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Friday, 5 December 1986
Page: 3554

Senator MESSNER(8.00) —The Liberal and National parties do not oppose the motion.

Senator Haines —Oh!

Senator MESSNER —I thought the honour- able senator would be glad to hear that. However, I think there are one or two points that are worth drawing to the attention of the Senate in respect of this statement. Quite clearly, there are some inadequacies in the way in which financial reports are presented each month to the Parliament and the people of Australia. Each month all of us receive a statement from the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) that sets out, in what can only be described as a most obfuscatory way, the financial affairs and transactions for the month. Quite clearly, the statement is generally prepared in such a way as to ensure that we do not get the full picture of the Commonwealth's finances. Rather our information is restricted to very broad areas of expenditure, which really reduces our-(Quorum formed). This is a most important matter and one of the greatest concern. I am glad there is such a large assemblage in the Senate to hear the debate on this matter of very great importance. The monthly financial statements of the Commonwealth are of very grave concern to all of us. It is interesting that the statements we get do not give us an opportunity to be able to reveal in succinct detail all the matters we would like to inquire into to give us a proper interpretation of the trends and developments in the finances of this Government.

The October statement which came out recently is very much a case in point. Quite clearly, from the documentation that was presented to us in the Parliament, we were unable to determine the exact trend of the Government's finances. When the Government was put under pressure to advise the Senate what were the reasons for the Government's rising deficit, which clearly was leading us to a trend well above that which was stated in the Budget, it could not give us an appropriate reply. Those kinds of things stem from the inadequacies of the obfuscatory nature of the reporting that happens each month. I do not mind competing with people in the gallery speaking to Ministers. The argument here is a fairly straightforward one; that is, that the information provided to us each month simply does not give, in sufficient detail, the information that would enable us to form a real, true and honest opinion about the trends in the finances of the Government

Senator Macklin —Hear, hear!

Senator MESSNER —I am glad to see the Australian Democrats fully support that point of view. They may be influencing me to incline my view towards opposition to this motion.

Senator Puplick —Senator Vigor has not spoken yet.

Senator MESSNER —Perhaps we should wait for that. This statement sets down some very slight improvements in the procedures which will be adopted by the Government from now on. However, I am very surprised that they are so much at the margin, so much at the edge of the question as to be almost useless in terms of providing extra information to the Parliament. Let me just describe what I mean. Instead of a disaggregation of information being provided for various government functions, we find an aggregation of information and, if you like, a total burial of information about the activities of the housing, urban and regional development, and environment expenditures in the overall expenditure on housing and community amenities. Quite clearly, that gives senators very little opportunity to investigate just what the trends are in particular departments. The whole tone of the changes appears to be to condense the disaggregation process into one causing a heavier and heavier concentration of expenditures into one heading on the expenditure statement. That certainly is not conducive to proper management.

As any person in business would know, we have to think of this statement as a monthly management statement and not just a reporting to shareholders. It is important to recognise that. Indeed, we should be supplied with far more detailed information about the breakup of expenditures by the Government on a month to month basis. For instance, I find it difficult to understand why on earth the Government chooses to aggregate expenditures on things such as water, electricity and gas with other economic services. While they do represent a very small proportion of the total Budget expenditures of the Government, they also evidence a trend in the thinking of the Government towards ensuring that expenditures are buried into one line on the statements so that it is extremely difficult to follow and understand the trends.

However, the other changes are most welcome. For instance, on the receipts side we now find that an item will be set aside for fringe benefits tax. That will be differentiated from sales tax. I suppose we have to be grateful to the Government for that. With respect to excise duty, certainly there are to be splits or disaggregations between petroleum products and all other kinds of products. That will give us a better understanding of the trend in expenditures there. The next item really does deserve some comment. Whereas previously we had an aggregated item called `interest, rents and dividends' received by the Commonwealth, the fact is that now these are to be split into two categories, one for interest and the other for rents, dividends and royalties. From a management standpoint, for the life of me I cannot understand why it is that it has been split into that particular pattern. Surely, from a management point of view, dividends are the most important thing by which honourable senators should be judging the financial strengths and weaknesses of the operations of government agencies such as Australian Airlines, the Commonwealth Banking Corporation and so on. But we are not to be told what the dividends are on a monthly basis. They are to be aggregated together with rents and royalties in such a way that we cannot individualise them and relate them to the entities creating those dividends. So how on earth can we judge the efficiency of those organisations? Consequently, this must be a most unreasonable statement from that point of view.

Finally, bearing in mind those points, it is quite clear to me that, although the statement contains some improvements, there is certainly not a trend towards the improvement of information available to honourable senators so that they might better learn how to manage the financial affairs of this Government. Until we are provided with information on a monthly and most regular basis, to give us a way of being able to discover more clearly what is happening within the finances of the Government, we will not properly be able to address our duties here, as members of Parliament, entrusted as we are by the people at an election to be able to administer properly the affairs of the Australian Government.