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Thursday, 22 November 2012
Page: 9516


Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (13:26): I am delighted to rise to speak in this debate because, among other things, both this bill, the Freedom of Information (Parliamentary Budget Office) Bill 2012, and the next bill, the Judicial Misbehaviour and Incapacity (Parliamentary Commissions) Bill 2012, are bills that arise from either initiatives of the opposition or, in the case of the latter, initiatives jointly developed in a bipartisan spirit by the government and the opposition.

As I and my colleagues have pointed out many times before, this opposition is a very policy-creative opposition. We are constantly putting new ideas on the table and we are delighted when the Labor government sees the wisdom of adopting our ideas. One of the ideas which the opposition initiated and which the government has seen the wisdom of adopting is the introduction of a parliamentary budget office, which was effected some while ago. This bill is consequential upon that initiative.

The Parliamentary Budget Office commenced operation in July. Its functions are to prepare election policy costings at the request of authorised party representatives and Independent members of parliament, and to prepare policy costings outside the caretaker period at the request of individual senators and members. In addition, it will initiate its own work program in anticipation of client requests and provide formal contributions on request to relevant parliamentary committee inquiries.

The PBO is an exempt agency under the FOI Act so that its services can be provided on a confidential basis. However, there is no specific exemption of documents related to PBO requests that may be held by departments and other agencies, which may therefore not be protected against release under the FOI Act. The purpose of this bill is to amend the FOI Act to provide an exemption for information held by departments and agencies that relates to a confidential request to the Parliamentary Budget Office. It also provides that an agency is not required to give information as to the existence or nonexistence of a document where it is exempted under the new provisions.

There has been much discussion in recent months about the coalition's use of the Parliamentary Budget Office for the costing of policies. In all the public debate so far, it seems to have been overlooked that, as I said at the beginning of this contribution, the idea of a parliamentary budget office was an idea that had its genesis in the coalition.

In May 2009, the then Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, first called for the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office, modelled on the US Congressional Budget Office. That measure was initially opposed by the Labor government. In June 2010, the current Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Tony Abbott, renewed the opposition's call for the creation of a parliamentary budget office. A private senator's bill to create the Parliamentary Budget Office was introduced into this chamber by former Senator Guy Barnett in June 2010. On 24 June 2010, the Senate referred the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee for inquiry and report. The review was interrupted by the calling of the election a few days later. Subsequently, the establishment of a parliamentary budget office became a coalition election commitment.

After the election, the initiative was embodied in the agreement between the government and the Independents, the government having seen the wisdom—after having resisted for so long in the previous parliament—of the opposition's initiative. The agreement between the government and the Greens of 1 September 2010 committed the government to establishing the Parliamentary Budget Office within 12 months. And the irony will not have escaped you, Madam Acting Deputy President Pratt, that, although the Parliamentary Budget Office was created as a result of an agreement between the Australian Labor Party and the Greens, the one political party in this country which was not a party to the agreement—that is, the coalition parties; the Liberal Party, in particular—was the party from which the idea originally arose.

The government dragged the chain on introducing the enabling legislation to the parliament. So the shadow Treasurer, Mr Hockey, took the initiative and introduced his own private member's bill in August 2011—the government having failed to honour its commitment to the Independents in this, as in other, respects. That forced the government to the table with its own legislation two days later. The government sought to negate Mr Hockey's bill by bringing in its own bill to the second reading vote first. The government's bill is, in many respects, inferior to the coalition's proposal, so the coalition proposed a large number of amendments to improve the operation of the PBO and to strengthen its powers. In the end, the government's unamended bill passed the parliament.

Let me pause to reflect on that and summarise the sequence of events. An initiative announced as long ago as May 2009, in a previous parliament, by the previous Leader of the Opposition was resisted throughout the previous parliament by the government. Because of the unusual circumstance of a hung parliament, and for no other reason, the Labor Party then committed to create a parliamentary budget office. Had there not been a hung parliament, there is no possibility that the Labor Party would have gone along with it. The Labor Party then dishonoured that commitment by refusing to introduce the legislation that it had promised to introduce and only did so when forced by an initiative of Mr Hockey in 2011 to do so—and then it sought to introduce a proposal significantly inferior to the coalition's proposal and fought every step of the way against amendments which would have improved the operation of the Parliamentary Budget Office. We can see from that sequence of events the depth and sincerity of the Labor Party's commitment to this beneficial measure!

Nevertheless, the Parliamentary Budget Office is now in the process of becoming operational. A key consideration has been to ensure that processes and protections are in place to ensure that requests to the Parliamentary Budget Office made prior to the issuing of the writs for an election can be kept confidential.

The PBO identified three steps which are required to ensure that it is a locked box. The first was to issue government protocols concerning the engagement between Commonwealth bodies and the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Those protocols are now government policy. Among other things, they outline the responsibilities of the heads of Commonwealth bodies and of their staff in engaging with the office and establish procedures to ensure the consistency and confidentiality of information provided to and by the PBO. The second step was to issue a memorandum of understanding between the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the heads of Commonwealth bodies in relation to the provision of information and documents. The MOU provides for the open exchange of information and outlines the roles and responsibilities of each party. The third step was the legislation which is now under discussion, the Freedom of Information Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Office) Bill. As I said before, this bill will exempt all material provided to the PBO from freedom-of-information laws.

We in the opposition of course take a more expansive view of freedom-of-information laws than the government; nevertheless, we are persuaded that, in certain circumstances, the protection of confidentiality in a process such as this is a more important policy consideration than freedom of information. The Parliamentary Budget Officer's work could not be carried out effectively if its clients did not enjoy a degree of confidentiality. So, for that reason, we agree with the government that this is a necessary measure. Once the bill is passed, the coalition will finally have confidence that the confidentiality of any policy submitted to the Parliamentary Budget Office for costing, up until the signing of the writs for a general election, will be fully preserved.

It pleases me to speak on behalf of the coalition in supporting the last legislative step in a legislative scheme first proposed, as I said before, by the opposition as long ago as May 2009 and resisted by this government every step of the way.