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Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Page: 11766


Ms ROXON (GellibrandAttorney-General and Minister for Emergency Management) (09:46): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This government has established the Parliamentary Budget Office—an independent and non-partisan institution which will strengthen Australia's fiscal and budget frameworks.

The Parliamentary Budget Office's functions include: preparing budget analysis and policy costings on requests by individual senators and members; preparing submissions to inquiries of parliamentary committees; and, at its own initiative, conducting and publishing research on the budget and fiscal policy settings.

With the creation of the Parliamentary Budget Office all senators and members, for the first time, have access to independent and non-partisan budget analysis and policy costings over the entire course of the three-year electoral cycle.

A key element of the new arrangements are that outside of the caretaker period for a general election a senator or member can request that the Parliamentary Budget Office's services be provided on a confidential basis for policy costings.

The Parliamentary Budget Office is already an exempt agency under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act). However, the Freedom of Information Act does not currently provide a specific exemption for documents relating to requests from the Parliamentary Budget Office that may be held by departments and other agencies.

As a result, requests for information made to agencies by the Parliamentary Budget Office, and information provided to the Parliamentary Budget Office by agencies, may not be as fully protected from release under the Freedom of Information Act as they ought to be to give effect to the Parliamentary Budget Office's special position.

In addition, freedom of information requests may be made to agencies for the sole purpose of finding out whether or not the Parliamentary Budget Office has received a confidential request in relation to a particular matter. A response from an agency that documents could not be released because a relevant exemption applied would in effect confirm the existence of the documents and the fact that a confidential request had been made to the Parliamentary Budget Office.

Procedures and protocols between the Parliamentary Budget Office and departments have been established but this bill takes a step further in clarifying the appropriate protections.

The bill amends the Freedom of Information Act to provide an exemption for information held by departments and agencies that relates to a confidential request to the Parliamentary Budget Office. This will ensure that the integrity of the Parliamentary Budget Office's processes in these matters which are critical to the successful operation of the Parliamentary Budget Office will not be undermined.

The bill also amends section 25 of the Freedom of Information Act to provide that an agency is not required to give information as to the existence or non-existence of a document where it is exempt under these new provisions.

The bill also contains a consequential amendment to section 34 of the Privacy Act 1988. Section 34 of that act provides that the commissioner in carrying out functions under the Privacy Act, for example investigating an act or practice of an agency that may be a breach of privacy, must not give a person any information as to the existence or non-existence of a document where it is exempt under the FOI Act.

It is proposed to amend section 34 to refer to the new Parliamentary Budget Office exemption, reflecting the amendment to section 25 of the Freedom of Information Act and ensuring that Parliamentary Budget Office documents are confidential.

Given the importance of this issue and the Parliamentary Budget Office's independence and integrity, it is proposed that the bill will operate retrospectively from the day after introduction.

The work of the Parliamentary Budget Office is undertaken for the benefit of the parliament. These reforms are critical to the success of the independent Parliamentary Budget Office. They will enhance the operation of the Parliamentary Budget Office for senators and members from all political parties.

The establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office has strengthened Australia's fiscal and budget frameworks by providing non-partisan and independent information to the parliament on the budget, fiscal policy and financial implications of proposals.

These reforms will protect the confidentiality of the Parliamentary Budget Office's work and ensure that it will operate as it was intended when the parliament expressly exempted the Parliamentary Budget Office from the Freedom of Information Act. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.