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Wednesday, 25 March 1998
Page: 1236

Senator MURRAY (11:31 AM) —As the Senate knows, the Democrats were strong supporters of the introduction of the Charter of Budget Honesty Bill and did indeed commend the government for introducing it, but believed that it was a weak bill in a number of respects and needed reinforcement and strengthening. We still feel that way.

By insisting on the amendments last time, we believe the Senate showed our disapproval of a government that will not accept improved legislation—amendments which, in our opinion, considerably improved the bill. However, we have been advised by Labor that they are going to let this bill through this time, so there is obviously no point in further pursuing amendments to the bill. Despite the fact that it seems we will have at least one double dissolution bill whatever happens—and one more will not make any difference—in my view it would be foolish to put to a double dissolution a bill we support in terms of the fundamentals. Even in its unamended form, this is a bill better passed before the election than after, since it does contribute to a better policy costing and appraisal for elections.

The thrust of our amendments the first time around was that we focused on the fact that the act was unenforceable; it was not binding on the Crown. I pricked up my ears when Senator Bishop said Labor had been pursuing that same issue. I checked the amendments in the last debate—in October, I think it was—and it was in fact the Democrats who moved to make the bill enforceable. Labor quite correctly supported it, and subsequently moved that same amendment, I believe in the House of Representatives, when it came through the second time, and felt very strongly about it. I think Labor coined a rather nice phrase for it when they referred to it as the optional honesty bill.

If there is anything which is a great sadness to the Australian Democrats, it is that the government should allow a bill which stands on accountability, which has honesty in its title, really not to enforce that dictum. Clause 3(2) of the bill states that the charter of budget honesty is not judicially enforceable and the charter is therefore much like a code of conduct which does not have any enforcement procedures or penalties, a situation which clearly is unsatisfactory. There is no penalty should a party fail to fulfil its pre-election reports and costings or its commitments. The only sanction currently available for when a government ignores the need to comply with the provisions of the charter of budget honesty does rest with the parliament, and that is an unsatisfactory situation given that the government of the day will have a majority in the parliament.

As Senator Bishop outlined, in contrast, the New Zealand Fiscal Responsibility Act 1994 is binding on the Crown. This means that if the New Zealand government does not comply with the requirements in the act, any citizen has standing to initiate an action in the courts. What we and Labor and the other non-government parties in the Senate felt strongly was that this government should be obliged to face up to its responsibilities with an enforceable act. In our view, such enforceability would demonstrate a serious rather than an optional commitment to the provision of information and the accountability of the government to the electorate. We were disappointed not to see it in the legislation before us. The remedy of enforcement where there is a failure to act is denied Australian citizens, in contrast to New Zealand citizens in their act, and it effectively provides a shield of immunity to any claim on public interest grounds preventing the disclosure of information. This limits the effectiveness of the charter as a mechanism to improve scrutiny, transparency and fiscal responsibility.

So, Minister, on the one hand, this bill is proclaimed to be an important contribution to the government's accountability efforts and we agree with that claim. On the other hand, the government cannot be held accountable to the provisions in this legislation, and we strongly disagree with that. I was so startled by the very concept that there could be a bill which could be valid when it did not provide for enforceable rights or duties that I put a Senate question on notice to the Minister representing the Treasurer on 30 October 1997. I asked:

(1) Is the Minister aware of any Act which has been passed by the Federal Parliament which does not provide for any enforceable rights or duties; if so, which Acts are they.

This was the answer; listen carefully:

There are a number of Commonwealth Acts which impose duties on a statutory body, but provide that such duties are not enforceable in judicial proceedings. Some examples are:

. the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Act 1986;

. the Federal Airports Corporation Act 1986;

. the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991;

. the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983

I surmise from that answer that there are no acts relevant to the operation of government, as opposed to a statutory body, which are not enforceable. So this is a first-time, appalling precedent, one which we do not agree with.

The Australian Government Solicitor's Office advised in an answer to that same question as follows:

The fact that the Bill is not enforceable in judicial or other proceedings does not affect its validity.

I am not a High Court judge and I am certainly not a Solicitor-General so I am not going to quarrel with that, but it does not do away with the principle. The Treasurer, with his wonderful ability to spin lines, can never get over the fact that this is an optional honesty bill, that this bill is not enforceable. We commend the Treasurer for the bill, but it is an optional honesty bill.

Other amendments we focused on the first time around included the fact that the act provided for costings only for the Liberal and Labor parties. I am often surprised in this parliament when the word `bipartisan' is used. I would have thought that they could at least use `tripartisan', because the National Party are part of the major scene. As for the rest of the cross-benchers, we prefer `multipartisan' or `cross-party'. The fact is that even the National Party are excluded from the costings of this bill. That struck us as extraordinary. We tried to fix it up for them, but they as the junior partner were not able to help themselves on this issue. Anyway, it is another amendment that went through which the government refuses to accept.

We also focused on the fact that in appraising the effects of taxes and spending proposals, the social effects on future generations were insufficiently covered and the principles of ecologically sustainable development were not covered. In a country where, in the last 15 or 16 years, salinity has increased something like 18 times and is forecast to reach 12 million hectares, I would think that a focus on ecologically sustainable development makes very sound economic environmental and social sense.

We also focused on the costing of election commitments and various matters to do with that. We focused on an issue which we have been running hard on for nearly 20 years now in a number of parliaments in the country, and that is truth in political advertising—to try to get some honesty in that area. And we focused on the nature of modelling processes used in economic and social forecasting. However, the government in its wisdom is not going to accept any of those solutions.

If we are not going to push through those amendments this time, let us focus on why this bill is necessary. In the 1982 budget, an election budget, the then Treasurer, Mr Howard, forecast a surplus of $230 million which blew out to a deficit of $4,473 million. The post-election revelation of the budget deterioration allowed the new Labor government then to junk virtually all their election promises. It sounds familiar, doesn't it? Since then, that practice has become pretty much a recurring picture.

Again, in 1992, Labor's then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, produced his infamous One Nation forecast which claimed that the deficit would repair itself. On the back of this, he and Dr Hewson went into the 1993 election campaign with what we regarded as outlandish and unfunded tax cut promises. The Democrats said at the time that the tax cuts were not funded and were not fiscally responsible, but the coalition joined with Labor to vote in the $4 billion of tax cuts which they both knew were not funded. Three years later, the coalition were busy gloating over the Beazley black hole, but if they had voted with the Democrats to stop an unfunded $4 billion in tax cuts, there would not have been a Beazley black hole, just a minor Beazley blemish.

Over the last four years, fiscal reporting continued to be a very political process. The 1995 budget included the claimed headline surplus of $718 million. The real picture was an underlying deficit of $7.2 billion. Again, the coalition joined with Labor to defeat the Democrats' proposal to set up a Senate inquiry into the matter. It suited the coalition at that time, in our view, to rely on Labor's ridiculously rosy economic forecasts which Labor was using to build up unaffordable election promises of $7 billion. So with the change of government, again, the new government were able to junk most of their election promises, their so-called non-core promises, after a shock-horror revelation about the black hole which our parliamentary records showed they helped create.

If this charter of budget honesty bill is in fact going to stop that kind of malarky between the two parties contending for power in this country, I think—and my party thinks—it is to be very warmly welcomed. The Democrats congratulate the government on recognising this as a problem, on recognising that there is a public perception problem out there, on recognising that a much improved budget presentation process, a much improved and transparent process, will advance the cause of more accountable and better government.

In concluding, Minister, whilst I say that we are disappointed that the bill remains weak and optional we are nevertheless delighted that the bill will move into legislation, because it does at least advance the cause of accountability in a number of important directions. I move:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:

(a) calls on the Government, at the earliest opportunity and preferably before the next or the following Federal election, to follow the lead set by New Zealand's Fiscal Responsibility Act and replace the optional and weak nature of the unenforceable Charter of Budget Honesty with a Charter that binds the Crown in right of the Commonwealth and creates rights and duties that are enforceable in judicial or other proceedings; and

(b) is of the view that access to the bureaucracy to provide costings of policies should be extended to the nominated representative of any party which is registered under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 or which has at least one representative in the Parliament; and

(c) urges the Government to include consideration of the social and environmental effects of its policies on future generations, as well as the financial effects, in its principles of sound fiscal management and in intergenerational reports.