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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 9588


Mr BILLSON (Dunkley) (13:14): It is a pleasure to rise to speak in this debate and to really focus a spotlight—that seems to be the word of the day—on what this debate is actually about. We have heard very wide-ranging contributions from Labor members, no doubt shackled to the talking points that they have been given by the machine that sits behind this government to make sure all Labor MPs say exactly what they are told to say. It is their dysfunctional machine, but one thing you can be certain of is that, whilst the government is viewed as incompetent and incapable of guiding this nation, the machine can keep its members on a very tight rein to say precisely what is being asked of them in this place even if it adds nothing to the debate that is before the chamber.

We have heard some discussions about the Parliamentary Budget Office. We have heard opposition members describe what it should be: an Australian equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office in the United States, where the spotlight is not held by the government of the day and the government does not decide upon which topic it will shine but which is actually in the interests of the good governance of the nation, not in what is good for the government that is in power at the time.

Frankly, the member for Fraser belled the cat. He said—and I quote—that this bill 'aims to shine a spotlight on coalition costings'. I thank the member for Fraser for his candour, because that is exactly what the government is trying to turn this Parliamentary Budget Office into rather than something that advances the national interest and which better informs public policy debate and contributes to the battle of ideas and our hopes for a better, more prosperous and peaceful nation. It is trying to turn it into another arm of the Labor Party machinery in Canberra which it can manipulate and direct, utilise and distort to its advantage and not to the advantage of the Australian public and the good governance of Australia.

I say to the member of for Fraser: thank you for being so frank. Thank you for outlining that in the eyes of the government this bill is about shining a spotlight on coalition costings and not much else. What the bill should be about is what is in the interest of the Australian public—what will advance the good governance of Australia—not what is in the self-interest of this hopeless Labor government we have here in Canberra and not what it thinks will improve its tactical position to combat the alternative agenda that is put forward by the opposition.

That is the contest that is really being debated out here. Occasionally—and the member for Fraser did this—you will hear a reference made to the good work of the Congressional Budget Office. But he would not go further and say that in the Australian context the Congressional Budget Office could not actually do the good work he was describing. So he sought to ascribe the virtues of the Congressional Budget Office in the United States to the Parliamentary Budget Office that has been so nobbled, hollowed out and turned into yet another tool of political advantage for a Labor government that he cannot draw those parallels and expect they will not be challenged.

What we are debating today is not what the coalition proposed; today we are debating the government's efforts to do what I call its 'post-it note politics'. It wants a post-it note that it can stick on the wall and say: 'Look! There is a Parliamentary Budget Office!' Do not go any deeper than that; just use the label and the slogan and hope that people will arrive at some conclusion that the Labor government hopes they will arrive at: that it is a good thing and that it represents what was taken by the opposition to the last election.

This is an important issue. The government is not doing setting up the office because it wants to; it is setting it up because as far back as May 2009 the then Leader of the Opposition pointed to the advantages of having an Australian equivalent to the Congressional Budget Office here in Australia, and in the last election campaign there was another clear, very succinct and well understood commitment by the coalition to establish a Parliamentary Budget Office. Those two commitments from the coalition were not supported by Labor; in fact, they were ridiculed. But when it came time to negotiate with the crossbenchers and found that they saw virtue in having a parliamentary budget office, Labor came kicking and screaming to a realisation that it actually needs one. In the only area of least-touch regulation you have ever seen in Australia, it is aiming to apply the least-touch effort to its own efforts. It will not develop a parliamentary budget office with all the credibility, strength, analytical horsepower and potential to contribute to the good governance of Australia of the Congressional Budget Office, which is what the coalition proposed. Instead Labor has dreamed up and brought forward a hollowed out facsimile.

When the member for Page was challenging the opposition's vision for a parliamentary budget office in the private members' debate earlier today, one of the weaknesses she sought to identify about the coalition's proposal was that it would not be controlled by the government. But that is the whole point of it! The government has control over so many of the organs of governance in Australia—the nature of its work, the nature of its analysis and the timing of its public declarations. It can use, manipulate and misuse the release of some of that information to its political advantage and to the detriment of the nation, and that is the way the Labor government likes it.

A number of Labor members in this place have talked about the costings problem that they believe the coalition had before the last election: during the campaign and in the negotiations that followed. That is yet another grotesque misrepresentation of what took place. The coalition was up-front about the interest rate impacts on this ballooning Labor government debt; yet the government tried to talk that down and then claim that the difference of opinion amounted to a black hole. More sober analysis after the Labor Party formed government again revealed the coalition's position to be absolutely correct. But that did not stop the Labor Party then, as it does not stop it now, misrepresenting the work that may have had its original analysis undertaken by Treasury.

Then there was the conservative bias allowance issue, a key element of the budget savings that the coalition brought forward, something so horrendous that it had to go into the black hole argument only to see the Labor government go and use that same approach to achieve some of its budget savings. It was very interesting!

Then there was the issue of secondary effects, where the coalition has a very credible campaign and policy framework for bringing more people into the workforce. This would enable and support their participation, recognising that it will cost money to make that investment in people currently not able to participate but that it will generate savings down the track because those individuals will be contributing to the workforce and not receiving benefits. But the government came out and said, 'We will count the cost and we will count the investment, but we will just be completely blind to the impact and the beneficial consequences on the budget down the track as more people are able to participate.'

The context in which this debate should occur is appalling form from Labor, with grotesque examples of misusing the current processes and an effort to try to mimic the coalition's commitment to a parliamentary budget office only to bring forward a poor facsimile—a diluted version. 'PBO lite' is what we have here, and the key thing is that it is not shining a light on policies and on good governance but, as the member for Fraser said, shining a spotlight on coalition costings. So the whole ambition about better informing the public policy debate in Australia, about the virtues of the Congressional Budget Office in the United States and about the proposal brought forward time and time again by the opposition to support, nourish and inform better public policy debate and a better contest of ideas has been reduced, as it always is by Labor, down to a base political motive that suits its self-interest. That is where we have got to today.

So that is the background; that is why we are here; that is why there is a need for this extra facility to be available to the Parliament of Australia; and that is why the coalition has been advocating a genuinely resourced, properly tasked, objective and independent parliamentary budget office, while Labor wants one that it can control, manipulate and influence—and it is seeking to do that in a number of ways. My friend and colleague the shadow Treasurer has outlined where we think this hollowed-out proposal needs to be filled and needs to be remedied for it to achieve any of the ambitions of a parliamentary budget office. We have indicated that our question is: if the government is disinclined to do those things, why on earth should the opposition and the Australian public have any more confidence in a parliamentary budget office still subject to the same manipulation, control and misuse that the current machinery has? The current machinery has been used and manipulated in that way by the Labor government.

I think that is a perfectly reasonable point, and I will be very interested to hear if the government takes on board some of the very positive proposals that the coalition has brought forward, particularly when the best thing it could do is to go back to where this idea originally started—that is, with the coalition. The smart thing for the government to do would be to set aside the effort it has made to hollow out the proposal; so far it has merely come up with something it can stick a label on that sounds as if it might be a parliamentary budget office. The best thing the government could do would be go back to the coalition's own private member's bill, which picks up all of those positive characteristics and the strengths of the international models that we should be inspired and guided by, rather than to implement the stripped-down, manipulated model it has come up with. That is the challenge for the government: is it fair dinkum or is it just trying to make this parliamentary budget office another Labor plaything?

We recall that, during our last election campaign, when our material was submitted to the government, there were miraculous leaks that had the fingerprints of the Treasurer all over them. Why would you think that? Well, where else would they have come from? That is where all the material went. Then there was this dance of trying to create in the public's mind complete falsehoods about what the coalition was on about. That is the current process we have been trying to improve. There is not much hope of that, because Labor likes it just the way it is, and when there is an opportunity to do something worthwhile in a different framework it wants to nobble this as well.

There are some key differences between what the opposition is proposing and what the government is proposing. Our view is that the independence of the Parliamentary Budget Office is crucial and that it should be an independent statutory body. It should have very strong powers to obtain information from government departments and agencies even when they are not so keen to provide it, and it should be able to provide an analysis of economic forecasts and budget estimates. Otherwise, what are you actually asking it to do? If you cannot ask the Parliamentary Budget Office to have a look at the macro-economic and financial settings, is it limited to only looking at our economy and policy options through a straw so that the only thing it can look at is the little particular circle that comes through in response to a request from a member?

Is the government trying to nobble the parliamentary budget office into requiring an agreement with government departments on how, when and on what terms they can get information and documents? This has not even been teased out. There is talk in the explanatory memorandum of a memorandum of understanding that will then control, nobble, influence and restrain the activities of the PBO into some sort of agreement with the very departments it is seeking to get material from and, in some cases, challenge the analysis of. So it is rather a remarkable nobbling in the first instance. Who is to know? That memorandum of understanding from a department to the PBO—or the 'PBO lite' that the government is proposing—might well say, stripped down: 'We'll provide you with material so long as you don't criticise or challenge any of it. We'll provide you with this, but it has to stand as the gospel truth. Otherwise we reserve our right not to provide you with more material.' We have not even got any explanation of what this MOU is going to look like, but given the form of this government I am sure it will not be designed to assist the independent activity and robust work of the PBO; it will be about containing the PBO's role so that the government and government departments do not have 'please explains' or challenges to their assumptions.

There are even some issues around the work that can be carried out. The irony here is that during the election period any requests for information will be responded to by the answer being released to all and sundry. It is quite extraordinary that elsewhere in this bill there is a requirement that the parliamentary budget office push off from the annual government reporting documents that the government has produced and is happy with. The PBO cannot start anywhere else; it has to use that material. The point that is most fascinating is that it has to use the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook report, a document that is released in the second week of an election campaign. So you have to use that report, and if you have had some work carried out well before an election on a policy proposal then you have to take it back to get those numbers updated on the basis of PEEFO, the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook report. In getting it updated to that latest report that the parliamentary budget office is obliged to use under the government's construction, all of a sudden you are seeking a confirmation during the election period which means that all of that work is just going to be thrown open to the general public whether or not you are going to exercise that material, act on its conclusions or go forward with the policy proposal that is in it. It is out there for all and sundry. Why? Because then the government can have a crack at it. So the opportunity for considered and sober analysis is denied the opposition while the government has complete control over the machinery and the arrangements that are in place.

I think this is a great idea turned into a mess and a sham by an incompetent government—and haven't we seen that before? The best thing this parliament can do is make sure it has a genuine parliamentary budget office modelled on the successful and universally acclaimed Congressional Budget Office, with all the powers and opportunities to contribute to the good governance of the country, not a nobbled-down parliamentary budget office that is only there for the best interests and good governance of a bad Labor government. (Time expired)