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Thursday, 5 March 1998
Page: 545

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (10:53 AM) —The problem for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Development (Mr Ronaldson) is that he apparently has not read the amendments. If this government were serious about trying to get a charter of budget honesty through this parliament and into operation, they would accept these amendments, as they were given the opportunity to do in the Senate last year, an opportunity which they were not prepared to take up.

For those who are unaware of the content of the amendments, as the parliamentary secretary appears to be, let me go through them. We talk about the achievement of full employment in Australia. We talk about the overall economic prosperity and welfare of the people of Australia. We talk about the maintenance or improvement of the real value of wages and conditions and the welfare of workers. Is the parliamentary secretary against those things? Does he want to say to his constituents in Ballarat, `I don't really care about the achievement of full employment. I don't really care about overall economic prosperity and welfare. I don't really care about maintenance or improvement of the real value of wages and conditions and the welfare of workers.' That is what he is saying. That is what he is putting forward to people in Ballarat by saying that he is not prepared to support these amendments.

For the government to say, `We want a charter of budget honesty,' and then say, `We are not going to support these perfectly reasonable amendments,' shows that the government is not fair dinkum at all. It shows that this is just a hollow political stunt.

What are the other amendments? We talk about the need for a report to be prepared by the Commissioner of Taxation and the Secretary to the Treasury concerning any material threats to the integrity of the tax system. I would have thought that if you were serious about a charter of budget honesty the public has a right to know what threats there are to the integrity of the tax system. It is pretty hard to run a policy of fiscal responsibility and rectitude if you do not keep one eye firmly on the tax base. But no, the government comes forward and says, `No, we are not interested in that. We don't want to make these things public. We want the Treasurer to be able to turn a blind eye to tax avoidance schemes without having the opposition and the public aware of it.'

The amendments which we have put forward are appropriate amendments. They are consistent with support for the charter of budget honesty, which we offered last year and which we just again offered in the House when the vote came forward. We did not oppose it at the second reading and we will not oppose it at the third reading. Let no-one be in any doubt concerning these matters. We support the charter of budget honesty. What we are endeavouring to do with these amendments is to give it some genuine teeth and make it something of genuine value.

I was telling the House before about the real commitment of the Treasurer (Mr Costello) to transparency and accountability. I asked him a question on notice about his task force on tax. I asked:

Have officers of his Department been assigned to the Prime Minister's task force on tax . . .

. . . . . . . . .

How many times has the task force met since its formation?

He replied:

The task force has met on numerous occasions, the particular number of meetings is the business of the Government not the Opposition.

I also asked him on notice:

Has his office received letters relating to the announcement by the Reserve Bank to sell off two thirds of its gold reserves . . .

He replied:

Yes. Correspondence to my office is not the business of the Honourable Member for Wills.

I asked him:

Did he meet with a Japanese trade mission which visited Australia in the second week of September 1997 . . .

He replied:

Details of my meeting arrangements are not the business of the Member for Wills.

When I asked him about media reports concerning taxation discussions by the state Premiers, he said:

The Government does not provide a running commentary on media reports.

If these things were a matter of personal curiosity, I would have asked him in the corridor. The reason I asked him on the record is that these things are a matter of public interest and the public has a right to know what sorts of meetings he is having and what sort of advice he is receiving. These are simply arrogant answers from a Treasurer who has a contempt for the public's right to know. When he talks about transparency and accountability and the like, he has no commitment to this whatsoever as his answers to questions on notice indicate.

There were other questions asked. When I asked him about the ASX and its operations and the integrity of the share market, he said:

The Member's question should be directed to the Australian Stock Exchange.

He then listed their phone number, as if this was a matter of no concern to the government at all. As to whether publicity concerning the Victorian Premier and the floating of companies on the ASX was affecting confidence in the integrity of the share market, he says, `No, that's not a matter of interest to the government at all. Go talk to the ASX.' These are the responses of a Treasurer who has no commitment to transparency and accountability in government. One of the reasons we need to have the amendments that we are putting forward is to keep the Treasurer honest. If we are talking about budget honesty, that is what we need. (Extension of time granted)

The other thing I want to turn to is amendments (8) and (9), which I perhaps did not have the opportunity to canvass sufficiently in the second reading debate. The government's bill seeks to perpetrate a sting on oppositions. What we have said in amendments (8) and (9) is that when the Leader of the Opposition makes a request for a policy to be costed that has to be authorised by the Prime Minister—we have no problem with that—and the Prime Minister must then notify the responsible departmental secretaries of that authorisation. The secretaries are not authorised to take any action unless the Prime Minister has notified them that the request has been authorised. We go on to say:

Nothing in this clause requires the Leader of the Opposition to disclose to the Prime Minister the details of an Opposition policy.

Similarly with amendment (9), we say that any request by the Leader of the Opposition should not be disclosed by the secretaries unless the Leader of the Opposition has authorised other people to have access to that information.

The reason for this is quite simple. What the government is endeavouring to do with its charter of budget honesty legislation in the present form is to get access to opposition policies and be able to have them costed in circumstances where the opposition has no right to see government policies. This is simply perpetrating a sting on the opposition. It is not about in any sense making governments more honest and accountable. It is about giving them an unfair advantage through having advanced knowledge of opposition policies when there is no reciprocal obligation on them to provide oppositions with their policies.

I put it to the parliamentary secretary and to others: why is it, if their motives are as pure as they claim, that they are not prepared to accept these amendments which would make it clear that the opposition is not required to divulge its policies to the government when having them costed? Anyone who is concerned about having some fairness and some balance in relation to these things would see the wisdom and value of the amendments we are putting forward.

It may be that official costings of policies indicate that the financial impact of a policy is significantly different from that which an opposition has assumed and, therefore, there might be a case for changing that policy. Even the most competent opposition with the resources available to it does find it difficult to produce estimates of economic and financial impacts of a lot of measures with anything like the same precision that is possible for a bureaucracy. That is just in the nature of things.

I certainly would not put forward the proposition that an opposition should be entitled to an equal share of the resources available to a government. I do not think that is a tenable proposition. But, in these circumstances, the only fair way of dealing with it is that oppositions ought to be able to have policies costed pursuant to this legislation without their being necessarily publicly announced or certainly without their being tipped off to the government.

I will conclude my remarks at this point. I think that anyone who has a serious look at the 10 amendments we have moved will understand that they add value to the charter of budget honesty legislation. That is why we have been able to attract support for them from others in the Senate. On that basis, we will be persisting with these amendments both here and in the Senate in order to give this legislation some genuine value and some genuine meaning.