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Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Speech in Parliament - Banking Amendment (Unclaimed Money) Bill 2013 - 19 June 2013

Mr TONY SMITH (Casey) (18:30): I rise on behalf of the shadow Treasurer, the member for North Sydney, to speak on the Banking Amendment (Unclaimed Money) Bill 2013. The coalition will be supporting this legislation—necessary legislation to amend the government's own recently passed bill to clean-up yet another mess created by this chaotic government. The bill before the House now seeks to amend the government's own policy that was announced late last year—a policy motivated by this Treasurer's waxing desperation in the face of his then waning budget surplus.

The government's evaporating surplus late last year sent it, as we all remember, into a feverish quest for savings, some of which were announced in MYEFO December 2012—actually it was earlier than December. This search for every dollar and cent it could find led it to announce an array of changes relating to unclaimed moneys in bank accounts, life insurance accounts, superannuation accounts and corporations. The changes, as many members will recall, sought to shorten the time period before money can be considered lost or unclaimed. That is precisely what the government's announced policy and legislation did sometime ago. For bank accounts, the time period was reduced from seven to three years. For life insurance, it was likewise cut from seven to three years. For superannuation accounts, the inactivity period was slashed from five years to just 12 months, after which superannuation accounts of unidentifiable members are transferred to the Australian Taxation Office. Superannuation accounts with balances of less than $2,000 and accounts of unidentifiable members that were inactive for 12 months were required to be transferred to the commissioner. Any unclaimed property of corporations was to be counted as part of the Commonwealth Consolidated Revenue Fund upon receipt by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, which we all know as ASIC, not the companies and unclaimed moneys special account.

This was all designed with one purpose in mind: for the government to boost their underlying cash position. It was the desperate grab for money that led the government to consider these changes which it had never considered in any of its previous years. Indeed, the measures that were announced, we were told, were expected to net the government nearly $900 million over the four-year period to 2015-16.

A government controlled Senate economics committee inquiry was held into the bill and recommended that the bill be passed, but coalition members of the committee inquiry at the time disagreed and chose to publish a dissenting report. The coalition then moved a series of amendments that sought to delay implementation of schedules 1 and 2, which relate to bank accounts and first home saver accounts, for a full year so that they would commence from 31 December of this year to feed into the banks' annual processes, which had largely been completed for this calendar year when the government made its MYEFO announcement last year. The coalition also sought to delay schedule 4 relating to superannuation accounts for a full year in order to align with the deadline of the autoconsolidations necessary under the previously announced SuperStream reforms, which are due to commence from 1 January 2014.

When the coalition's amendments were defeated on the floor of this House, the opposition voted against passage of this bill both here and in the other place. The government then introduced its own amendments that, amongst other things, sought to change transitional arrangements for Australian deposit-taking institutions and first home saver accounts. These amendments were introduced so that Australian deposit-taking institutions and first home saver accounts could choose between assessing unclaimed moneys at 31 December 2012, in line with the original seven-year period, and having a supplementary assessment date of 30 May 2013 for payment to occur in line with the revised three-year period. The bill stated:

… ADIs are required to report and transfer all unclaimed moneys as assessed on the applicable assessment date, including reactivated accounts, to the Commonwealth regardless of whether transactions have been made on the accounts prior to the reporting date.

As a consequence, Australian deposit-taking institutions, as well as first home saver accounts, either would be committing an offence by not transferring all unclaimed moneys to the Commonwealth or would need to close the reactivated accounts and transfer these to the Commonwealth.

Some Australian deposit-taking institutions have reported and transferred unclaimed moneys to the Commonwealth, including amounts for reactivated accounts. But as a common courtesy to their customers, rather than closing and transferring the reactivated accounts to the Commonwealth some Australian deposit-taking institutions have kept the reactivated accounts of their customers active and retained their customer's balance amount, but paid the required unclaimed amounts on behalf of their customers from their own funds. In other words, deposit-taking institutions moved to shield their customers from the consequences of a government policy that served no real purpose other than to prop up a budget position at the expense of Australian account holders.

This brings us to this set of amendments, which is to fix up, frankly, the government's own stuff ups. That is what these amendments are: they are amendments to fix up the government's stuff-ups. That is why we are back here again before the House, trying to make bad legislation better. The government, as they have always done in this parliament, have rushed, listened to no-one and made errors that they have then been forced to confront, and that is why we are back here fixing them.

The Commonwealth, as a result of the government's original policy and legislation, does not currently have the authority to refund monies to those Australian deposit-taking institutions directly, even though they have acted as an intermediary returning unclaimed monies to account holders. The amendments we are debating today will permit such refunds so that these Australian deposit-taking institutions are able to receive a refund directly from the Commonwealth for the money that has been collected. The amendments will also allow Australian deposit-taking institutions to exclude reactivated accounts from transfers of unclaimed moneys to the Commonwealth.

How embarrassing! This, as I said, is another example of this government rushing and mucking up their legislation, and then trying to clean it up. It all comes from the Treasurer down—the Treasurer's Keystone Cops habit of making policy on the run.

There have been many media stories relating how the bank accounts of families, pensioners and even children have been raided. It has been an absolute disgrace. I will take the time just to refer to a couple. On 26 May the Sunday Herald-Sun, my hometown paper, under a headline, 'Raid on kids' cash: Government grab nets boys' savings,' talks about the Hadfield family, who:

… were shocked to find the savings of their eldest children … had gone into government coffers last week

And up in the state of Queensland, the state where my good friend the member for Moncrieff is a representative, in The Courier Mail:

Savings snatch $150,000 plucked from account under new laws. A BRISBANE woman has had more than $150,000 taken from her bank account by the Federal Government in the latest example of savers suffering under recent legislative changes.

And there was another story in The Courier Mail about a Queensland pensioner recovering from a quintuple heart bypass only to find his bank account had been emptied, handing $22,000 to the federal government.

And all of this was so unnecessary. We support these amendments to seek to repair some of the worst aspects of bad legislation by this bad government. But what has also been obvious all along is that this government have not just a capacity for continual chaos on the policy front—and I know that my colleagues, the members for Gippsland and Moncrieff will agree on this—but also a strident and unembarrassable feature about them: at no point have this government said, 'Look, we got it wrong; we're sorry'.

In fact, if you look back to the second reading speech from the responsible parliamentary secretary—the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer—introduced on Wednesday 29 May, he talks about the amendments in a very matter-of-fact way. But at no point does he say that these amendments are necessary because of government oversight. He does not even have the candour say, 'Look, on behalf of the government I apologise: we got it wrong'. You see it even in those newspaper stories I referred to just before. I think it was the Sunday Herald-Sun story in particular. If you look at the end of that story you see:

A spokeswoman for Treasurer Wayne Swan said people would be better off under the new rules.

That is unbelievable.

This series of amendments will clean-up some of the mess created by the government, but it is, in so many ways, not only a window into this government's chaotic approach to policymaking but an illustration—another example, of which there have been so many on so many pieces of legislation—of where the government refuses to consult, refuses to listen and insists on rushing. Then the Australian people—families and small businesses—have to deal with the consequences of this government's incompetence.

As I said, the coalition supports this legislation to try to help clean-up the government's mess. But in the dying days of this parliament, the Australian people would do very well to look at the record of this government when it comes to legislation, to look at how it has rushed through bill after bill. My friend the member for Moncrieff was here just the other week when, three years after being told that this was the parliament where we would let the sunlight in, the opportunity was denied for even an inquiry on a piece of legislation. To the Australian people who have had to endure this for the last three years, and as we come to the final days of sitting in this parliament, the government is truly showing its approach to governing. In their heart of hearts they have had enough evidence now to know that a bad government will never get better.

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