Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (15:58): I think there’s a bit of a point being missed here by those on the other side. Most of the rules, laws and regulations that sit within our modern society are built on the foundations of those that have gone before. We had the shadow Attorney-General in here speaking just before. And, in fact, we know well that, in the law system, so much faith is put in the rulings that were before us. It’s called tort law. It’s the same, though, with tax law. It’s the same with business regulation. It’s the same with workplace safety and conditions. It’s the same with sporting codes. We don’t sit down at the beginning of a football season, throw the rule book out and start again. We actually start with last year’s rules, and we amend.
So it was the same with this program of debt recovery. The government sat down at ATO and used the mechanisms that were there before it. The Minister for Government Services has been through that program and delivered all those quotes from the previous ministers, who said, on the establishment of these systems, how tax averaging was going to be used as part of the measuring mechanism. It was exactly the same. What changed was the computerised world—we went electric, we sped up the show, as all government departments should be doing. We’ve probably been laggards really—when I say ‘we’, I mean governments generally—in adopting the new technologies and rolling them out. In this case they were rolled out to the debt recovery system, which in turn meant that many more people actually came into contact with it. That’s what changed. That’s what lifted the tempo. It’s what lifted the ire in the community, because there were so many more contacts coming than there had been previously.
The ruling of the Federal Court eventually was that this mechanism was wrong, but we were using an existing mechanism. What was different was the number of contacts and then the amount of debt that was recovered. So it was questioned and taken to court, and the court made that ruling. There are a lot of other instances of this kind of thing, and this House should be very aware of a quite recent one that springs to mind with me. It involved section 44 of the Constitution, where the system was alerted and a case was taken to court questioning a member’s right to be sitting in this place, by dint of their nationality. They were found to be in default. The fact that there were quite a number from each side of this place would suggest that this was a ruling that was just ignored or was in the background or people weren’t paying attention. It was accepted practice. But, when it was pointed out, things had to change. They changed dramatically. We had a number of by-elections. Well, so it is with the debt recovery system. When it was pointed out, things had to change, and we’ve made changes.
Yes, of course it’s been proved to be now an illegal system on which to assess this kind of debt in the first place, but it was based on the foundations of what had gone before. Governments of course have a responsibility. We’re spending $180 billion a year on social services, on welfare support. It is around 40 per cent of the national budget. We can’t just give money away willy-nilly and never actually police that. We have to find out that people are entitled to it. We know we have $5.3 billion outstanding in debt at the moment. What would others suggest—that we just ignore that? Of course we have to keep going. We’ll have to redesign the system and use new mechanisms, but don’t think that we’re going to sit down and not actually chase down moneys that are owed to the taxpayers of Australia because they’ve been come by by mistake, sometimes by intention. It is our job. It is the job of whoever sits on this side of the House to ensure that taxpayers’ money is looked after, that it’s spent wisely, that it’s not wasted, that it’s not taken illegally. So we will continue to pursue overpayments. We will continue to pursue those who have taken from the system wrongfully. We will have to use a slightly different system. We understand that. For those who have been picked up wrongly, that is wrong, but some of those who were picked up will have been in the wrong as well. (Time expired