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Monday, 19 September 2011
Page: 10524

Mr BILLSON (Dunkley) (17:14): Of the questions that were asked by the crossbenchers of the parliamentary secretary, I would like to add an eighth. I am sure the member for Lyne had so many questions that the issue he spoke quite vigorously about, in fairness—the opportunity to get considered independent advice—did not feature in the top seven. Maybe it would have been eighth. The assertion that was being raised by the member for Lyne was around our concern about the inability to obtain confidential independent advice, weigh policy options and even analyse announcements made by others to see where they might be improved through calibration and policy settings. The opportunity to do that confidentially is denied to the opposition and to all Independents during the caretaker period. As I sought to do before, I draw his attention to section 64L of the bill, which makes that quite explicit. If he wants a rewritten account of that, page 10 of the explanatory memorandum emphasises that point quite clearly.

To draw connections between why that should be of concern to Independent members and all members in this place and why it should be of concern to the broader Australian public, my friend and colleague the member for Mayo points to a very excellent example. In 1996, we were all told the budget was in surplus by the then Labor government, only to find a $10.4 billion black hole that took considerable expertise and adultness to work through to put the budget back into surplus. That leads to the point that, under the construct that the Independents seem to be shackled to, they seem to overlook the consequences of some of the settings within this bill. One is the caretaker period. There is no opportunity for private consideration and discourse, recalibration, weighing up of options or even examining other proposals that might come forward, even from the member for Lyne. There is no chance to look at that or at whether there may be some opportunity for improvement, dare that be conceivable.

Going back to 1996, the other point is that that is the only point in time when the Treasury's figures were available. If the member for Lyne and the member for Denison have such love and affection for the Treasury figures and point to them as such a credible and solid foundation for analysis, why then deny the parliament and all the members in this place the chance to have policy ideas costed against those figures?

The member for Denison was quite right and very insightful: policy work is an ongoing process. Even in my portfolio area of small business, there is some policy that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet blue book said would boost productivity. I am happy to have that work outsourced so the government could actually do something about small business. That work is an ongoing process, but the member and others would rightly criticise the opposition if we were not using the most up-to-date data for our costings. In the entire period between elections and the issuing of writs, we are beholden—we are hogtied—to the Treasurer's numbers, which in case after case have been illustrated as not as reliable and robust as they can be, because the Treasurer can influence them and, dare I say, adulterate them from what the Treasury may have provided and inject new assumptions. The only time there is purity in those numbers is during the election period. You would expect us to go back to those numbers to make sure they are up to date and as reliable as possible on the least adulterated data available, the Treasury figures, and that only happens during the caretaker period. There is an obligation under this bill that that work gets released publicly.

Please join up the dots. This is not that hard. It is PBO, pretty bleeding obvious, that what the government is trying to do here is nobble this process so we are all shackled and handcuffed to whatever the Treasurer expects to be the starting point for this analysis, and the only time we can get away from that and have pure Treasury figures as the starting point is during the election period, when there is no confidentiality. This is not that complicated.

I urge you to look at those points. I take you at your word that those things matter. If they matter, I am finding it hard to work out why you are not actually connecting the facts that are in these bills with that concern and the reason that the opposition's amendments are so important. I take you at your word, but you are all backswing at the moment and no follow-through. The follow-through would see you back the opposition's amendments if you are genuinely concerned about those points. Nice backswing; we are looking for a bit of follow-through, gentlemen.