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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 9669


Mr SWAN (LilleyDeputy Prime Minister and Treasurer) (18:46): I thank members who have contributed to this debate on the Parliamentary Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Bill 2011. The establishment of an independent parliamentary budget office is very significant. It is a permanent reform that will build on Australia's already very strong fiscal frameworks. It will ensure greater accountability and transparency in policy making. It will promote greater understanding in the community about fiscal policy and it will ensure that the Australian public are kept better informed about the fiscal impact of policy proposals, particularly during election periods.

These reforms will allow all parliamentary parties and Independent members to have their policies costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office. Members and senators will be able to request confidential policy costings from the PBO outside of the caretaker period of a general election. During general elections, the election policy costing service will be fully transparent, with costings made available to the public. This transparency requirement is fundamental—I stress 'fundamental'—to ensure the Australian public can be fully informed about the fiscal impacts of election policies before they cast their vote. The Parliamentary Budget Office will help ensure that the Australian people are never again—I stress 'never again'—subjected, as they were at the last election, to the opposition attempting to hide an $11 billion black hole in their costings. That is what occurred in the last election campaign. The opposition spent the last election trying to avoid public scrutiny of their election policy costings under the Charter of Budget Honesty Act. Today we have seen that they are already creating new excuses to hide from public scrutiny at the next election. It is unbelievable. They are slowly crab-walking away from the independent model for the Parliamentary Budget Office that they signed up to just five months ago. The opposition are clearly still grossly embarrassed about the $11 billion black hole at the last election. We saw that reflected in the extraordinary attack in this parliament today on the Public Service by the shadow finance minister. It was a simply disgraceful speech that was made to camouflage his own gross incompetence.

We have to be very clear about this. This bill will provide the opposition with an advantage that no other opposition has ever had before. It provides for access to a confidential costing service outside of a general election period, which has never been available before, and it provides for a fully transparent costing service during a general election. The opposition will have two options when it comes to election policy costings: they can elect to have Treasury and Finance cost their election policies or they can elect to have the Parliamentary Budget Office do it. They will have absolutely no excuse. They will not be able to try to hide their election policy costings from public scrutiny.

The government's bill is based on the model which was recommended by the Joint Select Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office. Everybody on that committee supported the model that the government is putting forward. The Liberal Party signed up to that model in March this year. There was broad parliamentary representation on the committee. It included members of the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Labor Party and the Australian Greens, and an Independent member of parliament. It included two shadow ministers, the member for Sturt as deputy chair, and Senator Joyce as well as the member for Higgins. It is hard to imagine a more important issue on which bipartisan support is warranted. That is why it is so deeply disappointing to see the opposition walk away from supporting the model which was recommended by the joint select committee. The joint select committee from all parties in this House agreed to it in total, yet it is being walked away from in this parliament today. It is deeply disappointing.

It was deeply disappointing to hear the shadow Treasurer this morning declare that, if this bill were passed, the opposition would not submit its policies for costings by either the Parliamentary Budget Office or the Treasury. Could you think of anything more arrogant and anything less accountable than that action of the shadow Treasurer in this House today? He declared that the Liberal Party will keep the Australian people in the dark at the next election when it comes to policy costings, just like he did in the last election campaign. That is the team that got $9 out every $10 in net savings wrong at the last election. They are now asking the Australian people to let them do it again so they can hide their incompetence from the Australian people. It is not surprising that they have got a budget black hole, or crater now, of $70 billion in their budget bottom line. They have a Leader of the Opposition who is wandering around the country telling anybody what they want to hear anytime, irrespective of cost. Therefore, it is not surprising that they should come into this House and resist the scrutiny of the Parliamentary Budget Office during an election campaign, given that incredibly irresponsible record that they have set for themselves.

The PBO model proposed by the shadow Treasurer would, firstly, undermine its resourcing, making it hostage to future funding by the Treasury department. Secondly, it would weaken governance arrangements by making the PBO accountable to ministers, not to the parliament, and reduce the transparency and public accountability around election policy costings. The opposition want to replace a completely transparent costing process, one where the costings are made available to the public, with a non-transparent process. We know why that is the case—because they simply can never get it right. Given their track record, they can simply never, ever get it right.

The shadow Treasurer wants to put in place a confidential election costing process so that when he does not agree with the costing outcome he can hide it and refuse to release it to the Australian people. This is extraordinary. Is there nothing they will not do or say to achieve a political advantage? All this demonstrates that they have so little faith in their own ability that they want some sort of escape clause in the PBO legislation. Given this abysmal record, it is not surprising that they are doing everything they possibly can to run away from public accountability and, really of course, to run away from the fundamental tenets of the Charter of Budget Honesty Act. This is what the then Treasurer, Mr Costello, had to say when the Charter of Budget Honesty was put forward: 'By requiring the costings to be made publicly available, there is limited scope for the results of the costings to be misrepresented.' Very accurate.

The opposition's amendments are inconsistent with the recommendations of the parliamentary joint select committee and inconsistent with the central thrust of the Charter of Budget Honesty. The committee spent many months considering the appropriate functions of the Parliamentary Budget Office costing processes and access to information, and considered something like 21 submissions. The committee determined that information-sharing arrangements governed by a memorandum of understanding between the PBO and government agencies would be more effective than legislating powers to compel. The opposition's proposed amendments provide for unfettered access to highly confidential taxpayer and national security information that is clearly not required for the PBO to fulfil its functions. The opposition's approach is to create an adversarial legislative relationship backed by criminal sanctions.

The government's approach favours the development of a comprehensive understanding between the PBO and agencies. This is designed to ensure that information can be exchanged quickly and appropriately, in keeping with the recommendations of the joint select committee. If the opposition were serious about budget accountability and transparency, they would support the model put forward by the joint select committee in the government's legislation. The Parliamentary Budget Office is an important new institution that will strengthen Australia's budget frameworks and it should not be undermined by those opposite. Their approach to this bill demonstrates yet again why they are unfit for high office.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Sidebottom ): The question is that this bill be now read a second time. A division being called for, in accordance with standing order 133(b) the division is deferred until 8.00 pm.

Debate adjourned.