November 29th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: 40 million Aussies? The immigration debate revisited

COVER STORY RESPONSE : No immigration policy without an industry policy

EDITORIAL: Time to reform super

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Illegal immigration returns as an election issue

MURRAY DARLING: Backdown on water confiscation plan

LAW: United Nations delays human cloning ban

QUEENSLAND: Labor falters, but where is the opposition?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Poleaxed / Tax Avoidance / Collateral damage

LETTERS: Destruction of Australia's textile industry

LETTERS: The bushfire nightmare

LETTERS: Bushfires and the insurance industry

LETTERS: Jim Cairns: the real legacy

LETTERS: Organised opposition

LETTERS: Call for funding to support the unborn

SBS TV should not telecast Vietnamese communist propaganda

ASIA: Why Japan has lifted its military profile

BOOKS: Death as a salesman: What's wrong with Assisted Suicide, by Brian Johnston

Books promotion page

Poleaxed / Tax Avoidance / Collateral damage

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, November 29, 2003

Much, some would say too much, ink is expended by yours truly and others retailing how rapidly, unpredictably and too often, perversely, our societies are changing, and how ineptly our political systems - democratic, command economy and despotic alike - are performing in the face of all this cultural and economic mayhem ... that it is therefore warming to re-enter a little haven of creative unreason where nothing is changed, nor will change.

I refer to our political opinion polls and the busy little creatures under the Rhine preparing their consignments of fools' gold and glass diamonds to send up to enchant the honest burghers of the somnolent towns and villages of mediaeval Germany. Or is it Terra Australis?

I cherish positively saccharine memories of one of those great polling organisations, the Morgan Poll, for I associate it with the world of Happy Hammond, Billy Graham and Arthur Rylah.

A living treasure - even older - but rather less tuneful than Horrie Dargie.

Over the past few decades it has had to face the competition of other political pollsters, and certainly The Age had an excellent pollster, Irving Saulwick. But his very accuracy, and an increasing desire to ask respondents searching and socially and politically relevant questions, eventually led to the defanging of that particular search for authenticity in politics.

But the Morgan enterprise has survived all such utopian enquiries into what voters really wanted, or intended. It's rarely failed our, or at least my, ultimate expectations.

The Sunday Herald Sun recently gave us a peek at how our pollsters are going about their work. Morgan polled 1851 voters on the weekends of October 25-26 and November 1-2; after the visits of the two presidents. Labor would have won an election (crushingly too) for they collected a two-party support of 53 per cent. The conservatives 47 per cent.

Whereas Newspoll took its survey between October 31 and November 2, and gave the Coalition 54 per cent and Labor 46 per cent. (A crushing defeat for Labor).

So it is really back to the tarot cards, tea leaves and divining animals' entrails.

Incidentally, it has been technically possible to achieve results within three per cent accuracy since 1940. But contemporary polls have quite different agendas. At least the Delphic Oracle had a good classical education.

Tax avoidance

Gerard McManus had a piece in the Herald Sun (October 4) entitled "Money trails blocked". He was discussing Peter Costello's confessed failure to get Switzerland and three other OECD countries to cooperate with tax avoidance surveillance.

The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, of which we are a member, moved seven or eight weeks ago to lift bank secrecy by the end of 2005, and to adopt a common definition of tax fraud. But the veto by Switzerland and three other states means, as Labor's Shadow Assistant Treasurer David Cox said, "The Government no longer has a way to tackle tax havens."

Is that really true? Certainly Labor never seriously tried and the Coalition have been notably coy in their past efforts. But maybe Peter Costello, stung by the Rivkin affair, in which the Swiss branch of the great Israeli bank Leumi, was used, apparently by Rivkin, Graeme Richardson, Trevor Kennedy, et al, to park the proceeds of a now disputed share sale ... is determined to at least check money laundering.

Incidentally, the Australian Financial Review, which has been pursuing this whole story, has an interesting account of an FAI lunch in 1998 hosted by Rodney Adler, with guests including Rivkin and Labor heavies Gary Gray, John Faulkner and Bob McMullan. (AFR, November 12)

The money laundering problem is substantial enough and dates back at least to the bottom of the harbour, and McManus gave a figure of $8 billion leaving Australia through tax havens last year and another $2.5 billion coming back that way.

This yearly loss to revenue, tax foregone, is bad enough, but so is the possibility that nowadays much of the money could be the proceeds of drug and other criminal activities conducted here. A double loss to Australia. And the money coming in by similarly irregular roots, could have originated from related criminal activities there.

I fancy I see some of that money being put to use in the other states now as it has been in Sydney for many moons.

So it's a much darker traffic than greedy blighters dodging their tax, because there is the new problem, much larger than we did suppose, of terrorists and international criminal networks penetrating civil societies by using the world's banks as laundries. It is therefore only right that Mr Costello keep attacking this cesspool and even go public and name some names if all else fails. He might offend a few corporate acquaintances but he will make a lot of new friends.

Collateral damage

As part of the Bracks people's cost-cutting to make space for new conspicuous waste elsewhere, I'm afraid the extremely valuable and humane Multiple Purpose Taxi Program, introduced by the previous Labor regime, is to be slashed.

People with a severe and permanent disability, which makes it unfeasible for them to use public transport, have only had to pay half-fare, the rest being picked up by the Government. This is to be capped - i.e., to be cut - to $550 per year ($10 a week). One return trip - and not a very long one - a week.

At its inception, the scheme was hailed as liberating its users from permanent social isolation, with all the social, psychological and, indirectly, medical benefits which the mitigation of that isolation would bring. And it did. People were able to visit relatives and friends more often and access low-priced public entertainment and social gatherings.

It brought them out. But also, the taxi industry - a real battle for bread there for most drivers - has benefited greatly. A regular income stream. As it has entertainment industries and their workers.

Trips to doctors - especially as our medicos progressively destroy bulk-billing - cost less with this scheme.

Most of this is to go: because a $30 million scheme has blown out to $50 million.

Regular drivers are saying that most of this is coming from rorting by rogue drivers - usually new to the industry. Originally a passenger would have his card processed by a manual hand machine, producing duplicates of the original, with the passenger signing the original and then receiving one duplicate, and relevant details were to be filled in before he signed.

Crooked drivers - pleading haste, another job, etc , or just standing over old people - would present a virtually empty form for signature.

Thus, one blind passenger, who brings his dog, told his regular driver of hearing another driver using his machine on his card three times. What could he do? The driver then fills in whatever he wants. Patterson Lakes instead of Richmond.

The Government scotched this skulduggery with an electronic machine attached to the cab which drivers could not fiddle. Problem solved? No: rogue drivers, especially newcomers, say their machine "isn't working today" or the card has a defect; or he has no electronic machine. This is illegal. A car without a machine isn't a taxi. But, back to the hand-operated machine.

Customers, especially old ones, and particularly late at night, with drivers pleading no English, have to concur. So the rorting goes on. Responsible drivers denounced all this, knowing the damage it posed to their livelihoods.

Now, to save $20 million, the Department of Infrastructure is going to hit the users. Demonstrations of blind and handicapped people have already occurred, but they're not sexy like smashing windows of a McDonalds.

The predictable reaction of the taxi industry facing lost custom will be to raise fares yet again, and lose more customers.

The Bracks Government must not panic. They can do better than this. They've given six months to consult. They should head for the rogue drivers (often blow-ins) and companies using cheap labor.

The Herald Sun (November 12) scooped this story with some good investigations ... damn them. But read them in conjunction with this for a fuller picture.

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