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Tuesday, 31 May 1994
Page: 968

Senator MARGETTS (6.52 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

I will make some initial comments and perhaps reserve some more detailed comments for a later time. I and others in the Senate estimates committees process that has just taken place felt rather annoyed, frustrated and at times distressed at the lack of information that was presented and with the new budget format in the portfolio budget measures statements. I did try to take the opportunity of finding out about the new format that these particular reports would take before the process began so that I and my staff would know as much as possible about the implications.

  I got hold of the video that was taken during the Senate briefing with regard to these reports. I think if it were a commercial operation one might have trouble under the Trade Practices Act because during that particular briefing it was mentioned that, apart from the fact that we were dealing with nine months of actuals and three months of estimates, the idea of the new format was to make the information more accessible and provide more information upon which decisions and judgments could be made. In my and my staff's estimation it was neither.

  Half way down the first page of this particular report, under the heading `Requirements for Departmental Annual Reports', it says:

Between them, these documents—

that is, the portfolio budget measures statements—

provide the government and the parliament with detailed information about the operation and performance of government programs, assessments of results and forecasts of future needs and expectations.

As I mentioned before, they were hardly particularly detailed and often they were presented in such a way that it was extremely difficult to gain any real indication of this year's spending, last year's spending, and so on.

  A little further down on this first page of the introduction, it says:

These annual reporting requirements have been designed in particular to emphasise program performance and in the achievements of program objectives, i.e. a focus on results. They are intended to provide sufficient information for the parliament to make a fully informed judgment on departmental performance, while avoiding excessive and extraneous detail.

Such things as an $11 million subsidy to Transfield Shipping to promote the development of military related industry in Malaysia was considered to be information excessive to the parliament's requirements. My first question is: in whose opinion? In at least one of those estimates committees I asked this question, `Who made the judgment as to what was to be cut out of this year's particular programs?' The response was, `Well, it was a decision of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and it was also a decision from the Department of Finance.'

  I also noted some level of concern and distress on the faces of people whose job it was in those estimates committees to try to explain those things that we had a lot of difficulty gaining from those reports. There were a lot of requirements to supply a lot more detail than was available through those reports. I think it backfires on any government when it sometimes looks as if it is trying to hide something. Reports should not be presented in such a way that one year cannot easily be compared with the last; I understand the difference in the year structure but I do have a problem with the changing of the format of the documents at the same time that all this took place. So it was extremely difficult to gain that information. In many cases we often knew to ask about what it was we could not know from the report when we stumbled across it by accident, almost—through the process.

  How do we know what it is we ought to be asking about if we are told by ministers or some members of departments that the information is available in some other form somewhere. We might be directed towards it, but we have to stumble across that problem in order to be able to ask the questions. So I think it was thoroughly dissatisfying. I believe it has reflected badly on the government, because it looks like it is trying to hide something, rather than trying to be transparent in its presentation. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

  Leave granted; debate adjourned.