Senators blasted for ‘harassing’ business chiefs

Senators blasted for ‘harassing’ business chiefs

Samantha Hutchinson — The Australian — 28 April, 2018


A Senate committee grilling the Business Council of Australia over proposed company-tax rate cuts has been criticised for harassing witnesses and conducting a “witch-hunt” against a private organisation and big businesses that pledge to invest if the cuts pass parliament.

Former BCA president Tony Shepherd has hit out at the Senate’s economics references committee for pursuing hearings into the BCA’s campaign to cut the company-tax rate by five percentage points, saying some committee members were driven by political self interest.

The support for the BCA has drawn some of Australia’s biggest businesses into the ­inquiry. BHP told the committee it would invest up to $32 billion and potentially create 15,000 jobs if the tax cuts passed.

“What we’re seeing is a public inquiry into a business organisation which is making a case for what it believes in, and it seems to me to be a strange of turn of events — even a form of harassment in some respects — that it’s come to this,” Mr Shepherd said.

“It just seems to be totally politically driven and I find it quite a disappointing break with con­vention.’’

This week’s committee hearings descended into ­aggressive questioning at times, and were ­interrupted on Thursday by about 30 Gippsland workers protesting against ExxonMobil.

Mr Shepherd and conservative committee members said they were concerned about lines of questioning, particularly requests for exhaustive details on which specific projects would be ­approved and the exact number of jobs to be ­created, if the cuts were passed.

Thursday’s heated meeting was chaired by Labor senator Chris Ketter, with Kristina Keneally and Greens senator Peter Whish-­Wilson. Liberals Jane Hume, Amanda Stoker and James Paterson were also present, as were independent Tim Storer and the Centre Alliance’s Rex Patrick.

Some business chiefs, including Woolworths chief financial officer David Marr, said the long lead time of 2024 made it near impossible to determine how many new stores would open.

Senator Keneally live-tweeted throughout the hearings, including criticism of companies who were called to provide evidence — ­among them BHP, Energy Australia and Fortescue Metals — for not being able to provide exact figures as to how the tax cut would boost ­investment.

BCA chiefs Jennifer Westacott and Grant King were also asked to provide detailed, confidential information about the group’s campaign for the corporate tax cut.

This included details on how many staff had worked on the campaign, how much they were paid and bonuses they might receive, as well as internal documents and emails relating to the campaign.

Senator Keneally also asked for ­details on meetings the group had had with the government, who ­attended the meetings and when they were scheduled.

“We hope that this level of scrutiny applies to other significant public policies in the future,” Mr King said.

Senator Paterson called the committee a witch-hunt. “It’s a private organisation and not government department, and they have to sit there for hours ­explaining why they’re pursuing a public policy objective that’s in the interest of their members,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Australian.

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