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Wednesday, 11 December 2002
Page: 7739

Senator WEBBER (3:16 PM) —I also rise to take note of the answers given by Senator Minchin in question time today. As has been mentioned earlier, about three years ago the government introduced with much fanfare this great new financial framework for the budget. Here were the Liberal Party in all their glory, in their guise of superior economic managers, making substantial changes to Australia's public accounts.

Senator Ferris —Is there some doubt about that?

Senator WEBBER —Just wait! We were told that these changes would result in a better financial picture of the government's activity and a more detailed understanding of that picture through the actual budget papers. In fact, at the time the Treasurer said:

This puts Australia at the forefront of transparency in the conduct of fiscal policy.

However, after making that great announcement, we got to the implementation stage. There was a bit of a problem: it would seem that not many public servants understood how they were meant to implement this great new plan. In fact, it would seem that not many members of the government actually understood it either. The bottom line is that over time less and less information now appears in our budget papers. There is less and less open and transparent detail within the budget papers. It is now even more difficult to understand departmental expenditure than was the case in the past. So, for all the government's trumpeting about the merits of their being better economic managers, we are in a worse position today in terms of transparency and accountability of the fiscal management of Australia's budget.

We are now seeing a government by stealth undoing all of these reforms that they introduced a mere three years ago. Instead of having accrual accounting, we are now told that the budget will be on both a cash and an accrual basis and that the outputs and outcomes approach will be substantially revised. We have had more and more qualifications added to what was meant to be this great structure that was going to put Australia at the forefront of transparency in the conduct of fiscal policy.

As Senator Conroy asked earlier today, where was the minister's press release announcing this wind back—this qualification of fiscal accountability and fiscal reporting? Where was the minister? Why did he not come in here to report to the parliament and say, `Hold on; when it comes to fiscal policy and budget papers, we are going to start to wind this back'? Did either of these things happen? No, of course they did not. Instead, a departmental memo goes out so we can `try and smooth things over'. Parliamentary overview of our national financial position has been undermined yet again by the needs of the executive government to get itself out of a problem of its own making.

Numerous commentators have argued that the pure accrual accounting structure is not the best system of handling departmental expenditure. But this government, blinded by its own ideology, ignored this advice and introduced the changes. Now, it is winding them back by stealth. This is yet another grubby little episode covered up to spare the executive of this government and yet another example of the failing of public administration in our country. This is not a government of superior economic managers; this is a government that operates on the premise that the Australian public can be taken for granted, that it can introduce something with great fanfare and then let it just go quietly into the night. This is an absolute disgrace, as is the minister's explanation—or, in some cases, lack of explanation. Yet again, the minister has been caught out.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 November this year, when talking about the minister and his linking of the sale of Telstra to fixing Australia's rivers, Ross Gittins said:

I should also say, in fairness, that I doubt Senator Minchin was so stupid as to believe what he said. It's more likely he thought you and I were so stupid as to swallow it.

In my view, there is no better way to express condemnation of this government's failure in this respect than to endorse Ross Gittins's comments. This minister expects all of us to fall for the same approach—(Time expired)