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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 9636


Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (16:22): I, like the former speaker, certainly welcome debate today on the Parliamentary Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Bill 2011 and the Parliamentary Budget Office. I think the process over the last 12 months has been important in seeing parliament being able to, as best as possible, from here on make the best decisions based on the best possible advice. And the bipartisan agreement of 12 months ago is important in getting a parliamentary budget officer in place to allow that to happen. To enable parliamentarians to make the best possible decisions, we need to empower each other through a due and proper process. The process through which we have gone to get to where we are today has had elements of consensus about it, but today those elements seem to be fracturing a little bit and, for some reason, are being denied.

The agreement reached 12 months ago was important, and it was not just about whims. I certainly appreciate the pat on the back from the former speaker, but this was something that was agreed by all members in this chamber. It was an agreement made prior to the formation of government, on the 16th day after the election, that involved the Liberal and National parties, the Labor Party, Greens members and also the crossbenchers. So we all own this Parliamentary Budget Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer when appointed some time soon. I think that is important. I would be concerned if this were getting positioned—as I have heard in some of the debate—as some sort of agreement struck with the Independents or the crossbenchers. It is not; this is very much a House of Representatives office and has that independent status, separate from Independent MPs.

An important part of the process was the committee inquiry that took place over the last 12 months. The committee involved representatives of all members of this chamber. I was involved in that committee. The National Party had a representative, with Senator Joyce. From memory, the Liberal Party had several representatives, led at the time by the Manager of Opposition Business in the House, Christopher Pyne. The government chaired the committee through Senator Faulkner, a longstanding member of the other place. Like his politics or not, I would hope that there would be agreement that he is someone who has a good, thorough and detailed understanding of parliamentary processes. There was agreement reached by all parties and the committee made some unanimous recommendations. What I see now turning into legislation today through this bill is a reflection of that bipartisan work that was done over the last 12 months.

I am therefore somewhat surprised by the private member's bill that has been introduced in parallel to this. I am surprised that we are going to see amendments to this from the coalition. I am deeply concerned by the words of the member for North Sydney, which could be taken as a threat to the Australian people, that if the coalition do not get their way today with respect to amendments or if they do not get their way with the private member's bill, they are not going to play anymore and that the issues that are of concern to the Australian people at the next election will not be costed and those costings will not be available. That should be of deep concern to all members in this place, particularly those who have invested heavily in the process of trying to get consensus on an independent parliamentary budget office as an arm of this chamber for members of parliament to reach sensible decisions for the long term.

We have lived through this. During the last election, one of the key issues in forming government was in trying to get access to election costings through the Charter of Budget Honesty process, introduced in 1998 with all the good intent in the world—but at the last election we saw the Australian people denied the opportunity pre election to see the true costings of election promises. One of the tests to form government was to break caretaker conventions post election and ask for the costings done by the independent Treasury and independent Finance and get them looked at. That is a process that should have happened pre election, but it did not. The Australian people therefore went to the ballot box blind to the true costings of both sides.

I have not heard anyone criticise the independent Treasury advice, nor have I heard anyone criticise the independent Finance advice at the time. In fact, even today, a year after that process, the shadow minister for finance said—I think these were the words—'Treasury identified a few potholes to repair.' That is an admission that there were potholes. That is an admission that this whole process needs to happen pre election, not post election. The Australian people deserve to know where the potholes are that need to be repaired.

If we are investing well in Australian people being allowed to participate in this process in caretaker times around elections, preferably before elections, those costings should be public. This was discussed at length through the committee process and was unanimously agreed upon as a sensible contribution to better policy outcomes and more consideration for the Australian people. I therefore do not know what is going on in the mind of the member for North Sydney in trying to build an argument that this is somehow a fix on the coalition or the opposition. I do not understand what is going on in the mind of the member for North Sydney when he threatens the Australian people by saying, 'We will not submit our costings to anyone—neither the Charter of Budget Honesty nor the Parliamentary Budget Office—if the coalition does not get its way today to have confidential conversations and costings in that four-week caretaker election period.' I hope the Australian people rally strongly against that.

Outside the caretaker period, by all means, as per the legislation before the House today, those conversations for all members can and should be confidential, but when we are in pre-election mode it should be honesty tested in the public domain to ascertain what is being promised and what the true cost is to the Australian taxpayer. I think that is fair and sensible. I never thought I would hear myself saying it: in defence of Senator Joyce and Christopher Pyne, I hold true to what the committee that they were part of agreed on and uphold the principle that the costings at election time should be in the public domain. Indeed, going back another step, in defence of the member for Warringah, the Leader of the Opposition, in defence of Christopher Pyne and in defence of the group hug, I hope we accept that what is contained in this bill is essentially what, in a consensual, bipartisan way, was agreed upon by all members or their representatives through the process to date.

The bill before the House is sensible. I would have thought that it had the broad support of the members of this chamber. I would have thought the real challenge is to make sure that we get a parliamentary budget officer who has gravitas and the strength and independence of mind to make sure that they deliver on behalf of all of us, whatever our political bent. I would hope that we keep the Presiding Officers honest in the selection process, get a good job description in place and make sure the terms and conditions of that appointment are really in the interests of the parliament.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. Peter Slipper ): I hope the member for Lyne is not reflecting on the Presiding Officers.

Mr OAKESHOTT: No, I am not; in fact, I am trying to endorse the status that you hold. I want the office of the PBO to be one that has gravitas within the processes of the parliament.

It is concerning that, as soon as the legislation hit the House, the smear campaign seems to have begun.

Mr Hunt: This was going to be 10 minutes!

Mr OAKESHOTT: I will finish. We seem to be hearing the suggestion that this is some sort of sleight of hand by the government to stitch up the opposition in election time. That is not the case. This has been through a thorough process with coalition members, crossbenchers, the Greens and the government. I hope that is now reflected by broad support for this bill, with amendments being withdrawn and the private member's bill also being withdrawn, and that we allow this office to have the gravitas that it deserves to do the job on behalf of all of us so that we get the best possible policy with the best possible advice from the PBO that we seek.