Labor members of parliament’s standing committee on economics are considering lodging a complaint with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, or attempting a referral to the privileges committee, declaring recent behaviour by the Liberal chairman “an outrageous abuse” of longstanding conventions.
Labor MPs on the committee are furious with the Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who has used an inquiry into the opposition’s contentious policy to scrap cash refunds for franking credits to marshal political opposition to the initiative, including, they say, drafting pro-forma submissions on behalf of complainants.
The committee’s deputy chair, Matt Thistlethwaite, told Guardian Australia on Sunday he would raise breaches of process at a public hearing in Merimbula on Monday, “and I will raise it in the parliament when we return”.
Another Labor member of the committee, Josh Wilson, said the non-government members were seeking advice from officials about what, if any, remedial action could be taken, and were also considering a complaint to the House Speaker, Tony Smith, or a referral to privileges.
Wilson noted that the economics committee had not previously been a forum for “partisan game playing” and he said the tactics used by Wilson in relation to the current inquiry were “not healthy for the parliament”.
Labor MPs are objecting to a number of incidents over the course of the inquiry. Thistlethwaite says at a hearing last week, Liberals handed out party membership forms to disgruntled retirees objecting to Labor’s policy.
Hearings undertaken by federal parliamentary committees are funded by taxpayers. They are not generally forums for partisan activity, or political campaigning.
There are also objections to a website accompanying the committee inquirycreated by Wilson, where people register to attend public hearings. That site is privately funded, and contains an authorisation by Wilson in his capacity as the chairman of standing committee on economics.
The website signs people up to not only attending hearings, but for a petition against “the retirement tax” and allows them to be contacted about “future activities to stop the retirement tax”.
Wilson told Guardian Australia on Sunday the default sign-up for future contact was an error on the site that had been rectified.
Labor’s policy is not a “retirement tax”. The policy, unveiled last March, ends cash refunds for excess imputation credits claimed by retirees and self-managed superannuation funds.
Paul Keating introduced dividend imputation in 1987 to prevent the double taxation of dividends, once as company profits and once as personal income, and the Howard government then enhanced that scheme by allowing individuals and super funds to claim cash refunds for any excess imputation credits not used to offset their tax liabilities.
The policy change being proposed by Labor will impact mostly wealthy people with no tax liability who use their imputation credits to claim a cash refund, and there has been a backlash among self-funded retirees and self-managed super funds.
Labor MPs say Wilson, as part of his website, has offered up pro-forma submissions to opponents of the policy, submissions he will then have to assess independently as the committee chairman.
Josh Wilson, one of the Labor members of the committee, said: “Evidence written by the chairman, then assessed by the chairman, is circular, improper and ridiculous.”
Tim Wilson says there’s no issue. He told Guardian Australia on Sunday people can edit the pro-forma submission before lodging it with the inquiry, adding and subtracting information. “Whether they send it in is entirely a matter for them.”
After a complaint on social media by Stephen Koukoulas, a professional economist and former ALP policy adviser, who had wanted to attend one of the public hearings, but did not want to check the box for the petition or to be contacted further, Tim Wilson replied that the default sign-up was an “error” that was now “fixed”.
Koukoulas also inquired how his data would be used, noting registration “required me to provide my phone number, email & postal address”. He asked Wilson: “Can you confirm these will not be used in anyway as part of any data base for any purpose by the economics committee or anyone else?”
Wilson told Guardian Australia on Sunday he was unaware of any plans to use the data for any purpose beyond the current inquiry, and people had consented to specific future contacts.
He said the Labor complaints were overblown. “They are talking rubbish,” he said.
Wilson said he had followed proper process, and Labor had participated actively in the inquiry since it was launched last year, but were now stung by the negative political reaction to the franking credits policy.