Committees - Economics References Committee Report

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I rise to speak on the report of the Economics References Committee into the Business Council of Australia's letter to the Senate in which it encouraged, in the national interest, support for enterprise tax cuts. I rise to do so with a heavy heart. The coalition senators on this committee dissented from the Labor-led majority report. The reason my heart is so heavy is that the process adopted by the committee was, in my view, deeply disturbing. I'll explain what I mean. A group in our community offered a contribution to policy debate in this place, as we so often encourage members of the community to do, as thousands and thousands of individuals, community groups, industry groups, unions and businesses do every day. Until now, each of those contributions has been heard, considered and respectfully weighed in the minds of the people who represent the Australian people in this chamber.

In this Economics References Committee, something much darker, much more cynical happened. For the first time I know of, a single contributor, the Business Council of Australia and a handful of its business members, has been punished for their decision to say something contrary to Labor's view of economics. They have been hauled in before a references committee established purely to discredit them, waste their time, divert their resources and—this is the most important bit, in my view—provide the ultimate disincentive to contributing to public debates in the future. This is a circumstance in which the process has been the punishment. For daring to contribute a letter in our democracy, the BCA has been subjected to two separate hearings in which they were berated at length for daring to say what many of us know to be true: that business tax cuts make Australia more competitive internationally; that they equip business to invest, whether that's in more staff, in wage rises or in more equipment; that they boost the economy; and that they make Australia a more attractive place in which international companies can set up shop and employ more Australians.

Can you imagine the disincentive to participation in public issues if a private citizen making a submission to the work of this Senate were subjected to this, or if a community group, for stating a simple policy position, were the subject of days of attack?—not in the spirit of rising to better policy, but to manufacture a base political grandstanding opportunity. Can you imagine if that community group were then subjected to a confected protest from the mates of one political side, shouting down that community group as it tried to explain itself under this farcical inquisition while the chair of the committee failed to enforce order in the hearing, giving those whose behaviour defied the rules tacit support? Or can you imagine, perhaps, if a committee demanded that a community group supply information that would mean that group breached another legal obligation, with the committee then condemning the group for their compliance with that law, as though by their compliance they were somehow hiding something?

Well, that's exactly what happened in this committee. It was an utter farce. The BCA were punished for daring to contribute a letter to the public debate on a policy proposal by being required to spend two days before committee hearings, having multiple members of staff being dragged in to give evidence, enduring a staged protest to intimidate the witnesses and having a media circus created. The committee demanded the witnesses detail each of the projects in their pipeline that would go ahead if enterprise tax cuts were passed and, knowing that witnesses were limited by the ASX continuous disclosure rules from giving the information sought, those senators suggested that there is something nefarious in their compliance with the rules.

Make no mistake. This committee had one purpose: to teach business a lesson that, if they dare take on Labor's economic narrative, they will be punished. What a toxic message for democracy, for the future of community debate and for the community's engagement with the work of this parliament! What a waste of public money! Now more than ever, we need to commit to respect for the institution of democracy and build the community's trust in it so that we can have a healthy and engaged society. Labor's conduct on this inquiry has done the very opposite. It is a very sad day indeed.