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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 9665

Mr CRAIG KELLY (Hughes) (18:33): I rise to speak on the Parliamentary Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Bill 2011. This bill provides for the establishment of a parliamentary budget office. In considering this bill, it is both interesting and important to look at the history of this parliament's past efforts to establish a parliamentary budget office.

The need for this parliament to have a parliamentary budget office has been raised at various times since the 1980s, with the suggestion that Australia should have a budget office similar to the Congressional Budget Office of the United States of America. But very little happened through the eighties and nineties. Then we fast forward to the infamous 2020 Summit. Who would forget the warm inner glow that many in government felt when the Prime Minister of the day was swanning around with actors and actresses, a range of minor celebrities and a self-proclaimed group of our best and brightest in the complete and utter farce of the 2020 Summit! That was just over three years ago—how time flies. However, one thing that did come out of the 2020 Summit was the identification that there was a need for a well-resourced and financed parliamentary budget office. But, as has become a trademark of this government in getting every decision wrong, in its response to the 2020 Summit the government put the view that a parliamentary budget office was not needed and advised that a service to members was already available through the Parliamentary Library.

So it was left up to the coalition when, in May 2009, the then Leader of the Opposition, in his budget reply speech called for the establishment of a parliamentary budget office which was to be modelled on the US Congressional Budget Office. The coalition's proposal in May 2009 was that the Parliamentary Budget Office would be responsible to the Australian parliament and chartered to provide independent, objective analysis of fiscal policy, including long-term projections of the impacts of various measures on the economy. But, yet again, this suggestion was rejected by this government. Then, in June 2010, the coalition yet again led the way when the Leader of the Opposition renewed the call for the creation of a parliamentary budget office, and the establishment of such an office formed part of the federal coalition's 2010 election policy platform. But again this policy was not supported by the government.

However, when it came to the current Prime Minister's negotiations with the Independents in an attempt to form government—in what could be the script for another episode of At Home with Julia—all of a sudden, after three times previously rejecting the need for a parliamentary budget office, the government changed its mind. Therefore, it has been pleasing to hear members of this government at least acknowledge the need for a parliamentary budget office, even if what they are proposing is a deeply flawed bill and a deeply flawed model which will result in a lame duck and an all but useless parliamentary budget office.

We need to appreciate the importance of a parliamentary budget office, given the current state of the budget and the debt that this government has racked up. In just four short years this government will have run up combined deficits of close to $150 billion. While the Treasurer talks about returning the budget to surplus—which, if achieved, would be the first Labor surplus in over 20 years—he is talking about the surplus of $3 billion, compared to the combined deficits of close to $150 billion racked up in just four years. Even if the Treasurer is able to defer enough expenditure to crack it for a $3 billion surplus, to get us back to square one and to get this nation back into the position it was when the Howard-Costello government left office, we would need to repeat the Treasurer's planned $3 billion surplus year after year for the next 50 years to pay back the debt this government has racked up in just four years. Therefore, in the years ahead, we are going to have growing demands on our budget, but our resources, as always, will be scarce and limited.

No future Australian government will have the luxury of affording the appalling waste, mismanagement and cost overruns that have been the trademark of this government. The misguided and poorly thought through programs we have seen from this government, such as GroceryWatch and the pink batts fiasco—only two from a list too long to mention—must be a thing of the past. The need for a parliamentary budget office to be established and to provide independent costings, fiscal analysis and research to all members of parliament, especially non-government members, has never been more critical.

Given that the government is getting on board with the coalition's call for a parliamentary budget office, the debate is no longer about whether a parliamentary budget office is needed but about the form it should take, not just for this parliament but for all future parliaments. The debate is about what model the parliamentary budget office should take. This parliament currently has two separate models before it, but we must not be foolish enough to consider that these two models will produce the same outcome. While the coalition's model has been developed and thought through over a long period, Labor's model in contrast has been rushed through in response to the coalition's bill—and dragged there by the Independents and Greens under a desperate deal for power, which explains the sloppy legislation we are now debating. In fact, the best thing the government could do is simply withdraw the bill in its entirety and support the coalition's bill.

The main flaw in the government's proposal is that the service to be provided under its model for a parliamentary budget office will not be confidential. The failure to achieve such a facility will render a parliamentary budget office pointless. The policy costing service will be no different to that now offered under the Charter of Budget Honesty. Policy cannot be developed in a vacuum without considering the costs, like we have seen with Labor's policies on the NBN and border protection. When considering policy, every member of parliament must be able to put a proposed policy for costing to the Parliamentary Budget Office and be assured of confidentiality. Members must have the prerogative to adjust or finetune a policy or even dump it altogether if the costing turns out to be substantially different from what was expected. But, under the government's proposal for a parliamentary budget office, requests for costings by members would be published on the websites of the Treasury and/or the Department of Finance and Deregulation as soon as they are received. Members of parliament will not have control over the timing of the release of policies they submit for costing, there is no ability for the costing to be discussed or reviewed and there is no ability for a member to discuss the underlying assumptions behind the policy initiative. Treasury and Finance are not even required to release any assumptions underlying the costing, simply the costing itself.

How can anyone stand here in this chamber and argue for such a flawed scheme? This is why the government's proposal is deeply flawed and why the coalition will not be supporting it without amendments. If the government is fair dinkum about creating a parliamentary budget office—and this is not just another stunt—it must provide a model that delivers a confidential service for costing policy proposals for all MPs and senators, including the opposition, minor parties, Independents and backbench government MPs.

Confidentiality is the crucial and non-negotiable element of the coalition's bill and the amendments we seek. It is worth noting that the US Congressional Budget Office, the scheme on which we seek to model our parliamentary budget office, does honour confidentiality. Likewise, members and senators in this parliament must be able to enter into confidential and private discussions with a parliamentary budget office about the costs of policies.

Members and senators also must be able to question and discuss any underlying assumptions, such as costings, with a parliamentary budget office, and members and senators must have the ability to control the timing of the release of policies and their costings. To do so would enable this parliament to function at a higher level, to the benefit of the Australian nation. The coalition's bill and the amendments we seek for this bill shall achieve this goal.

The amendments proposed by the coalition will, firstly, strengthen the functions of the Parliamentary Budget Office by broadening the functions of the office to include preparation of economic forecasts and budget estimates. Secondly, the amendments proposed will improve information-gathering powers and secrecy by deleting the arrangements within the bill for obtaining information from Commonwealth bodies and inserting the information-gathering powers from the coalition's bill, which are based on those of the Auditor-General. Thirdly, and most importantly, the amendments will restore confidentiality to costing of policies during the caretaker period by deleting the sections within the government's bill which relate to the immediate public release of policy documentation submitted by non-government members and senators during the caretaker period, and the period on or after polling day, until the time when the government is formed. This will enable costings to be truly confidential, unless otherwise instructed, and they will provide an opportunity for views to be challenged in the private domain before costings are released to the public. We on this side of the House are not afraid of scrutiny. Unlike those opposite, we have delivered a budget surplus in the past 20 years. In fact, previous coalition governments have delivered budget surplus after budget surplus. It is fast becoming the case that few Australians can even remember the last time Labor delivered a budget surplus. Imagine if the Australian people had the information with a proper analysis of policy costings prior to an election; this is what the coalition's plan will deliver.

The coalition's model is in line with global moves towards greater transparency in government and fiscal policies that governments will undertake. We are seeking to move forward with a robust, independent umpire advising on policy costings. The only way to create a workable model is to create a fiercely bold and truly independent parliamentary budget office, not one reliant on government departments—and this is exactly what the proposed, far superior private member's bill of the coalition will do.

I call on members of the government and the Independents to look beyond the next election. Rather than think about short-term political objectives, think about what is best for the future of this country and this parliament. Do that by either supporting the coalition's alternative bill or at least supporting the amendments, as these are the only ways we can ensure that this parliament has a truly independent and effective parliamentary budget office.