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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2302

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (17:03): I cannot claim to have had the long membership of the Public Works Committee that some of the others on the committee have—particularly the deputy chair, John Forrest, who has been on the committee for his entire parliamentary career—but I do share the concerns that the coalition has raised in a supplementary statement attached to the annual report and I would like to share some of the concerns that Mr Forrest initially brought to my attention when I joined this committee.

I should first of all point out that the Public Works Committee is the oldest committee in this place; it will be 100 years old in September this year. Under the Public Works Committee Act 1969 all public works that have an estimated cost exceeding $15 million must be referred to the committee and cannot be commenced until the committee has made its report to parliament. I think it might be best to very quickly go through what the act says the committee will consider. It says:

(a) the stated purpose of the work and its suitability for that purpose;

(b) the necessity for, or the advisability of, carrying out the work;

(c) the most effective use that can be made, in the carrying out of the work, of the moneys to be expended on the work;

(d) where the work purports to be of a revenue-producing character, the amount of revenue that it may reasonably be expected to produce; and

(e) the present and prospective public value of the work.

I joined the committee in 2011, and in that year the Public Works Committee conducted inquiries into 11 works with a combined cost of $780.7 million. It also looked at 48 medium works proposals—works with a value between $2 million and $15 million—with a combined value of $433.3 million.

The Public Works Committee has had a fine reputation for acting in a nonpartisan way to oversee the very judicious and effective spending of taxpayers' money. So it is sad that, in this report, the coalition has been prompted for the first time ever to produce a supplementary statement looking at bodies that have been exempted from the oversight of the Public Works Committee—in particular, the National Broadband Network and also the Aboriginal land trusts. I know that, in both cases, there was very strong concern expressed by the committee around the motivation for doing so. It is interesting to note that even the committee's annual report, which all the coalition members of the committee support, comments that whilst the government has established the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network to oversee NBN Co.:

Notwithstanding its establishment, the Joint Committee does not possess the powers of the Public Works Committee.

This, of course, is one of the things that has prompted the coalition members of the committee to be so concerned. The Public Works Committee, a highly respected and nonpartisan committee, has been replaced by a committee with fewer powers to oversee the NBN Co. As Mr Forrest has already said in the House of Representatives, we are very concerned about the reasons behind these exemptions and we are very concerned that they are being done for reasons that are outside the genuine need to protect commercial-in-confidence material and to make sure that public money is well spent. In his comments, Mr Forrest said:

… what needs to be understood quite strongly here is that the executive of the parliament does not own the money that gets spent by the agencies it regulates. It belongs to the people of Australia.

I do not think that is a point that this government acknowledges often enough or cares about.

Mr Forrest pointed out that partisanship has, in general, been 'left at the door' in the Public Works Committee because we are examining works that are there for the good of all. This committee has looked at detention centres and the building thereof without it becoming a political issue. It has been handled sensitively. There have been visits by members of the committee to Christmas Island. That was handled without great problems by this committee. It has a very, very long tradition of almost 100 years and yet we have the very sad circumstance of the NBN not being subject to this committee. I join Mr Forrest and the other coalition members of this committee in saying that I believe this is a travesty. The new committee does not have the powers that the Public Works Committee has and nor does it appear to be functioning in quite the way that the Public Works Committee would have in the same circumstances. The committee's most critical responsibility, I guess, is to ensure that every cent of Australia's taxpayers' money is spent wisely and judiciously. That is an objective that this committee has rigorously pursued and has a reputation for rigorously pursuing.

We continue to be extremely concerned about the government's response here. There has never been a leak from the Public Works Committee that any of the current members of the committee are aware of and yet they deal with highly sensitive infrastructure plans and proposals all the time. It is very hard to draw any conclusion about the fact that the NBN Co. was not put under the scrutiny of the Public Works Committee, except to suggest that it was a political move by this government to lessen the rigour of the scrutiny that NBN Co. would be exposed to. Certainly it is a very worrying trend if the government is to pursue this pathway of being more concerned with getting its politics right than with getting the scrutiny right. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.