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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 9310

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaDeputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (10:30): I support the legislation to establish a Parliamentary Budget Office. Nobody will forget the furore in the 2010 federal election campaign when the coalition refused to have its policies costed by Treasury under the provisions of the Charter of Budget Honesty. Instead, the coalition went to a private firm of accountants-auditors. None of us will forget that, when Treasury did an analysis of those costings after the election, there was a massive black hole. The accountants-auditors, WHK Horwarth, said that when they were provided with the Liberal Party's election policies they checked them based on the assumptions provided. But the assumptions provided were not made public. Of course an accounting firm is going to look at the assumptions provided to check the figures, but if those assumptions are not made public we do not have a level playing field. If you provide ridiculous assumptions, your ridiculous outcomes can be signed off by a firm of auditors.

So there was a major furore in the election campaign. At the time the Greens held a press conference to reiterate our policy, which had been in place for a long time, that we needed a Parliamentary Budget Office that provided to non-government parties of all kinds and Independent members an opportunity to have budget measures costed and an iterative discussion of those measures over time, and at least the community would then have some confidence that, when the government's costings done by Treasury are released and so are the costings of the Liberals, the Nationals, the Greens, the Independents or whoever put out policies during an election campaign, the figures are reasonably based and that there is no duplicity or attempt to con the public through the underlying assumptions. That is why we reiterated that part of our policy platform in the election campaign.

The Senate will recall that after the election, when no one party won government, the Greens signed an agreement to give our parliamentary confidence and supply to the Labor Party and to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. In our written agreement with the government, article 4.3 states:

Establishing within 12 months a Parliamentary Budget Office within the Parliamentary Library with the structure, resourcing and protocols being the subject of decision by a special committee of the Parliament which is truly representative of the Parliament.

That was clearly part of the agreement that Prime Minister Gillard signed with the Greens in order to remain Prime Minister, and I am pleased that that undertaking is now being given effect in legislation. It has been part of a process, having been subject to a decision of a special committee of the parliament. It was recognised in the agreement with the government that the process would include every aspect of the parliament—everybody's views.

I reiterate for the purposes of this debate that the Joint Select Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office had on it representatives from all sides of politics. The chair, Senator John Faulkner, received the thanks of every member serving on the committee for the fair way he chaired the inquiry and for the comprehensive nature of the inquiry. The deputy chair was the Hon. Christopher Pyne, who is the Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives. So the deputy chair was not a novice in parliamentary politics and elections, as we might have thought was the case after listening to the contribution of Senator Cormann. But, no, it was the Manager of Opposition Business. Kelly O'Dwyer MP from the Liberal Party in Victoria was also on the committee, as was Senator Barnaby Joyce from the Nationals. From the Independents there was Mr Robert Oakeshott. I was on the committee representing the Greens, and the Labor Party had not only the chair, Senator John Faulkner, but also Senator Doug Cameron and three members from the lower house—Anna Burke, Nick Champion and Yvette D'ath. We can see that the committee was made up of experienced parliamentarians from across all sides of politics who in many cases had been through not just one but several elections and who understood the process.

The Greens' commitment to a Parliamentary Budget Office particularly concerned making sure policies could be professionally costed and worked through so that the community had the ability to make judgments in an election context. The incredible thing is that the report of that committee, which made a number of recommendations that have now been given effect in the legislation—and I congratulate the Labor government on allocating the funding to not only bring the legislation but give it effect, to have an independent parliamentary budget officer employed and an office set up—was unanimously supported. It is very interesting that Senator Cormann and the rest of the coalition now do not agree with it, because, at the time, there was no dissenting report, there were no additional comments from the coalition. They were happy with the report of the committee at that time.

There is only one reason why the coalition are now running away from supporting what they supported as a result of that process—

Senator Cormann: You're doing the Labor Party's bidding again.

Senator MILNE: that is, they are afraid of having their policies costed, going into the next election, because they have a huge budget hole which they will not be able to credibly cover up—

Senator Cormann: You may as well join the Labor Party.

Senator MILNE: if they have to have their policies costed. I know Senator Cormann is embarrassed.

Senator Joyce said one interesting thing when he was speaking earlier today; he said the burden of the superannuation changes would fall on small business. That is very interesting, because Senator Cormann has been completely overthrown and humiliated by his own party, which have said that they will take on the superannuation changes. If Senator Joyce is worried about small business bearing the cost, who is to bear the cost under the coalition's plan to take on the nine to 12 per cent superannuation increase? Who is it going to be? That is a question the coalition have refused to answer to this day. If Senator Joyce is so worried about small business then let us hear from him—he will be speaking in just a moment—or from Senator Cormann who is going to pay for the superannuation increase.

I want to run through this black hole that a parliamentary budget office, costing policies, would need to look at. For example, among the promises the Leader of the Opposition has made which will worsen the budget balance, there is: $3.2 billion to fund his so-called Direct Action Plan to pay polluters to reduce emissions; $25 billion lost from not collecting revenue from the large polluters, by getting rid of the emissions trading scheme; $11 billion lost from not collecting revenue from the largely foreign owned mining companies that have been the subject of discussion in recent times; another $1.7 billion lost from not collecting revenue from higher income earners to contribute to rebuilding after the Queensland floods; and $37 billion to fund the election commitments they have made to date. That all comes to at least $70 billion over the forward estimates, and now you have to add on to that the superannuation backflip. So it is no wonder that the coalition do not want a parliamentary budget office now. Even though they say they do, is it any wonder they do not? The reason they do not is that they want to continue to go to a private firm of auditors or accountants to provide assumptions which are never made public so they can come out with a whole lot of nonsense in terms of policies.

The point here is that a parliamentary budget office gives the community some degree of confidence that they can compare the promises made in election campaigns to what happens after elections, and about where that money is going to come from.

We have a situation here where the coalition have said that they want to go for small government. They want to get rid of 12,000 public servants, but that will have to increase if they are going to make up $70 billion in budget costs—not to mention, as I said, the $70-plus billion because of the additional superannuation that has to be funded. They are going to cut that level of public servants, but their Direct Action Plan will require a whole bureaucracy to operate it. That will be the 12,000 plus or minus however many they get to manage that bureaucracy that they have said they want to establish.

That is the context of this discussion. We have a coalition that is afraid to front up to a parliamentary budget office with its election policies to have them costed. One of the issues that they have on the table is confidentiality. This was thrashed out at length, as Senator Joyce would know, in the committee process, and it was agreed that, given the resourcing levels of the Parliamentary Budget Office, once an election was called it would be impossible for the office to be able to conduct the iterative negotiations that are necessary to cost policies. That is why it was unanimously agreed—everyone on that committee agreed—that in the years leading up to an election is when policies can go in, and discussions can be held, and remain confidential. But, once an election is called, if you put those policies in as a package, they will be made public.

That is consistent with the Charter of Budget Honesty. This is not a new idea. This was discussed at length in terms of fairness, levels of resourcing for a parliamentary budget office and consistency with the Charter of Budget Honesty, and it was agreed that we would see how this operated in the context of the next election. And, as with all of these kinds of structures, there will be reviews into the future after that experience.

Today, Senator Joyce has been swept aside by the coalition's absolute desperation to avoid the scrutiny of either Treasury or the Parliamentary Budget Office, because the options on the table, which have been put very clearly, are that, if you are a registered political party in the parliament, you put forward your election costings to either Treasury or the Parliamentary Budget Office. One of the important reasons for the Parliamentary Budget Office is that those costings that you get done between elections remain confidential. If you have to put them to Treasury then they do not remain confidential, and you run the risk in that circumstance of the government anticipating what your election policies might be. So everybody recognised that it was important to have the capacity for the government, opposition parties and members to do their work and to protect that within the context of the allocated resourcing. Whilst, as I acknowledged just a moment ago, I appreciate the Labor Party putting up the money to establish the Parliamentary Budget Office, it will still not be a huge bureaucracy and it will not be able to deal with a massive onslaught in an election campaign of a whole variety of possible policies. So I agree with what we came up with in the committee after considerable discussion with all concerned.

What is more, it was not just the members of parliament on the committee who got to express a view. The committee asked for the political parties themselves to come before the committee and set out to the committee what their concerns might be about contesting elections, whether from a government or an opposition point of view. This was one of the fairest committees that I have been part of in the parliament in terms of listening very carefully to everybody's views and working hard to come up with a consensus report.

On that basis, I find it extraordinary that the coalition can now run away from that. This just reiterates to me that the coalition have no idea at all how they are going to make up the $70 billion black hole they already have plus the superannuation funds they already have. And we have the promises from the Leader of the Opposition that he is going to increase pensions, cut taxes, find $70 billion plus the superannuation funding, and it is all going to come from some magic pudding that they put to some private auditing firm with assumptions that nobody can actually test against those policies. It is essentially a strategy to try to protect them from the scrutiny that they deserve on their economic policy.

To date, the coalition have been able to get away with their 30-second grabs: 'Yes, we are going to cut taxes. Yes, we are going to increase pensions. No, we are not having carbon pricing. Yes, we are going to pay the polluters. Yes, we are going to provide all of this. Yes, we are going to cut public servants but we are not telling you where or by how much.' What are they going to do to health services? What are they going to do to education services around the country? It has not been possible to have that scrutiny. I do not want us to end up in the next election campaign in 2013 with a coalition standing up saying, 'We can do all of these things and it is within this context that we have released, signed off by these auditors and chartered accountants,' or whoever. No, we want some level playing field here so that the community is not conned on this. They were conned about the mining tax by the huge advertising campaign that the big miners were able to mount. The community was completely conned and it is only now that the community has found out that 'Twiggy' Forrest, who was one of the people fronting that campaign, has not paid corporate tax in seven years and does not expect to pay anything under the new MRRT. He led the campaign when he has not paid a cent in corporate tax for seven years. Gina Rinehart has become the richest person in the world—and she is running a campaign saying the Australian community does not deserve to have money from its own resources in order to provide health and education services!

We need to get real here. The Parliamentary Budget Office is an important parliamentary reform. The Greens took it on as a policy. We put it in the agreement with the Prime Minister in order to deliver a good government. The Labor Party became government as a result of this agreement, which provided for carbon pricing and a Parliamentary Budget Office. I congratulate the government for taking the agreement seriously and delivering on the undertaking the Prime Minister made when she signed it, and that was to deliver a Parliamentary Budget Office in 12 months after having established a committee on which representatives of all parties were there. It was a consensus decision and there should be consensus support for a major parliamentary reform. I reiterate, the only reason there is not consensus is the coalition are cowards—they are running away from scrutiny.