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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 9629

Mrs D'ATH (Petrie) (15:51): I rise to speak in support of the Parliamentary Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Bill 2011. The bill provides for the establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Office and the appointment and functions of a parliamentary budget officer. The bill is based on the unanimous recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office.

The Joint Select Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office was established shortly after the swearing in of the 43rd Parliament and was charged with the objective of examining the proposal to establish a parliamentary budget office, to report no later than 31 March 2011. The committee made 28 recommendations, from the broad recommendation to establish a Parliamentary Budget Office dedicated to serving the Australian parliament through to detailed recommendations as to how the Parliamentary Budget Office should be established to ensure appropriate authority, independence and accountability. The role of the proposed Parliamentary Budget Office, along with resourcing and physical location, was also dealt with in the committee's recommendations.

As a member of the Joint Select Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office, I congratulate the government for acting promptly on the recommendations of the committee and for having this matter now before the parliament for legislative consideration. I heard the member for Goldstein complaining earlier in this debate that it has taken a whole 12 months to get to this point, but the fact is that within a matter of weeks after the parliament was formed this committee was established and it handed down its report at the end of March. In fact, it has only taken a matter of months for this legislation to be drafted to ensure that we can get the Parliamentary Budget Office up and running.

This bill seeks to amend the Parliamentary Service Act 1999, which governs the parliamentary departments, and other acts to establish the Parliamentary Budget Office and the position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, as well as the purpose, functions and governance of the Parliamentary Budget Office. The bill covers the PBO, as it is known, to ensure that it will be independent and dedicated to serving the Australian parliament through the provision of non-partisan and policy neutral analysis of the budget cycle, fiscal policy and the financial implications of policy proposals. Through the PBO, the bill will enhance the credibility and transparency of Australia's already strong fiscal and budget frameworks and it will promote greater understanding in the community about the budget and fiscal policy. Most importantly, it will ensure that the Australian public can be better informed about the budget impact of policies proposed by members of the parliament, particularly during elections. The PBO will also help ensure that the Australian people are never again put in the situation they were at the last election when we saw the Liberal Party try to hide its $11 billion budget black hole.

It is important to take the House through some of the key elements of this bill. Firstly, the bill will establish the Department of the Parliamentary Budget Office as a fourth parliamentary department. It was noted by the joint select committee that the majority of proponents for a PBO strongly support establishing, through dedicated legislation, the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer as an independent officer of the parliament, similar to the Auditor-General. The government supported this view. The functions of the Parliamentary Budget Officer are outlined in the bill's proposed new section 64E, which prescribes:

(1)    The Parliamentary Budget Officer has the following functions:

(a)   outside the caretaker period for a general election—to prepare policy costings on request by Senators or Members of the House of Representatives under section 64H;

(b)   during the caretaker period for a general election—to prepare policy costings on request by authorised members of Parliamentary parties or independent members under section 64J;

(c)   to prepare responses (other than policy costings) to requests relating to the budget by Senators or Members of the House of Representatives;

(d)   to prepare submissions to inquiries of Parliamentary committees on request by such committees;

(e)   to conduct, on his or her own initiative (including in anticipation of requests referred to in paragraphs (a) to (d)), research on and analysis of the budget and fiscal policy settings.

Proposed section 64F outlines what the arrangements will be for obtaining information from Commonwealth bodies. This bill will allow the PBO to access information from Australian government agencies through a negotiated memorandum of understanding in circumstances where the release of information is consistent with other legislative requirements, including being guided by the principles established under the Freedom of Information Act. This is consistent with recommendation 13 of the joint committee. The committee favoured a memorandum of understanding over a compulsion to provide information on the ground that it would facilitate more productive working relationships between the PBO and government agencies.

We have heard that the coalition is proposing amendments and that it has also submitted a private member's bill to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer power to direct agencies to provide information. The committee flagged concerns with providing these powers to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, including the potential for this to inhibit productive working relationships with government agencies. The coalition would give the officer powers to access information despite any other law and there would be no controls over the officer then disclosing information it receives to members and senators if it relates to their request. This is, of course, quite contrary to the coalition's arguments that there should not be costings released in relation to publicly released policy commitments during an election or policy costings requested by various members and senators, as outlined in the proposed bill. However, when the coalition talks about the powers of the PBO to get information from departments it is a very different story. It wants to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer full powers to investigate and to have no restrictions on disclosure of that information.

The committee considered that the relationship of the Parliamentary Budget Officer with government agencies would be crucial to its success not only because the PBO would require information and data held by government agencies but also because it may need the assistance of agencies in making the best use of that information and data. This is outlined at paragraph 4.103 of the committee's report. The committee goes on to state at paragraph 4.104:

Further, there may be instances where, by working together on the kinds of information required, the agencies can better understand the ongoing needs of the PBO. The relationships between the PBO and Government agencies might also evolve over time, possibly leading to greater efficiencies and enhanced products for Senators, Members and committees.

Despite this being the unanimous view of committee members from both sides of the parliament we have seen opposition members come before this chamber today arguing the complete opposite and putting up no argument as to why the comments, findings and recommendations made by the committee should not be followed.

Other key provisions proposed in this bill, importantly, go to costings. The first one is 64J, which deals with requests for costings of policies during caretaker mode. There has been a lot of discussion from opposition members who have spoken on this bill in relation to 64J and the public release, 64L. Clause 64J extends rights to have policies costed during an election. It allows for minor parties and Independents to get their respective publicly announced policy commitments costed by the new Parliamentary Budget Office. And 64L applies in relation to a policy costing request that is made under 64J before polling day during the caretaker period for a general election. Proposed section 64L(2) states:

As soon as practicable after a policy costing request has been made, and before polling day for the election, the Officer is required to release publicly the request and the policy costing.

This is the point that the opposition are so opposed to and are seeking to amend.

They believe that there should be an independent body. They believe in election costings, so they say, but they are arguing that these costings should not be publicly released. This goes against what the Liberal Party have believed in in previous decades, including when they were in government. In fact, in the explanatory memorandum for the Charter of Budget Honesty Bill circulated by Mr Costello on 11 December 1996, Mr Costello stated, in relation to the importance of transparency, 'The intention of part 8 of the charter is to make available to both the government and the opposition, resources of the departments of the Treasury and Finance during the caretaker period to cost election commitments so that the public can be made fully aware of the fiscal impact of such commitments.' Mr Costello also said:

This is the kind of reform which, when enacted, will be a permanent feature, making sure that Australia’s economic policy is run better, making sure that the public is kept better informed, making sure that there is transparency in economic policy in this country.

The member for Goldstein has argued today about what happened during the 2010 election. The Liberal Party's view is that the methodology of the costings was flawed and that they came under scrutiny through the media as a consequence of their costings. But the fact is that they are not standing here today arguing about the methodology of the costings, which is dealt with in a number of sections in this bill. They could have argued about the methodology and said what they believe in, despite what is set out in 64G relating to approaches et cetera to be used in preparing policy costings, but they are not. This is not about costings; this is not about methodology. This is about the costings of the Liberal Party's policies being released to the public. They believe in accountability and transparency when it suits them but when it comes to election time they just do not want anyone to know.

I have outlined some of the key reforms. There is some argument from the opposition in relation to policy costings outside of the caretaker mode. A number of members of the opposition have stood in this House today and tried to argue that requests by individual members and senators will be publicly released so that there is no confidentiality at all. They have argued around why this is wrong but they have completely ignored—I would say it is deliberate and if it is not deliberate they have not read the bill—the fact that the bill clearly states, consistent with the recommendations of the committee, that prima facie the Parliamentary Budget Office will release costings and requests publicly, but that is unless the member or senator makes a request that it be kept confidential—

Mr Briggs: Outside caretaker mode.

Mrs D'ATH: outside of caretaker mode. I hear the member for Mayo interject. The fact is that there are members, including the shadow Treasurer, who have stood here today at the dispatch box and tried to argue that no such provision exists. The shadow Treasurer tried to argue here that even outside of caretaker mode these things would be released. In fact, that is ignoring what the bill actually outlines.

The fact is the bill makes provision, consistent with the recommendations, for confidentiality. Those confidentiality provisions do not exist in one area, and that has to do with caretaker mode. Why? Because the government believes that it is extremely important that all parties who release their policies while we are in caretaker mode should also publicly release the costings for those policies. Major parties cannot run around and announce policies during caretaker mode and then not have to explain the costings to anyone. The public has a right to know what those costings are. The fact is that time and time again opposition members have stood up in this House today and argued that that information should not be publicly released. Why? They do not like what happened in 2010, when they were shown to have a massive black hole.

They do not ever again want to have their black holes shown up in relation to budget shortfalls or anything else. The fact is that the public have a right to know. The government is more than happy to put its costings up in relation to its publicly announced policies, as should the opposition. They should stop trying to use this bill, and their private member's bill, as a way of getting around that. This is not an opportunity. They should stand by what Mr Costello said when he introduced the Charter of Budget Honesty and looked at this area. He said that it is important to have this part of public policy be transparent. It should go on indefinitely. It does not matter who is in government it should be the practice that these costings are publicly released.