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Tuesday, 28 October 1997
Page: 8252


Senator COOK(6.04 p.m.) —I move:

(14)   Page 24 (after line 10), at the end of the Schedule, add:

Part 9—Costing of Opposition policy options

34 Costing of policy options

   The Leader of the Opposition may, at any time before the caretaker period for a general election, seek the assistance of the responsible Secretaries to advise and to cost policy options provided that:

   (a)   the responsible Secretaries have the discretion to decline to assist if the request would impose an unreasonable workload on the responsible Secretaries and/or their departments;

   (b)   the Leader of the Opposition may, at any time, withdraw a request that he or she has made by notice in writing given to the responsible Secretaries; and

   (c)   any such request by the Leader of the Opposition pursuant to this section shall not be disclosed by the responsible Secretaries to any person not authorised by the Leader of the Opposition to have access to that information.

This proposal is for a new clause that will seek to equalise the opportunity afforded to both the government and the opposition when it comes to the analysis of the cost implications of each party's proposed policies. What this proposal essentially seeks to do is give the opposition at any time prior to the caretaker period the same opportunity enjoyed by the government to develop policy options in a manner that both is responsible and has regard to the public interest when it comes to the costing of policies.

It allows the Leader of the Opposition to seek the assistance of the responsible secretaries to advise on and cost policy options provided: first, the responsible secretaries have the discretion to decline any request where it would impose an unreasonable workload on the department; second, the request by the leader may relate to costings and revenue estimates and may include policy advice; third, the leader may at any time withdraw a request that has been made by notice in writing to the secretary; and, fourth, any request made by the leader may not be disclosed by the secretary to any person unless authorised to do so by the leader.

Given the importance the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) has personally attached to an open and transparent policy costing process it is imperative that, for this new proposed regime to have any credibility, both the opposition and the government be on an equal footing in this process. This amendment seeks to do that. If the policy costing process is to be done on an unequal footing, essentially on terms laid down by the government, the quality of public debate to flow from the process will be diminished and become overtly politicised, which I would have thought the government would be seeking to avoid.

In this amendment we also realise that it is not desirable to have the opposition embark upon endless requests for costings on particular options. Therefore, we have proposed that the relevant secretary have the discretion to decline assistance being afforded to the opposition where this would unduly impose an unreasonable workload on the department. This is a far more sensible and fairer approach than leaving it in the hands of the Prime Minister as to whether the opposition policy option should be costed or not.

As I have stated previously, if the government does seriously want to improve the quality of the options and proposals the people are to assess the merits of either party against, then opposition parties ought to be able to explore these options properly before committing themselves to the public domain. It is important that opposition parties have the opportunity to get their costings right. This amendment seeks to do just that. I commend the amendment. I note for the record the remarks made earlier about this amendment by Senator Harradine.