Banking Laws Amendment (Unclaimed Money) Bill 2015 - Speech 2

I rise to continue remarks that were interrupted by question time earlier today. To recap in simple terms, a few years ago the then Labor government made a decision to take money away from people, and the bill before the chamber today, the Banking Laws Amendment (Unclaimed Money) Bill 2015, returns that money to people and returns us to the default position where people can expect that they will not have money taken from their bank account before it is inactive for a period of seven years.

As I indicated in my earlier remarks, that had been the record and the policy of the Commonwealth government from 1911 through to 2012. Over that period, it was always the case that you had seven years before unclaimed moneys would be claimed by the government. A couple of years ago, the then Labor government, in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to reach a budget target, decided to reach into the piggy banks of every Australian household and take that money off them earlier, changing that policy of 101 years. This bill helps change that back.

It was a policy for 101 years, almost the entire period of the Commonwealth government, a time in which we had the two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War and two Olympic Games in Australia. It was a consistent policy over that entire time frame. But then, suddenly, the world's greatest Treasurer, and the world's greatest finance minister, said a few years ago: 'It may have been be policy for more than 100 years, but I think it is wrong and we should take that money back from people after three years not seven years.' Unfortunately, the world's greatest Treasurer got that wrong two years ago and the government has now got it right in returning our position back to the default position, which is that people can expect to have their money in the bank for at least seven years before it is deemed to be unclaimed money and taken by the government.

The scope of the change was quite significant. It was not simply an administrative change of going from seven to three years; there was a substantial amount of money put at risk with this change. In 2013, the year after that the decision was made, $550 million in unclaimed moneys was taken by the federal government. That was the year after Mr Swan, as Treasurer, changed the law that had existed for 101 years. In 2012, the year before that change, there was only $70 million in unclaimed moneys. So it went from $70 million a year to $550 million a year. You can see why the Labor Party saw this as a juicy target. They were struggling to keep any kind of control over the budget and to keep consistency in the promises they were making to people to balance the budget at the time. So they saw half a billion dollars sitting in bank accounts, which people expected was their money, and they took that money. That is literally what they did. They took $500 million that was additional to what would normally be claimed—or, to be precise, $480 million—and transferred it to the government to help build their budget bottom line. What kind of government does that overnight? Even if you thought seven years was too long and it should be three, four, or five, you would think you would take a little longer, not just make that change overnight, within a year, and suddenly go from taking a $70 million a year in unclaimed moneys to $550 million. But it was certainly not out of step with the aptitude and approach of the Rudd-Gillard government. Unfortunately, this government has had to spend a lot of time fixing up the mistakes and missteps of the former government—and this is another one that is being fixed.

This bill will reverse the policy of taking people's money after three years and go back to seven years. As I said before, the Labor Party were caught red handed in this wild spending spree smashing the piggy banks of people all around the country. They were caught red handed and they have now fessed up to it. My understanding is that they are going to support this bill. That is great, and I compliment them for that. But the best thing to do when you realise have done something wrong—and I have certainly done many wrong things in my life—is to admit it and make amends for it. And it is good to see that the Labor Party are finally making amends for this.

But I suppose there is some silver lining as well to what happened a few years ago. Perhaps it is a case of 'no bad deed going unrewarded', because this bill now makes improvements, I believe, in regard to the policies on unclaimed moneys. As I said, it has been consistent for a long time to claim those moneys after a seven-year period. But this bill would extend some exemptions to certain accounts such that the moneys in those accounts will not be claimed by the government even after seven years. I think that is a positive development. For example, funds in children's accounts will be exempt from this legislation. Of course, many Australians seek to put savings into a child's account for their future and put it in their trust. Sometimes, activities in those counts may be understandably low, because they might not receive any additional funds or, indeed, have any activity for a period of seven years or more. Notwithstanding that, the parents or guardians would still expect that money to be available for the child once they turn 18 or become responsible for their own financial affairs. In recognition of that fact, the government has made a decision not to punish parents or other Australians who have not realised that there is that seven-year period. So children's accounts will be exempted in this bill, and I think that is a very positive change.

Similarly, bank accounts denominated in foreign currency will also be exempted. This is to reflect the fact that foreign currency accounts are usually used by sophisticated consumers to settle complex international business transactions. There are only a small number of these accounts in the country. In the government's view, it would be an unnecessary and unreasonable impost of red tape to expose those accounts to this particular legislative framework, so they will be exempted as well.

There are a number of other changes that will also improve the operation of this legislation. The government has made a decision to no longer publish ASIC's Unclaimed Money gazettes. While there have been some concerns that this may make it harder for people to reclaim their unclaimed moneys, ASIC already provides MoneySmart, an online resource for reuniting account holders with their accounts. Anyone listening who feels they may have unclaimed money can go to www.moneysmart.gov.au to try and find it. This particular change, in conjunction with stricter controls on access to information about unclaimed moneys, will help to protect Australians with unclaimed accounts from exploitation. In my view, that is another positive change in this piece of legislation. This bill implements a number of privacy protections and secrecy provisions to limit the access to this information to those people who truly need it.

At the moment, a freedom of information request to ASIC can result in the personal information of Australians with unclaimed accounts being published. That information can include the account holder's name, their last known address and the amount of money unclaimed. The Australian Information Commissioner has raised concerns that this level of information could enable identity theft. Apparently, there are reports that some unscrupulous businesses are using such information to charge fees as high as 25 per cent to reunite people with their own money. The government believes that behaviour should not be accepted, or at least should not be encouraged and supported, through the provision of information to people who do not own the account. This bill will ensure that future FOI requests in regards to unclaimed moneys will only reveal details to the individual whose account it is. To receive these details through an FOI request in the future, the actual individual who owns the account would have had to have made that request. That change will help ensure that people's private details do, indeed, remain private.

The government will also ensure that it is easier to keep accounts active by making it easier for people to demonstrate or qualify for an active account so that their account is not unclaimed. All they will need to do in the future is check their account online or over the phone for an account balance. That simple check will trigger the account to remain active and it would not be subject to unclaimed moneys legislation.

Taken in combination, these changes will I believe make the framework that has existed for over a century stronger. They will make it more responsive to the particular uses that Australian consumers make of their bank accounts, particularly by exempting children's savings accounts. While it is unfortunate that the former Labor government decided to change the more-than-a-century-old framework in this field, I believe that, when this bill passes, we will have a stronger unclaimed moneys framework, and one that is more responsive to consumers' needs.

It is also the case that the changes will help reduce regulatory burden on the sector. Having to claim money within a three-year time limit rather than a seven-year time limit may raise more money for the government, but it does impose a burden on the financial sector. Going back to the previous regime will help remove that burden. It is estimated that that will save the wider economy $36 million a year. Of course, that includes not just the burden placed on banks and life insurers who have to transfer this money to the government but also the burden placed on Australians themselves who will less frequently have to check and try to track down the moneys that may be unclaimed.

That saving of red tape and the reduction of the regulatory burden is a core commitment and a core value of this government. We should be a government that seeks to walk softly for business. We have a need for regulation in many areas, and this, indeed, is an example of where there is a need for some form of regulation. But we should seek to minimise its impost on businesses, particularly small businesses, and, of course, we should seek to ensure that regulation does not unduly restrict the development of our economy, the creation of jobs and the creation of a more wealthy and prosperous community. This is just one small element of the government's regulatory reduction agenda. We have made it easier for large projects to be approved in this country. Indeed, there has been more than $700 million worth of projects approved since this government came to power. We have reduced regulation of the farm sector, particularly around the approval of chemicals and pesticides, which was becoming increasingly burdensome for that sector. Added up, these changes make a big difference.

The government is also now progressing further reforms to make it easier to get projects like the Adani coalmine in Central Queensland, near where I live, across the line. This project has the potential to deliver 10,000 jobs to Central Queensland, which is half the size of the NBN, in terms of value, just in Central Queensland. It is something that we need to do. We should have done it years ago. It has taken us five years to say yes or no. We need to reduce that regulatory burden to make it easier for people to invest in our country.

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