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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 9642

Dr STONE (Murray) (16:48): I too rise to speak on the Parliamentary Budget Office Bill 2011 and the Charter of Budget Honesty Amendment Bill 2011. The aim of these bills is to establish, for the first time in Australia's history, an independent parliamentary budget office. As our previous speaker most eloquently said, 'The coalition is not against the notion of a parliamentary budget office, a PBO.' We see it as a very important part of any Westminster system. Of course, an opposition is as good as its information and access to confidential advice. We are most concerned that in its present form the proposal being put forward by this government does not in any way serve the Westminster system or the democracies as we know them in Australia.

While the Independents and Greens might at the moment enjoy the luxury of having access to confidential, informative and expert advice, under the proposal before us in this bill, an opposition of the day unfortunately would not. That might make sense while this Labor government is in the Lodge. But they need to think forward—perhaps not too far forward—and see a time when they, in opposition, would very much want to have access to confidential, expert budgetary information, costings and assessments. Their information and requests would not become a political plaything of the government of the day.

We have had some extraordinary examples in very recent times when we, the opposition, estimated the debt from not proceeding with the NBN by using the Commonwealth 10-year bond rate as the discount rate. Everyone will remember that that information was then made much of by the Labor benches, who said that what we had indicated was an enormous 'black hole' and that this had to go to the credibility of the coalition and our capacity as economic managers. In fact, it turned out in discussions after the election that Treasury had used a different, lower interest rate; but they did not tell the coalition at the time that their interest rate assessments were different to those used by the coalition. This led Treasury to estimate a lower quantum of savings for the coalition proposal to cancel the NBN. At the time Treasury officials would not explain to us what they had done. All we had was the media feasting on the notion, fed to them by the Labor Party, that we had a 'black hole'. That is an example of how politics can make use of—for example—an inadequate parliamentary budget office. We do not want to see that happen in Australia. We think it is a cheap stunt, and it does not do any great credit to the government of the day. There are in fact two bills before the House to establish a parliamentary budget office. The coalition introduced a private member's bill through the shadow Treasurer on 22 August this year. The government then introduced its own bill on 24 August 2011. The government is urgently trying to bring this bill forward to a second reading before our private member's bill has been put to a vote. I am sure that, if the Independents and the Greens looked hard at these two bills and compared the safeguards that are built into both, they would really understand that what we are proposing is a great step forward in real budget honesty. A government member, an opposition member, an Independent or, indeed, a private member would be able to use a confidential parliamentary budget office with confidence if it were constructed as we proposed in our private member's bill. What they put to the PBO would not simply become a political plaything of the government of the day.

This is a very serious matter. We have a need for confidential service that one can take whether one is in opposition, a minor party, an Independent or a backbencher—a PBO where you can take a request for assessments and comparisons and where the timing for the release of that data is still with the requestor of information. The new body that we are proposing would be accountable to the parliament, not hostage to government departments. We see that as a very important component of our shadow Treasurer's motion.

I am very concerned. I mentioned before that our estimates made before the last election were used as a political plaything when we did not have the best advice from Treasury about how they had dealt with the assessments made and published. I very recently had cause for great concern in my electorate, where we had exceptional circumstances: exit grants for drought relief. We were told that these were fully costed. They were a carefully budgeted program. We were told that, due to the demand for these exit grants, the program would be extended to July next year. We trusted that this government had got good advice from Treasury and the appropriate department to know that it had the funds to take through to July next year this program of support for farmers forced to leave their farms.

Farmers, particularly in my area, where they have survived seven years of drought and now a year of floods and an extremely financially stressed situation were told by Centrelink and by their accountants, who in turn were consulting Centrelink, that they had until next July to put in their applications for exit grants which would give them retraining through some $10,000 of support and also some $150,000 to try to re-establish beyond their farms. As a result of being told that they were not only eligible but had been granted this exit fund, some farm families then sold their properties at less than what they should have—in some cases, $80,000 less—because they understood that the $150,000 grant was literally a cheque in the mail. You can imagine the horror when they received phone calls from the local Centrelink officers in Echuca, Shepparton and Bendigo. They were being told over the phone: 'Sorry—we know that we had led you to believe this grant was forthcoming. It was budgeted through to July next year, but it is now summarily ceasing. In fact, as you receive this phone call it is all too late.'

This is an example that asks how that budgeting was done. How was Centrelink communicating with the department of agriculture in saying this number of grants had been deemed eligible and then granting the $150,000 plus the other $10,000 for training? Clearly we need much better budgeting and budgeting information for the government of the day. I hasten to say, though, that no coalition government would get anything as wrong as the EC exit grants debacle. I have in my electorate now farm families who are destitute as a consequence of selling their properties, having their clearing sales and ordering alternative accommodation—in some cases, caravans—to live in. They cannot pay for those caravans and are left literally destitute because of bad government policy reckoning and the extraordinarily difficult problems the government have created for their own Centrelink officers, who are now being accused of literally, in some senses, driving families to suicide.

I have to say that this particular PBO—parliamentary budget office—is an excellent idea but only if it operates in a way which delivers confidential service. If it leaves the call of when information is released up to those who have requested that information, does not become a plaything of the government of the day and does not mean that an opposition, Independent or backbencher would hesitate before using the PBO, this excellent idea will become an excellent reality. But we are so concerned about the PBO as a coalition that, should our bills or our amendments fail, our shadow Treasurer has already put on notice that the coalition will not submit its policy costings to either the Treasury or the PBO during and after the election period if the PBO is constructed in the way this bill proposes. It is that serious to us. We are very serious about good, independent, confidential Treasury advice.

We believe that a good PBO is part of good government, and we feel that this is an incredible example of how this government fails to understand the basics of proper budgeting, of proper ethical behaviour in the Westminster system and of the opposition's right and democracy's need to have a strong, well-informed opposition. I strongly recommend the government consider very carefully the amendments which we will be putting and also the private member's bill which now may be rushed out of the way by the government's bill. The PBO as proposed is just not good enough for a country like Australia.