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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Page: 2300


Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (3:49 PM) —We will of course be supporting Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2008-2009 and cognate bills before the Senate. I will come back in a moment to a second reading amendment which I have, but I note at the outset that we will no longer be moving the amendments to the bills circulated by Senator Hanson-Young.

The honourable senator speaking for the government needs some reply. The problem of climate change is very real indeed. Just yesterday the scientists who are experts in the field warned us that the probability of the west-end Arctic icecap melting due to climate change has now increased materially. With the melting of the Greenland icecap, which is already underway, it is expected that sea level rises at the end of that process, if both occur, will be five to six metres. That follows on from predictions from a meeting in Copenhagen just a week ago that by the end of this century there may well be not a half-metre sea level rise around the world but a one-metre rise. The news is that that prediction could turn out to be very conservative. So there will be hundreds of millions of displaced people, some megacities swamped, massive coastline damage because there will be greater cyclones and storms, and no real readiness for that.

Instead, we have governments and the big parties—the Liberal Party, the National Party and the Labor Party—which are intent on putting billions of dollars into and have earmarked billions of dollars for infrastructure to export more coal. I was looking at a Friends of the Earth publication just yesterday which said that, if the proposal for growing coal exports out of Newcastle, Gladstone and Mackay is taken into account, the equivalent of that coal being burnt overseas will dramatically increase greenhouse gas pollution of the atmosphere not just once, twice or three times but many times the current output for the whole nation of Australia. Of the rich countries on the face of the planet at the moment, we are the worst per capita polluters.

What I want to come back to here is that we had 12 years of neglect by the Howard government, by the National Party and the Liberal Party. In fact, the National Party want to put the foot on the accelerator of the very industries that would, for example, make sure that Queensland is in the future faced with the big loss of jobs which we are seeing at the moment due to the financial downturn. That is what they want to do instead of converting Queensland into the sunshine state and producing, as the Greens are proposing, a renewable energy revolution based on solar power which would produce tens of thousands of jobs in Queensland as well as retrofitting all the houses in Queensland with such things as solar hot water, insulation and potentially, with gross feed-in laws—which the big parties do not want in that state—cheaper power bills for everybody in the state.

Not least at stake there—and the honourable senator did not mention this once in her speech—is the fate of the Great Barrier Reef. Scientists tell us it has a high likelihood of massive death from coral bleaching from climate change due to the failure of the policies of the Labor, Liberal and National parties, both at state level and at federal level in this country. And it is going on; it is not changing. One only has to look at the policies of the two big parties as we now head towards a global conference at the end of this year in Copenhagen to see that Australia is way behind. Let me remind the Senate that it was Maggie Thatcher who said, 20 years ago, that every year we delay in tackling climate change is going to make it more expensive to fix. She set up the Hadley Institute, which is now a world leader in climate change science in Britain, but there is no sign of that coming from Kevin Rudd, there was no sign of it coming from John Howard and there is certainly no sign of it coming from any Labor, National or Liberal party state leader at the moment.

What I particularly want to talk about with this opportunity on the appropriation bills before us is the failure of successive governments to provide the proper transparency which is required if the Senate is to do its work in scrutinising expenditure of massive amounts—multibillion dollar amounts—of taxpayers’ money.

First of all, I move:

         At the end of the motion, add:

                  “, and the Senate endorses recommendation 1 of the Finance and Public Administration Committee in its report on the additional estimates 2008-09, that the government respond to the Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing reports on the ordinary annual services of the government as a matter of priority”.

I refer to the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration report of March. At section 1.12 it has this to say under the heading ‘The ordinary annual services of government’:

In the course of the examination of the Department of the Senate, issues in relation to the ordinary annual services of government were canvassed. The Clerk of the Senate, Mr Harry Evans, noted that, although the Senate had established a definition for ordinary annual services more than 40 years ago, this was no longer adhered to strictly. As a result, expenditure is incorrectly included in the appropriation bills for the ordinary annual services of government.

That is, the bills that we have in front of us right now.

The Clerk commented that ‘the government collectively, which in reality means the Department of Finance and Deregulation, adopted the view that anything under an existing outcome is part of the ordinary annual services’.

Even if they are not part of the ordinary annual services, they are put in there. The Clerk went on to state:

As you know, the outcomes are extremely broad, vague and all-encompassing so completely new programs are turning up in the ordinary annual services bill. This was pointed out by the Audit Office, and it has certainly been taken up by the Appropriations and Staffing Committee. This situation is not in accordance with the past determinations of the Senate on the subject …

The Senate, not for years but for decades, has been ignored by consecutive governments on this issue. I go back to the report. Section 1.13 says:

The Clerk noted that the Senate Appropriations and Staffing Committee had reported on the matter a number of times but the Government had yet to respond to the committee.

I interpolate: the government did not even bother replying. I go back to the report.

However, the need to resolve the issue was highlighted by the Clerk:

Here we have a quote again from the Clerk, Harry Evans:

Something will have to be done soon because there is always something that puts this problem on the backburner, and currently it is the global financial crisis.

That is excuse No. X-plus. I go back to the Clerk:

We cannot deal with this problem with the ordinary annual services while the global financial crisis is threatening.

He is quoting the general government wisdom.

There is always something that shoves this problem to the back of the queue, but something will have to be done soon, otherwise the distinction between ordinary annual services and everything else will be lost. We will soon get to a situation where there is only one bill presented and the other bill disappears altogether, and that would be a great loss for accountability because you then simply cannot distinguish between the ordinary ongoing normal expenditure of government and new expenditure.

Section 1.14 says:

As articulated by the Clerk, the distinction between expenditure on the ordinary annual services of government and other expenditure provides a useful tool for parliamentary scrutiny and accountability in addition to ensuring compliance with the relevant Constitutional provisions (sections 53 and 54) …

We are talking here about complying with the Constitution. That is a requirement for this parliament and for any government. But the evidence is that these appropriation bills are not complying with the Constitution.

Going back to the report, it says:

This committee’s 2007 report Transparency and accountability of Commonwealth public funding and expenditure and the Murray review—

that was the review done by former Democrat Senator Andrew Murray—

both supported the need to isolate the ordinary annual services as is provided for in the Constitution. It was recommended that the Senate continue to seek clarification from the Government about what should be included in the different appropriation bills and that the Senate should then form a view as to the appropriateness of the split, When any differences are resolved to the satisfaction of the Senate, the now Department of Finance and Deregulation should be required to monitor and enforce the split.

Finally, section 1.15 says:

The committee notes that the reform agenda, Operation Sunlight—Enhancing Budget Transparency, states that the ‘Government is considering proposals to put to the Senate to clarify the allocation of items between the Appropriation bills.’ However, given the importance of this matter to effective Senate scrutiny and the continuing misallocation of expenditure between appropriation bills, the committee considers that the matter should be addressed as quickly as possible.

So say I. That is why this amendment, which calls on the government to act on this and respond, is before the Senate. I commend it to the Senate.

Here is the recommendation that I referred to from the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration report this year:

The committee recommends that the Government respond to the Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing reports on the ordinary annual services of government as a matter of priority.

I am going to get serious about this. I believe that the Constitution is not being upheld. I believe that time and again governments are hiding specific expenditure items in annual general services. I will get pulled up on this, but let me shorthand it. This is all pretty arcane. Annual general services is the money brought forward for the running of government. Specific appropriations are for things like the allocation of money for the relief of countries affected by the tsunami—multibillion dollar expenditure of government moneys. It may be a multimillion dollar expenditure on government advertising. It is an issue that has arisen during the course of the history of our country. The government says, ‘Here is an issue; we will expend money on it.’ More and more of these things are being put into ordinary annual services and therefore do not come before the Senate for specific scrutiny and our adjudication of whether they are wise uses of money. That is contrary to the Constitution.

It is increasingly bad practice. This government is guilty of it, as was the last. It is time that the Senate called a halt to it. Other examples include the Northern Territory emergency response package. We know that that is billions of dollars. That began under the Howard government and has continued under the current Rudd government. The expenditure on the equine influenza outbreak was seen as part of ordinary annual services. That is not an ongoing service of government to the people of Australia; that is money that was expended for a particular one-off matter which arose. That ought to have been brought before the Senate for scrutiny—in fact, it should obviously have been brought before both houses of parliament.

I commend this amendment—and it is a very serious one—to the Senate. We are the house of review. We are to scrutinise government expenditure to ensure that the executive is held to account. And I do not want to reflect on the House of Representatives, but what the executive says gets voted through the House of Representatives. I am not going to use the phrase ‘rubber stamp’, because that might reflect on the House of Representatives. This Senate is in a different position. It has the ability to scrutinise government. I say to my coalition colleagues and  my government colleagues that this is an important amendment. It is simply a call on government to respond to the Senate. I would ask everybody in this place to very positively consider this amendment and give it support so that we can get a response from the government on this matter as a matter of priority.