1 September 2021
Independent Senator Rex Patrick has vowed to enforce the authority of the Senate by asking it to commence contempt proceedings against the Tax Commissioner for his failure to respond to a lawful order to hand over JobKeeper payment information. This follows the granting of “precedence” by Senate President, Senator Scott Ryan, allowing Senate Patrick to lodge a motion referring the matter to the Senate Standing Committee on Privileges.
“A final order by the Senate to the Tax Commissioner must be complied with and it would set an unacceptable precedent were the Commissioner’s non-compliance with the order be allowed to pass,” Senator Patrick said. “Failure to comply with a final lawful order of the Senate is a contempt.”
On 4 August, at the request of Senator Patrick, the Senate issued an order for production to the Tax Commissioner to provide a list of employers with a turnover of more than $10M who had received JobKeeper payments and to provide details of how much public money they had received. The request was made to the Tax Commissioner rather than the Treasurer because Division 355 of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 prevents the Treasurer from accessing the required information.
On 12 August the Commissioner requested that the Senate not insist on the order on the grounds that, in his view, releasing the information was not in the public interest. The Senate considered the Commissioner’s concerns and issued a final order on 23 August that he must respond with the requested information by 26 August. He refused to do so.
Whilst the Treasurer had attempted to intervene on 26 August by advancing his own public interest immunity claim, the Senate order was not directed at the Treasurer and he has no power to countermand an order of the Senate.
“This is an important matter that must be resolved," Senator Patrick said. "The Parliament, empowered directly by voters, is supreme. There is a lot at stake. I will now commence the process of asking the Senate to refer the Tax Commissioner to the Privileges Committee of the Senate.”
The Senate has the power under the Parliamentary Privileges Act to fine or jail a person who fails to comply with a lawful order it has made.
Senator Patrick’s letter to the President, and the President’s response, can be found here.