coalition government to administer the waiving of Tasmania's historic housing debt in 2019, a policy decision which has provided the Tasmanian government with millions of extra dollars each year to spend on social and public housing. This is something that a number of my Tasmanian colleagues felt very strongly about, and we are certainly watching very closely what the state government is doing in this regard to ensure that Tasmania does have the social housing requirements that it needs.
In considering Senator Gallagher's private senators' bill today, it's important to note that there is already a robust system in place for the exercise of these powers. I note that Senator Keneally referenced in her contribution, in the part of it that was relevant to the bill, that the Department of Finance is providing this information. The department is consulting with applicants and impacted Commonwealth agencies to ensure that decision-makers have all the relevant information in considering each claim. Further, Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Rule 2014 stipulates that, before making an authorisation for waivers, set-offs or act of grace payments under the act for any amount over half a million dollars, the finance minister must establish an advisory committee consisting of the secretary of the infrastructure department, the finance secretary and the accountable authority of the Commonwealth entity to which the authorisation relates. That's an appropriate measure to ensure that those authorisations are being considered by senior public servants, to ensure that they are for an appropriate purpose, before any such payment is authorised.
The government agrees that there is merit in the public disclosure of some data where individual payments will not be identifiable and has taken steps to ensure that there is transparency around these payments. The drafting of this private senator's bill acknowledges that it would not necessarily be appropriate for full individualised details of recipients to be released. I will quote from the explanatory memorandum to the bill:
The bill would require the Department of Finance to state in its annual report the number of waivers of debt granted and act of grace payments made, and the total dollar amount of debt waived and act of grace payments made. There would be no personal information reported, given all that is sought is the publication of global figures.
That understanding of the need for confidentiality and protection of privacy is reflected in the approach which the government is already taking to facilitate transparency in relation to these payments.
Last year, the government commenced disclosure of annual and five-year aggregate data in relation to act of grace payments and debt waivers under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, covering the 2019-20 financial year and the four years preceding that. There was a sufficient number of payments in all of those five years to avoid any concern about privacy. Obviously there was a sufficient amount of data such that it could be published without being necessarily identifiable. Therefore, that data was published in the second half of last year on the Department of Finance's website.
The government's approach allows flexibility, when the total in a given year is elevated, to add notes about significant one-off decisions that are already public knowledge. In regard to the 2019-20 data, the Finance report explains that the annual total was historically high, due to the waiver of GST debts relating to school funding; the reimbursement of certain education and training fees and charges; the waiver of the Tasmanian government's housing-related loans, which I referenced earlier in my contribution here; and the reimbursement of commercial fishing levies.
A large proportion of these discretionary payments are to individuals, small businesses or small organisations. Sometimes the value of a payment can pertain to sensitive information, such as the value of lost income. In some years there can be very few discretionary payments, and a risk can, therefore, arise if the value of an individual payment could be deduced.
This bill creates some risk in some years, where there are a small number of matters authorised, that the reporting mechanisms, as proposed by this bill, could identify the amount payable to a particular claimant. There are no safeguards in the proposed bill to protect against this possibility. Of course, the framework that exists around the waiver of debt and act of grace payments needs to have an element of transparency around it, but that transparency shouldn't come at the cost of easily identifiable personal information being made public in circumstances where that wouldn't be appropriate.
In addition to the reporting which is already taking place, the Department of Finance is in the process of revising the resource management guide. I'm advised that it provides direction to the Public Service about the annual reporting of aggregate data on discretionary payments. The government has also directed the Department of Finance to consult other agencies about the data they collect on a third category of discretionary decisions related to set-offs. The set-off decisions involve offsets between debts and amounts payable to persons seeking waivers, essentially garnishing payments to reduce debts.
Although set-off decisions are made very regularly by delegates in government departments, this private senator's bill from Senator Gallagher doesn't establish a mechanism for reporting those payments, as it does for debt waivers and act of grace payments. It would seem to be an oversight to establish a scheme mandating a particular format of reporting around two categories of payment while not requiring the reporting of offset payments as well. So that is another gap within the proposed bill that Senator Gallagher has in the chamber today.
The government strongly believes in transparency in government operations, and, as I've outlined here today, there are already a number of mechanisms in place to ensure that there is transparency around the government's waiver of debt and act of grace payments. That's why the government has already commenced regular annual publishing of data on act of grace payments and debt waivers on the website of the Department of Finance, as I have outlined here today. This is now being reported on an ongoing basis, and these reports include more information than Senator Gallagher proposes in her bill and highlight some significant decisions that, where it would not infringe on privacy considerations, are already in the public domain. I think that that is the important point we have to take note of here: of course we want government decision-making to be transparent, but that cannot come at the expense of the privacy of individuals, or indeed entities, where it may not necessarily be appropriate for that information to be made public.
While I appreciate the intent of the bill that we are debating here today, as brought to the Senate by Senator Gallagher, the government, as I've said, already has processes in place to ensure transparency around waiver of debt and act of grace payments where it is deemed appropriate.
It's such an opportune time to be discussing this private senator's bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, because so much of what we see going on within this government is, to borrow a phrase coined by one of the old rugby league commentators, 'deja vu all over again'. We see it with the car park rorts that have been exposed over the last couple of months, again by an Australian National Audit Office review, which are similar to what we went through with sports rorts. All these memories are coming back to me—about targeting of marginal seats, about spreadsheets that identified which electorates these projects were to go in. It shows how the government were prepared to use the money of taxpayers—mums and dads who pay their taxes, and families who do the right thing—for their own political gain.
The government talk about integrity and accountability, but all they do is talk. They talk about how they support an integrity commission. They've now been in government for almost eight years. They still haven't done anything about actually bringing one in. When Labor puts forward a sensible idea like this, they again can't bring themselves to support it. We see it time and time again. You have to ask yourself why. The answer is that they actually don't want to be held accountable for their actions. They don't want to admit responsibility when they do the wrong thing.
The performances last week from the minister responsible for the car park rorts and from the Prime Minister were nothing short of disgusting. The minister scurried away from the media as quickly as that marathon runner in Japan yesterday. The performance from the Prime Minister on Friday evening, when he tried to say that this was a great outcome for Australians, was nothing short of a disgrace. How he could stand there with a straight face and say that is completely remarkable to me. It is so disappointing that, at a time when Australians are losing faith in politics and in politicians doing the right thing, this government sets such a bad example. They won't admit to their political decision, to help them get through an election, to spend taxpayers' money in marginal seats, which is exactly what they did in sports rorts and exactly what they have done in car park rorts, and then they come into this chamber and do everything they can to oppose more accountability and the opportunity to show integrity in government.
The Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act was introduced by Labor in 2013, when Labor was last in government. It was a measure to replace the previous framework of legislation, some of which had been in place since the late 1990s. This legislation was designed to establish the processes and frameworks necessary for a modern public service. It is a key piece of legislation that underpins the financial framework and governance architecture of the Commonwealth. It is a strong Labor achievement, ensuring effective governance and Public Service accountability, from when we were last in government. All we are doing today is debating Labor's simple but important amendment bill, which would allow for improvements in accountability and transparency around the granting of debt waivers and act of grace payments by the federal government. The ability of the federal government to provide these forms of discretionary financial assistance arises from the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. However, currently there is no mechanism for reporting to the public how many waivers of debt and/or act of grace payments have been made, what amount of debt has been waived or what amount has been paid in act of grace payments.
This bill that Labor has put forward would require the Department of Finance to state in its annual report the number of waivers of debt granted and act of grace payments made, and the total dollar amount of debt waived and act of grace payments made. There would be no personal information reported, given that all that is sought is the publication of the global figures across the country. These debts that can be waived under section 63 of the PGPA Act are debts from non-corporate Commonwealth entities—so this would mean debts owed to the ATO or Centrelink. The amount would also look at the act of grace payments allowed under section 65 of the PGPA Act. Ministers can make these payments to people under special circumstances. The issue, however, is that many of these decisions are not clearly defined in the act. There are a number of examples that the Department of Finance uses, but these are all discretionary and each request is treated individually.
Labor's proposal is very simple and a step to making sure that there is increased transparency and accountability of government decision-making. Labor's bill would require the Department of Finance to publish 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. It is important to note that the Labor bill would ensure that, in doing this, they would respect the privacy of individuals and organisations that these payments were made to.
While this data exists, it has fallen to senators to ask for this information previously, through measures like Senate estimates, but there was never an automatic mechanism for this information to be published publicly. In fact, the government thinks that publishing this data can be a good idea and has taken up Labor's suggestion and has now published data on the Department of Finance website, including the last five years of figures. This information includes the number of debt waivers and act of grace payments approved and the total dollar value of those waivers and payments.
So, whilst it is positive that the government has taken Labor's suggestion about publishing this information, what Labor is proposing today is not unreasonable. It's simple and, with this government, it's critical to ensure transparency is always enshrined in legislation. It is a fundamental principle of government that all spending of scant taxpayer dollars is accountable and transparent both to the parliament and to the general public, who, indeed, pay these taxes. This is particularly the case given the government's record when we look at those examples of car park rorts and sports rorts when it comes to discretionary spending.
It is proposed that these payment details continue to be published, particularly as, since 2017, there has been a large increase in waivers of Commonwealth debts and in act of grace payments. In 2019-20, there were 4,130 waivers approved, up from 1,475 in 2018-19, totalling $14.682 billion in 2019-20. There were some historical changes, which was why the figures were higher. In 2019-20, there were 1,860 act of grace payments, totalling $45 million, up from $11 million the previous year. Again, this was higher from COVID. And—while we are not talking about the outright rorting of taxpayers' money when it comes to act of grace payments or debt waivers—when ministers are able to provide the level of discretionary financial assistance they can through these mechanisms, it is only right and fair that we increase transparency as a result.
These figures highlight the need for these amounts to be published annually, to be able to compare what has happened previously and what decisions are being made by government. At the end of the day, we've seen numerous examples of this government being opposed to scrutiny, and there has been an increasing pattern of rorting by this government. Without transparency, we may never know what this government is up to. We've seen it, as I've said, with sports rorts; we've seen it with car park rorts. This is something that is a modest measure but is looking to ensure that the government is held accountable for its track record. It's why Labor has been calling for a national integrity commission, and we'll legislate one that is retrospective. It is why Labor has also introduced an antirorting bill—a bill designed to increase transparency around the award of funding from grants programs. And this bill today is important because we need more transparency and more accountability, and we need to ensure that it is enshrined in law to make sure that this government is held accountable for it.
Here we are: another day and another Labor stunt in the Senate. I note that today Senator Keneally managed to devote some seven minutes and 30 seconds to talking about matters completely unrelated to the important issues that my Senate colleague Senator Chandler raised. At the end of the day, the opposition's bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, would amend the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013—which, as Senator Chisholm rightly pointed out, is in fact Labor legislation—to mandate the publication of certain information about act of grace payments and waivers of debt. Somehow that seems to have escaped those opposite, who would seek to see this enacted in legislation, given the amount of time they have devoted to extraneous other issues and political partisan hyperbole. Indeed, Senator Keneally, by my count, managed to devote some 24 seconds to wholesome reflection on the content of this bill rather than everything else.
Let's run through what we're actually talking about here, and that's requiring the Department of Finance to include, in its annual reports, details of decisions made under the PGPA Act that authorise act of grace payments and waive debts owed to the Commonwealth. I will grant, as Senator Chisholm rightly raised, that privacy and confidentiality concerns are significant, so the bill proposes that only the total number of matters authorised and the total value of those authorisations be disclosed.
The issue is twofold. First, you can turn to www.transparency.gov.au and find the most recently available details on both of these matters, and in certain years you will see a very large number of waivers, amounting to a considerable sum of money. As my colleague Senator Chandler rightly raised, in 2019-20 there were some 4,130 waivers of Commonwealth debts, amounting to a very considerable sum of money: $14.85 billion. Arguably, privacy and confidentiality can be protected in a significant sum and a significant number of applications like that. However, one only needs to turn back to 2015-16, when there were 63 applications and $1.9 million was waived, or 2016-17, when there were just 48 applications and $4.5 million was waived, to understand that the government's position here is in fact balanced and reasonable. We will protect the privacy and confidentiality of those Australians who, rightly, under the discretion afforded to the minister in this case, have a waiver of debt applied to their case.
Equally, where the government takes a very significant decision—such as the waiver of 2,726 historical GST debts related to schools funding, worth $14.682 billion, which was identified in the 2019-20 year and released in the 2019-20 annual report of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment—it reflects that this is a government that also upholds its responsibilities to the Australian people in terms of accountability and transparency. Indeed, also on www.transparency.gov.au, one can clearly see that the waiver of the Tasmanian government's housing related loans, worth $157.6 million, which was announced by the Minister for Housing and Assistant Treasurer, the Hon. Michael Sukkar MP, on 8 September, is included in the figures. The government also used that waiver power to provide COVID-19 assistance measures, including releasing 776 commercial fishers from paying their Commonwealth fishing levies for 2020, as my colleague Senator Chandler rightly pointed out and as Senator Duniam shepherded through this place. Immediately under that, though, the Department of Finance makes clear that:
which it helpfully provides the link to—
Finance is unable to comment on specific waiver of debt applications to protect the personal information of applicants.
When we turn to act of grace payments, under section 65(1) of the act the Minister for Finance may, on behalf of the Commonwealth, authorise such a payment where it is considered appropriate because of the special circumstances of the case.
Again, a very small number of applications and a small quantum of money does apply in some years, highlighting the risk of identifying information being placed onto the public record. For instance, in 2015-16, 59 waivers were approved; in 2016-17, 65; and in 2017-18, 57 applications, worth just $758,000, were approved. That is, I guess, not consistent with the case that we saw in 2019-20, where 1,860 applications, for the grand total of $45.3 million, were approved. That largely relates to the reimbursement of fees and charges paid by 1,259 education and training providers. What we see is that this is a matter sensibly managed by this government, upholding privacy and confidentiality concerns of Australians at the same time as being accountable and transparent.
The act of grace and debt waiver provisions under Labor's PGPA Act exist for a very important reason, and that's that the resolution of matters that fall outside the usual legislative frameworks must be based on a consideration of individual circumstances. So, whilst they are intended to be exercised as a last resort, they are important powers that enable the Commonwealth to be flexible, to be agile and to do the right thing where special circumstances arise and there is a moral but not necessarily a legal obligation to provide financial relief to a particular Australian. That is in keeping, I would contend, with the expectations of all Australians out there.
So, whilst these powers were an important part of the government's response to COVID-19, equally at times they are an important part of ensuring that unintended consequences of legislation do not adversely impact an individual Australian who finds themselves in a sticky situation. The Department of Finance consults broadly an confidentially with any such applicant as well as the impacted Commonwealth agencies to ensure that the decision-maker has all relevant information relating to such a claim. So, where these powers are exercised or intended to be exercised for an amount of more than $500,000, an advisory committee comprising public servants with the relevant expertise must provide independent advice to the Minister for Finance.
So the contention from those opposite that somehow this is a piece of legislation of their own making that doesn't adequately include safeguards to protect value for money for the taxpayer at the same time as upholding the privacy and confidentiality concerns of Australians is frankly baseless. I think that's why those opposite have spent so much time today talking about unrelated matters, where all that Senator Keneally could muster was 24 seconds of consideration on a half-baked bill.
I rise today to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This bill seeks to improve transparency and accountability in relation to the granting of debt waivers and act of grace payments of and by the federal government. The government's power to provide these forms of discretionary financial assistance arises from the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, otherwise known as the PGPA Act. The PGPA Act was introduced by Labor—by Senator Wong as finance minister—when we were last in government. It replaced legislation that had been in place since the 1990s, and it was designed to establish the framework necessary for a modern Public Service.
I would first like to go to the issue of debt waivers. Section 63 of the PGPA Act authorises the finance minister to waive a debt owing to the Commonwealth. A waiver extinguishes that debt, meaning that the Commonwealth cannot pursue it at a later date. These debts relate to non-corporate Commonwealth entities like the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink. Waivers are granted where the decision-maker thinks that recovering the debt would be inequitable or cause ongoing financial hardship and that other debt treatment options are not appropriate. Finance officials can make decisions on debts below $100,000, while the minister decides on debts above $100,000. The finance department says financial hardship would exist where payment of the debt would leave someone unable to provide food, accommodation, clothing, medical treatment, education or other necessities for themselves, their families or other people for whom they are responsible.
In respect of the act of grace payments, the PGPA Act also provides the finance minister with the power to provide an act of grace payment. Section 65 of the act authorises the minister to make payments to a person if they consider it to be appropriate in special circumstances. These circumstances are not defined in the act, but the finance department cites examples such as where a non-corporate Commonwealth entity has taken action or failed to take action which has caused an unintended and inequitable result for someone or where the Commonwealth legislation or policy has an unintended anomalous, inequitable or otherwise unacceptable impact on someone. The provision of an act of grace payment is discretionary, as are waivers of debt.
So what will this bill do? The bill would require the Department of Finance to report in its annual report on the number of debt waivers made during the period the annual report covers; the total dollar amount that was waived as a result of the debt waivers; the number of act of grace payments made during an annual report period; and the total dollar amount that was paid as a result of those act of grace payments. Reporting would not include the names, so individuals' and organisations' privacies would continue to be protected.
There is currently no automatic mechanism for the reporting of this information. Last year, the government released a document, which is now available on the finance department website, showing, firstly, the number of debt waivers and act of grace payments approved and, secondly, the total dollar value of those waivers and payments for five financial years. The opposition would like to think that our constant and ongoing push for increased transparency and accountability might have helped push the government into releasing this information. We believe it's crucial to make this level of transparency a requirement that is set down in law. Why is it so important? Transparency and accountability around the spending of taxpayers' money is always important—of course, you wouldn't know it under this Morrison government—and it's particularly the case when decisions around granting act of grace payments or waiving debts are made in a totally discretionary fashion by a minister or their Public Service delegate. Now, more than ever before, these steps are crucial, given the Morrison government's appalling track record in accountability.
Senator Gallagher, who has introduced this bill, has also introduced an antirorting bill, which is designed to increase the transparency around grants programs. The Morrison government is addicted to rorting grants programs, Madam Acting Deputy President Brown, as I'm sure you know. You've seen it firsthand. There are so many examples that I don't have time to go through all of them, but there is an ever-growing lowlights list. I'd like to draw your attention to some of them. Sports rorts is one I am quite familiar with, of course—the colour-coded documents that flicked between the minister and the Prime Minister's office in the dying days of the last parliament. On that occasion, we saw industrial-scale rorting of public money, taxpayers' money.
An opposition senator interjecting—
I'll take that intervention. Yes, it was shocking. It was a shocking use of public money, which was simply designed to re-elect a failing government. But that was not the end of it. We've seen the safer communities rorts, where something as important as community safety was seen to be secondary to the political needs of the government of the day. Then, of course, we've got the building better regions rorts, where a handpicked ministerial panel decided to award funding to hundreds of projects, overriding the recommendations of the relevant department. Of course that was very much a feature of the sports rorts program—well-established, well-thought-out proposals by the sports department that were overridden by the minister, and, I think, for certain the Prime Minister, overridden by the Prime Minister's office, and we've seen that with building better regions. But of course the pick of the crop is the Commuter Car Park Fund. Some $660 million was decided on the basis of projects being in the top 20 marginal seats list. That's how they decided to spend the $660 million. I don't think we have seen all of the spreadsheets from that particular round of rorts, but we do know that they were going in and out of the Prime Minister's office.
The ANAO is a terrific organisation. We've been talking about gold medals over the past few weeks. They should be given a gold medal for the work that they have done, particularly Mr Brian Boyd. He's done a terrific job in exposing all of these rorts. It's a gold medal performance, I would say. We've discovered all of these things because of the work that they have done. We don't have an ICAC in this country, but we do have an ANAO, and, for the moment, they are doing a wonderful job. I look forward to speaking on the antirorting bill at another time, but I mention it because this bill seeks to redress some of the same issues.
We need stronger transparency and accountability measures, because under this government rorts are through the roof and commonplace. You might say to yourself, 'How did the government get itself in this situation?' There is a simple explanation for that: it was because they didn't expect to win the last election. They didn't expect to win it, so they never thought they were going to be held accountable for the way in which they spent this money. Of course, they have been caught out, but things haven't gone far enough. This bill will push things further, increase transparency, increase accountability and make sure Australians know exactly what this government is up to. The Prime Minister thinks he can get away with this. He's got the cover of COVID, so there's no responsibility.
I'd like to flesh out some of these rorts and why we need this transparency and accountability. Let's go back to sports rorts. In relation to the sports rorts scandal we saw the spin, the denial and the blame-shifting. The Australian National Audit Office reported on the Community Sport Infrastructure Program, and I'll quote from their report:
The award of funding reflected the approach documented by the Minister's Office of focusing on 'marginal' electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be 'targeted' by the Coalition at the 2019 Election.
What does this mean? In simple terms, it means that the former minister, Minister McKenzie, rejected applications to the program that scored as high as 98 out of 100 in Sport Australia's independent merit assessments. Many of those very worthy applications came from regional communities where sporting clubs are often the hub of the town. You'd be familiar with them down in Tasmania, where you come from, Madam Acting Deputy President Brown. Many were for modest amounts needed just to provide safe and usable facilities. But, instead of awarding grants to those clubs, the minister outright rejected them. The ANAO told the Senate inquiry into sports rorts that there was, broadly, a shift from applications located in safe and fairly safe coalition electorates to applications located in marginal coalition electorates and targeted electorates held by the ALP and the Independents. This is the very definition of industrial-scale pork-barrelling. Even to this point in time—Madam Acting Deputy President, I know you'll find this amazing—the government has still failed to apologise to and compensate the communities that lost out on these sports grants. It's two years into this scandal, and the government continues to refuse to knowledge the damage it did and compensate those communities. (Time expired)
I rise to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This bill is put forward by Labor to bring some sorely needed transparency to this government. It seeks to improve the accountability and transparency of two types of discretionary government payments: debt waivers and act of grace payments, both of which are permitted under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, or the PGPA Act. Section 63 of the PGPA Act enables a finance minister to waive debts to non-corporate Commonwealth entities—debts to agencies such as Centrelink and the ATO. Debts may be waived in circumstances where recovering the debt would cause ongoing financial hardship and other debt treatment options are not deemed appropriate. When the debt is waived, it is extinguished so that the Commonwealth cannot pursue repayment of the debt at a later date. That provision protects people from a robodebt situation down the track, one of many shameful stains on this government's record.
The other payment within the scope of the act is an act of grace payment. Section 65 of the PGPA Act enables the finance minister to make a payment to a person if they consider it appropriate to do so because of special circumstances. Those circumstances are not defined within the act. The Department of Finance cites the following examples: where a non-corporate Commonwealth entity has taken action which has caused an unintended result for someone or where Commonwealth legislation or policy has had an 'unintended, anomalous, inequitable or otherwise unacceptable impact' on someone. There must be some limitations on that provision. Both debt waivers and act of grace payments are entirely discretionary and not required to be publicly reported. This is not necessarily cause for alarm, but these payments are intended to be used to support people who are in need or who have been wronged.
The track record of the Morrison government when it comes to rorting public money means that there must be more transparency over discretionary spending. We don't have a gold standard in this government when it comes to vaccine rollouts. We don't have a gold standard when it comes to quarantine. But when it comes to rorting—when it comes to pork-barrelling money into marginal seats and forking out public money to their mates—this government could take gold, silver and bronze. It's only Monday morning, but there's not enough time left in the sitting week for me to list all the government's disgusting abuses of public money. There was the $102 million sports rorts scandal. We had unelected Liberal candidates, nonmembers of parliament, handing out cheques for sports grants. An investigation by the Prime Minister's own department found the sports minister, Senator McKenzie, had breached ministerial standards. Of course, Senator McKenzie is now back in the cabinet, which shows just how seriously they take any of these sorts of accusations and responsibilities when they are found guilty of wrongdoing.
Then we had the safer communities rorts, when the Morrison government overruled the home affairs department's advice and redirected community safety funding to marginal seats. Then we had the disgraceful rorting of JobKeeper. A system established to support Australians desperately in need of income support has ended up as the biggest corporate-welfare fund in Australian history, yet the Morrison government is still fighting tooth and nail to stop anyone from knowing just how much money was paid out to highly profitable big businesses like Harvey Norman. What we are aware of is that Harvey Norman received $22 million in JobKeeper. It then turned around and reported a net profit of $462 million and paid out $78 million in dividends. The next time you hear the Morrison government complaining about having to fund the NDIS or the aged-care system, remember that Mr Morrison was very happy to give Gerry Harvey a $22 million payday.
Just last week, the Senate passed an amendment by Senator Patrick, with the support of Labor and the crossbench, that would require the tax commissioner to reveal every company with revenue over $10 million that received JobKeeper and the amount they received. This was a fantastic opportunity to increase transparency and accountability, as is this bill we are debating this morning. Unfortunately the government has rejected this amendment in the House, which means the Australian people still don't know which highly profitable companies have rorted the system. This begs the question: what is the Prime Minister hiding?
The truth is that the Morrison government has done nothing but hide. If they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear, so what skeletons are being hidden in Mr Morrison's JobKeeper closet? How many other billionaires like Gerry Harvey have been secretly stuffing their pockets with public money? That is why measures such as this bill are so important. Speaking of billionaires and multimillionaires rorting the Australian taxpayer with the blessing of Mr Morrison, we have Alan Joyce. We saw Qantas receive $2 million in bail-out money from the Morrison government to keep their workers connected with the company, and Alan Joyce turned around and illegally outsourced 2½ thousand of those jobs as an act of union busting. Even after the Federal Court ruled this was illegal, there was not a peep from the Morrison government about this misuse of public funding.
Most recently, we've had the commuter car park rorts, where $660 million in public money was handed out using a list of the top 20 marginal seats. Brian Boyd from the Australian National Audit Office told a Senate inquiry that the process for this scheme was to touch base with the top 20 marginal representatives to ask them what projects in their electorates were worthy of being put through this program. So $660 million of public money was being managed by a process that started and ended with asking marginal MPs and candidates what to blow the money on. Mr Boyd even said: 'I think there was one electorate they canvassed that we don't think even had a railway station in it.' That's right: the Morrison government spent time and money investigating whether to build a commuter car park in an area that didn't even have a train station. At a press conference last week, the Prime Minister refused to even answer any questions about whether it had seen the marginal seats list used in the car park rorts scandal.
This is a cynical government with no vision for Australia beyond keeping themselves in power. Australians have suffered through eight years of record low wage growth, a global pandemic, a plague of neglect in aged care and disability care and a housing affordability crisis, and, rather than address these issues, the Prime Minister's office has been figuring out how to announce a commuter car park in a marginal seat that doesn't even have a train station. That's why measures such as this bill are so important. The truth is that we are only just scratching the surface when it comes to the Morrison government rorts. Whether it's sports rorts, Safer Community rorts, building better roads rorts, JobKeeper rorts, or commuter car park rorts, sunlight is the best disinfectant when it comes to government corruption. That is why, since 2014, I've been calling for a federal corruption commission, and that is why Labor has committed to establishing a National Integrity Commission, while the government continually sits on its hands on this issue. After nearly eight years, endless promises and a watered-down attempt to look like they're doing a National Integrity Commission, we've found this government wanting yet again—no legislation, no teeth and no accountability.
Would you be surprised, in light of all the rorts that go on, that they don't want transparency? They don't want to make sure that there's accountability because accountability and transparency mean that more of these rorts will be exposed—improper use of funds by the government in the circumstances where they've turned around and rorted it for their own interests. The National Integrity Commission would operate as an ongoing royal commission into serious and systematic corruption in the federal government. Hardworking Australians do the right thing: contribute to the Australian economy and pay their taxes. They reasonably expect that, when we come to Canberra, their collective contributions are spent to improve their standards of living. While Labor is in government, this is exactly the return on investment that Australians receive, whether it's Medicare, tertiary education or the NDIS. Under the Morrison government, the only returns that Australia has seen are a botched vaccine rollout, record low wage growth and a trillion dollars of debt. We need a National Integrity Commission, but Labor are the only ones who will deliver that. In the meantime, we will improve transparency around debt waivers and acts of grace payments. This bill would require the Department of Finance to report, in its annual report, on the number and total of those payments. It would do so without infringing on the privacy of individuals and organisations.
Of course, this isn't the only bill Labor has put forward to improve government accountability and transparency. When we look at Gerry Harvey, with Harvey Norman, he received $78 million in dividends as he owns 31.4 per cent of the company that paid out $249 million in dividends, yet Harvey Norman received $22 million in JobKeeper. It is offensive abuse and misuse of public monies. Senator Gallagher has also introduced an antirorting bill to increase the transparency around the award of funding from grants programs. That bill might stop another sports rort, another Safer Communities Fund rort, another Building Better Regions Fund rort or another commuter car park rort from occurring. Unsurprisingly, the government is also staunchly opposed to that as well.
It's clear that, in the circumstances, the government have failed to take the most fundamental steps. If you look across the ditch to New Zealand, you will see the government publishes the amount of wage subsidy that was given to any company throughout the pandemic. Five per cent of the payments have been returned just by having transparency. In Australia, there's no transparency. Only 0.25 per cent of JobKeeper funds have been returned to the government. We have a circumstance now where we clearly have a lack of appropriate steps and actions by the government and we have a failure by the government to put in appropriate transparency arrangements, yet we're seeing again today their opposition to having more transparency of their accounts. This is a pandemic of rorting. They're addicted to it. They can't help themselves but implement it, they can't help themselves but rort it, and they can't help themselves but abuse it. To see these sorts of payments not being transparent, both those within this bill but also the other payments that I've mentioned, is an indication of the failure by this government to have appropriate accountability for the systems within this parliament. We need to make sure that we have that transparency so that the Australian public can have confidence in what their parliamentarians are doing and make sure that people have confidence in democracy, and there's not just pork-barrelling. One thing we can be sure of is that, when it comes to pork-barrelling, these guys have it all over everybody. They are the world-beaters.
As I mentioned, we can look to New Zealand, which had particularly appropriate arrangements regarding JobKeeper. It was particularly important for New Zealand, and they were able to get five per cent of the payments back. You could well imagine that, in the circumstances in Australia, hundreds of millions of dollars could potentially be returned to the Australian public if we had the same accountability and transparency. I don't like the accountability and transparency of this lot. They certainly don't want accountability and transparency for themselves. This bill is just one small step towards airing out the rot that Mr Morrison has welcomed into this building. It improves transparency and it improves accountability—everything this government stand against and what the Labor Party stand for. Thank you.
( [by video link] I pass my greetings on to the colleagues that I can see in the chamber but also on the screen, and I thank the President for his decision to allow me to join today from hotel quarantine, which is perhaps not going to be the most enjoyable thing that I've endured but is far less serious than the privations endured by many other people as a consequence of the failings of this government.
This bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019, makes a series of technical changes to the regime that governs the delivery of debt waivers and act of grace payments by the federal government. It sounds quite technical—I understand that—but it actually goes to very important principles. It embodies the principles of accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, as we know, both of these principles are routinely ignored by members of the Morrison government. It's telling, in fact, that the act we are amending with Senator Gallagher's bill is an act that was introduced by Labor when we were last in government. The PGPA Act is an immensely important piece of work. It rationalises and reconciles several pieces of legislation and it forms the framework for much of the activity that's undertaken by the Department of Finance and, indeed, the other departments around it. It was introduced by Senator Wong, as Minister for Finance and Deregulation in the last Labor government. It was designed to establish a framework that's necessary for a modern public service.
If you think about it, it's almost unimaginable that this crowd, the Morrison government, would introduce any piece of legislation of this kind, a piece of legislation aimed at improving public governance and accountability. The Morrison government's approach to the Public Service is hostile at best, and their attitude towards governance and accountability is essentially contempt. Labor, in government, put in place the important modernising piece of legislation aimed at supporting accountability and transparency in government. It's now Labor, from opposition, that is doing the work to ensure that that legislation remains effective and up to date.
So, what does the bill do? The bill we're debating today improves the level of accountability and transparency around the granting of debt waivers and act of grace payments by the federal government. Debt waivers are essentially a mechanism by which the Minister for Finance, on behalf of the Commonwealth, can waive a debt that's owing to the Commonwealth, including debts owed to entities like the ATO, the tax office or to Centrelink. The discretionary ability of the government to waive debts of this kind is fundamentally important. It is about fairness. Debt waivers can be made where recovering the debt would be inequitable or cause ongoing hardship. We don't want to see onerous debt leaving someone unable to provide food, accommodation, clothing, medical treatment, education or other necessities for themselves, their family or the other people for whom they're responsible. It's an essential part of how the act works.
Act of grace payments are similar. The PGPA Act authorises the finance minister to make payments for a person if they consider it appropriate to do so because of special circumstances. These special circumstances are not defined in the act. It's a discretionary power. It requires the finance minister to consider the individual circumstances of a particular person. And the decisions that are made under this power do not create a precedent for future requests.
Both of these capabilities, these powers, are important. They provide the flexibility that's needed to ensure that the system doesn't create injustice and inequity through inflexibility. But that same flexibility is the reason that transparency and accountability around the making of these decisions is so important. The public deserve to be able to have confidence that these powers are being exercised in a way that is consistent with their expectations and reflect the fair and impartial application of public power. That is why Labor has introduced this amendment bill. This bill would require the Department of Finance to report, in its annual report, on 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. This information would all be anonymous. It wouldn't infringe on the privacy of individuals and organisations. No names would be released. It is a simple, straightforward proposition to increase transparency and, through that, accountability.
So why has it fallen on the opposition to bring forward this proposal? Taking a guess, would it be because the government, to date, has shown very little interest in transparency or accountability? In fact, the government's track record on both of these things is far from great. Its first appointment for Public Service Commissioner resigned after an investigation was started into whether he had breached the Public Service Act, a document it was actually his job to enforce. But the true mettle of the Morrison government is found in the consistent drip of scandals about the treatment of public money by senior ministers. One of the pieces of advice that is given to fiction writers is that one should show, rather than tell. Don't use words; rely on actions. The Morrison government has shown through its actions, time and time again, what it thinks of public officers and public resources. It has treated important public jobs as gifts to be handed out to friends and allies. It has treated public money as a slush fund to be spent on its own re-election attempts.
It is worth having a look at just some of the scandals that have been running in the news over the last few weeks. It was reported last week that the Australian National Audit Office recently told a Senate estimates committee that the Morrison government awarded funding under the commuter car parks scheme by preparing a list of the top 20 marginal seats and inviting the sitting MPs to nominate projects for funding. In fact, the relevant ANAO auditor said:
In some cases, the evidence shows the local member or duty senator was actually engaging with the (Prime Minister's office), who would then pass it onto the Minister's office.
The Prime Minister has refused to confirm if his office has ever seen such a list. But the sting in the tail is that the Morrison government has not even been able to deliver on these promises. Just two of the promised 47 car parks have been built. As my colleague Senator Sheldon indicated just now, there is something simultaneously offensive and ludicrous about a PM's office that has time to scrutinise car parks in this way, for their own electoral benefit, but insufficient time or inclination to properly manage the pandemic, insufficient time to negotiate vaccines and insufficient time to establish national quarantine arrangements. These are not the sorts of things that the PM's office presently think is important but, over time, they have found evidently immense amounts of time for pork barrelling. But I digress.
I'll come back to the questions of transparency and accountability. The government's attempt to keep important documents relating to the handling of the pandemic secret has again, in the last week, been repudiated by the Federal Court. I congratulate my colleague Senator Patrick on this victory for common sense and transparency. The court found what my colleague in the other place Mr Albanese has been saying for some time: national cabinet is not a real cabinet. Just saying it is doesn't make it so. The court found that the national cabinet documents were not eligible for a blanket exemption from freedom-of-information requests because 'none of the subject documents is an official record of a committee of the cabinet'. The Federal Court went on to say:
The mere use of the name 'national cabinet' does not, of itself, have the effect of making a group of persons using the name a 'committee of the cabinet'. Nor does the mere labelling of a committee as a 'cabinet committee' have that effect.
Spin can only get you so far. This was yet another disgraceful attempt to conceal decision-making and to oppose transparency at a time when trust in government is more important, arguably, than it has ever been before.
What else has been in the news? There are the legal costs, the cost of Clive Palmer's border challenge. A year on, the government still hasn't revealed how much Mr Morrison's decision to back Clive Palmer's legal challenge to the WA border closures has cost the taxpayer. The Morrison government and the then Attorney-General, Mr Porter, funded a team of barristers to force WA's borders open in the middle of a pandemic, before eventually conceding to common sense, or at least to the wisdom of the crowds in Western Australia, by backing out of the challenge. We still don't know how much this endeavour has cost.
Any of these scandals alone would have been enough to embarrass a government capable of shame. Sometimes people talk about a post-truth world. We're moving to a period where facts don't matter. The more accurate thing you could say of this government is that it is living in a post-shame world. The Morrison government and the key people who lead it have become used to operating under a cloud of ignominy and shame.
That's why I'm proud that Labor has announced that an Albanese government would establish a powerful, transparent and independent national anticorruption commission. The commission would operate as a standing royal commission into serious and systemic corruption in the federal government. It would have broad jurisdiction to investigate and hold to account Commonwealth ministers, public servants, statutory office holders, government agencies, parliamentarians, personal staff of parliamentarians and other Commonwealth officials. It would be able to follow the money, meaning it would also be able to investigate private individuals and companies involved in systemic and serious corruption.
The government's proposal, by contrast, is weak and conflicted. It would be unable to instigate its own independent inquiries into government corruption. It would be unable to hold public hearings when it comes to politicians or public servants. Crucially, it would be unable to investigate any of the multiple past scandals of the Morrison government. Worst of all, it is hypocritical. This government has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into making a commitment to even establish such a commission. Now that those opposite have made the commitment, they're dragging their heels on actually doing it. It's little wonder. They have a track record of scandal that has enveloped minister after minister after minister, and during their eight years of office they have failed to take any action to tackle corruption. They've made next to no progress, leaving the Commonwealth as the only Australian government without a body dedicated to tackling corruption by public officials. Their refusal to honour their election promise is allowing corruption to go unchecked, enabling ministers to avoid being held to account for their actions and undermining public confidence in the Australian government. An Albanese Labor government would put an end to the Morrison government's shameful inaction. We will establish a powerful, transparent and independent national anticorruption commission.
I want to finish by reflecting on why it all matters. The last two years have shown us why it is so important for a government to behave with integrity and in a manner which is respectful of the trust that has been placed in it by the Australian public. It is obviously and plainly important for ministers to behave with integrity, but there's a broader principle at play too. Every scandal erodes the faith that the public in a democratic society has in our leaders. We rely collectively on that faith to address collective challenges, like the ones we are facing during this pandemic. We draw on that faith when the Australian people are asked collectively and individually to make sacrifices for the common good, to get us through difficult periods like the one we are facing at the moment. That is why Labor will continue fighting to improve the institutions and laws that support and protect that trust. We will do it in small ways, like this bill today, and we will do it through larger proposals, like our proposal for a national anticorruption commission. It is time for a government that respects public trust and that the public can trust. (Time expired)
[by video link] I'm very pleased to join the chamber today to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Waiver of Debt and Act of Grace Payments) Bill 2019. This amendment is necessary for no other reason than we cannot trust this government when it comes to using public money. The Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act was introduced by Labor because we understand the trust and responsibility that comes with government. We understand the trust and responsibility that is expected of those in government when using precious public money, public money that is hard earned by the people of Australia; public money that should be used to benefit all Australians to make their lives easier, healthier and safer; public money that should not be used for winning marginal seats and that should not be used for giving mates cushy jobs; public money that should not be used for boosting the private profits of multinationals in dodgy tenders. This amendment will improve the level of transparency and accountability when it comes to discretionary decisions by the finance minister on the granting of debt waivers and act of grace payments. Discretionary decisions made by the minister include waivers to the tax office or Centrelink for debts of over $100,000. These discretionary decisions are made when the finance minister considers that recovering the debt would be inequitable or cause ongoing financial hardship and that other debt treatment options are inappropriate. This will require the finance department to disclose these decisions in its annual report. Currently there is no such requirement to disclose these decisions at all.
This greater transparency has been proven necessary due to the actions of the Morrison government. The last eight years of this government have shown that it is addicted to rorting public money for its own benefit: the car park rorts, the sports rorts, the jobs for mates. It seems clear at this point that at the 2019 election the government never wanted the job of serving the people of Australia; they were focused on serving themselves and supporting their mates. You wonder if the finance minister would apply the same level of scrutiny and interrogation to the tax debt of a Liberal Party donor as they subjected thousands of ordinary people to under robodebt. We know the answer, especially when it comes to public money: it's one rule if you're a Liberal Party mate and another if you're an ordinary working person. We saw it in how they treated big businesses who were overpaid millions of in JobKeeper—but don't worry! It's okay! You can pay it back if you want to. Meanwhile, a single mother of false robodebt had to prove through a complex and hostile process that they were not overpaid. There was certainly no consideration of the inequity or financial hardship caused by the unlawful collection of over $720 million from over 400,000 victims of the robodebt scheme. We know that this government is not on the side of working people, and that's why we in the Labor Party must ensure every decision made by the government, especially when it comes to public money, is disclosed.
The car park rorts scandal showed that this government no longer even pretends to care about the rules. This was a grant process specifically designed only to benefit the top 20 marginal Liberal seats of local Liberal MPs and duty senators. There was over $600 million in public funds, with 87 per cent of it going to Liberal seats or seats that they wanted to win, and projects that did not meet the eligibility criteria were approved—overruled by the minister and funded. There was no fairness, there was no transparency and there was absolutely no shame from this government, and the Australian people are absolutely sick of it. They've lost all trust in this government, and that's why we need important rules for government to follow, like this private senators' bill that is being introduced today.
The Australian people are sick of the rorts. They deserve so much better from this government. They deserve a government that knows what it means when they're given the responsibility and the trust of spending public money, a government that knows that public money comes from the hard work of millions of Australians. It has been handed over in the trust that it will be used appropriately, that it will be used to build a fair and prosperous country for everyone, not just for people who the Liberal government wants to favour, not just for people who might be the beneficiary of a project, not just for people who live in a marginal seat that the Liberal Party wants to target at an election. This is money that should go to improving our schools; that should go to our hospitals; that should go into plans to grow good, secure jobs in our country—things that would change the lives of millions of Australians for the better.
Labor knows this and that's why we're introducing these changes. We know what is expected of us. This is why we are leaving absolutely no stone unturned. It's why we're making sure every decision by this government needs to be disclosed. They have shown over and over again that they do not deserve the trust of the Australian people and that's why we're here to hold them to account. We are here to make sure that their decisions are reviewed. We are here to make sure that their decisions are disclosed. We are here to make sure there is appropriate scrutiny on all of the decisions that this government makes with trusted public funds.
This bill is one of many steps that Labor is taking to improve transparency and accountability of this government. We have also introduced an anti-rorting bill designed to increase scrutiny around the awarding and funding of grants programs. Labor has also committed to establish a powerful, transparent and independent national anti-corruption commission. It is a complete disgrace that this government has not moved to establish a national anti-corruption commission. It is a complete disgrace that we are still waiting for the Morrison government to introduce—over 2½ years since they promised to do it and after eight years of government, government where we have seen that over and over again they have lost the trust of the public. They've lost the trust of the public when it comes to the spending of public money. They've lost the trust of the public when it comes to accountability. They've lost the trust of the public when it comes to transparency. We know that this government will look for any opportunity to use public money as if it were Liberal Party money. They have shown us that time and time again.
The Morrison government has lost the public's trust. It has to be held to account on all of its decisions. There has never been a more important time to increase scrutiny of this government's decisions. This bill will shine a light on the discretionary decisions of the finance minister on debt waivers and grace and favour payments, decisions that include debt waivers for individuals of over $100,000. When ministers are able to provide this level of discretionary financial assistance it's only right and it's only fair that the Australian people know when those decisions are being made. If our bill is successful these are decisions that will be required to be reported on. They will be reported on and there for all to see, reported on and there for all to see whether it meets the test of trust that the Australian people have, whether it meets the test known as the 'pub test' in this country. We know that this government has been failing to meet the pub test when it comes to the expenditure of public funds. Whether it's sports rorts, car park rorts or jobs for mates, this government requires a much higher level of scrutiny, transparency and accountability and that is what we are seeking to deliver today.
The people of Australia should be able to trust that when their public money is being spent it is being spent in their interests, not in the interests of a Liberal Party that wants to win a marginal seat, not on a project that the Liberal Party thinks will help them do better with a local community, with a local electorate. The Australian people deserve transparency. They deserve accountability. They deserve to be able to trust their government, but they can't, and that's why we need much stronger measures, like the measures proposed today. The people of Australia have to be able to trust that the hard-earned money that they hand over in their taxes is being spent for the public good, not in the interests of marginal-seat MPs, not in the interests of Liberal Party donors and not in the interests of the Prime Minister and his wishes to be re-elected.
The Morrison government have insulted the trust of the Australian people. They've shown time and time again in their decisions that they're not on the side of ordinary working people. They're not on the side of everyday Australians. They're not on the side of people who go out and work hard every day and pay their taxes. They are actually in it for themselves. That is the truth of what we have seen from the Morrison government. If there's public money available, they'll spend it on car park rorts. They'll spend it on sports rorts. They'll channel it into marginal-seat projects that they think give them electoral advantage but that are not for the community's advantage and not for the public good.
That is why we need to see measures like the measures proposed today—greater accountability and greater reporting. That is the scrutiny that now needs to be applied to the Morrison government. The government have turned their backs on the needs of ordinary Australians. They've blatantly used public money for their own political benefit, and they don't even seem mildly ashamed of this. Instead, they've spent the last eight years perfecting their technique, doing it better and better each time, first with the $100 million sports rorts scandal and then with the $660 million car parks scandal.
Labor will not let this waste of public money continue. It is said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and this government really needs disinfectant applied to it. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, when it comes to the decisions of this grubby government, Labor will continue to shine a light on every single dodgy decision that this government makes. This is a government that has lost public trust. This is a government that has shown that it is prepared to use public funds and spend them in its own interest rather than in the broader interests of the community. That's why I commend this bill to the Senate.