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Monday, 25 May 1998
Page: 3538

Mr ROCHER (1:16 PM) —The Financial Accountability (Commonwealth Support of Non-Public Sector Bodies) Bill 1998 calls for greater accountability and more timely scrutiny. If enacted, these provisions will oblige governments providing assistance valued at $50,000 or more to a private sector enterprise to table details of the agreement in the parliament within seven days of the deal being formalised. The bill is about the accountability of the executive to the parliament and through the parliament to the Australian people. As the title suggests, my bill deals with the provision of government support to private sector bodies. With this bill, I aim to ensure that the parliament is given the opportunity to scrutinise the terms of arrangements under which the Commonwealth government provides financial and other support to non-public sector bodies.

When the Commonwealth provides support to a non-public sector body it takes on costs and risks on behalf of Australian taxpayers. Accordingly, the executive government should open up the extent of that risk to parliamentary scrutiny. Further, the government should ensure that, at the very least, the taxpayer receives a return in exchange for the risk the government is taking with the taxpayer's money. At worst, the failure of a non-public sector body that is in receipt of Commonwealth financial support may expose the government, and hence taxpayers, to a public sector loss.

The first aim of the bill is to ensure that all details of proposed government support are placed before the parliament to allow scrutiny in a timely way. Second, it aims to ensure that government support is given only in cases where the costs and risks to the support are open to scrutiny, where the support is able to be met from existing financial resources, and where it is capable of yielding measurable advantages to the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth government has an interest in and a responsibility for encouraging private sector investment in its many forms in Australia as it sees fit from time to time. This issue came to prominence in my home state of Western Australia following the so-called WA Inc. years of the Burke-Dowding Labor government in the 1980s. The 1989 Burt commission on accountability reported on events of that period. Amongst other things, the report said:

The vital issue is not the activities in which the government engages, but the conditions under which it engages in them. The public is entitled to insist that government be conducted openly and that it be, and be seen to be, accountable for its action. Nowhere is the need for this more apparent than when it undertakes initiatives which put public funds and resources at risk.

I do not seek to restrict the government from giving financial assistance—that may or may not be a legitimate role of the executive, depending on the circumstances of the day—but this bill will emphasise parliament's legitimate role by entrenching in law the practice that, within 28 days of a minister or his or her delegate signing an agreement of assistance, details must be tabled in both Houses.

There is also a role for the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and the Auditor-General in this. Assistance or government support is defined in the bill as any equity, loan, guarantee, contract, grant, subsidy, concession, or any use of Commonwealth property, services or infrastructure given to a non-public sector enterprise, with that assistance being valued at $50,000 or more.

The Howard government showed that it supports the concept of greater transparency in government and public account keeping when it introduced the Charter of Budget Honesty Bill which, I should mention, also received the support of the Labor Party. It would, therefore, be entirely appropriate for both the major parties to support the intent of this bill. I seek leave to present the explanatory memorandum to this bill.

Leave granted.

Bill read a first time.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl) —In accordance with standing order 104A, the second reading will be made an order of the day for the next sitting Thursday.