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Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Page: 10891

Mr ROBB (Goldstein) (20:04): Last night it took us three hours, in answer to a series of questions, to eventually establish with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer that during the 33-day campaign period the nature of costings would be absolutely no different to what we witnessed at the last election. I think everyone accepts that that is totally unacceptable. All it means is that we will have a dogfight for 33 days between ourselves when people in the community really want to debate the policies.

It is not beyond the wit of man to establish—and the member for Forde just put his finger right on it—the capacity for the policies of both sides of politics to be assessed by the same authority in an independent fashion, in an open, honest and transparent way. That is all that is being requested, yet this thing has been so complicated, so misrepresented from the original intent, that there is now a large measure of mistrust that has already emerged between both sides of politics. And it will have a real effect. Actions have consequences, and if this mistrust is not dealt with then it will impact on how we deal with the costings process at the next election.

We are 100 per cent prepared to have all of our costings dealt with by the PBO in an independent fashion, as I would expect the government's policies to be dealt with so that both sides of politics know that it is a level playing field, that the database on which it is based is identical for both and that if there are mistakes because the data may be wrong they will be reflected in both costings. That is not so much point. It is really what order of magnitude of cost is associated with these costings. There has been a large measure of distrust generated because of the nature of this bill that the government has presented. That is exactly why my friend and colleague the member for North Sydney has presented a lot of very sensible amendments to this bill to try and get back to the original intent.

The second thing we discovered last night was what would happen if the Parliamentary Budget Office made a request of Treasury for the data, the modelling, the assumptions and the variables associated with something like the carbon tax. In a very long-winded and roundabout way the answer we got was that that would be a matter for the Treasury—that it would be a matter for the memorandum of understanding that the Treasury would have carriage of. The Parliamentary Budget Office would basically tug their forelock to any one of 30 departments—in in this case Treasury—and be told under the memorandum of understanding. The memorandum of understanding is not negotiated; from what we could ascertain last night, the memorandum of understanding is a question of the Parliamentary Budget Office being told by each department what they could and could not receive.

So my first question to the parliamentary secretary tonight is: am I correct that the memorandums of understanding do not involve a negotiation; they do involve, essentially, the Parliamentary Budget Office being told what they can expect to receive by way of data, modelling, variables, assumptions and whatever? I would be grateful if the parliamentary secretary could give me and my colleagues an answer to that question. (Extension of time granted)

The second question I would like to ask is about when costings would be released if we had completed 80 per cent of the costings of our policy proposals, or even more, before the election—if we had done 100 per cent, as the parliamentary secretary suggested we must. I think he said that any well-organised party would have all its policies ready and costed before the campaign started, but bear in mind that two-thirds of the government's policies, when they were in opposition and ran for election in 2007, were presented on the Thursday before the election in a press release. The detail actually got delivered on Friday at lunch time. It just makes a mockery of what the government says. We got lectured last night. We were asked how we could be expected to be considered organised if we did not have all that work done and costed before the election.

But let us say we had done that. Let us say we had done 100 per cent of the costings, as the parliamentary secretary has suggested—but which, in his own experience, he has never delivered. If we had done that, could he please explain when the costings data that was associated with that would be released publicly? He said last night that in the period before the 33-day campaign the costings of any policies would be confidential. That was always our understanding, but it is very important for us to know when the Parliamentary Budget Office would be required to release those costings in a public sense. Ultimately, if we announce a policy, the costings, as we have said from day one, would be subsequently released for the public to have a look at in an open, honest and transparent way.

The third item that I would like to pursue is an example that came up at the last election. We requested from the government in advance of the campaign—so that we could be prepared and have costings well ahead of the conclusion of the campaign, or even the start of the campaign—a status list of the infrastructure projects that they had already contracted out of the infrastructure fund that had been gifted to them by the previous government, and which they were in the process of spending. They have spent every other fund that was gifted to them by the government, including the surplus.

Mr Briggs: Now they want the Future Fund.

Mr ROBB: Now they want the Future Fund. Now they are pillaging the Future Fund. But that is another matter. The point is that we asked for a list of the infrastructure projects, knowing full well that they would have contracted some confidentially but not others—that they would have other things in consideration but they would not have contracted them. We wanted that so that if we happened to win office we would have a capacity to change the priorities, as they did when they came to office.

We were unable to identify the government projects which we could cancel or reschedule because we did not have the list. So we asked for the list. We wrote formally. The Leader of the National Party, as I remember, wrote to the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and asked for the list and the amount of money that was uncontracted. The request was ignored. He wrote again. It was ignored again. This is a government that came to office promising transparency, openness and honesty!

So we made a conservative assessment of the redirection of $3.3 billion from the fund. When we turned up to have a meeting with the two secretaries of the departments it was a one-way conversation rather than a discussion in many respects because everything that we put was not taken into account. We were told that we could not book that $3.3 billion because we had not identified individual projects. (Extension of time granted)

We were told that we could not book any of the $3.3 billion. In other words we had created, automatically, a $3.3 billion contribution to the $10 billion so-called black hole because we were not given a list of projects that were contracted and the amount that was uncontracted. The secretaries did concede that there were sufficient funds in the infrastructure funds to support these redirections. So there was $3.3 billion in the fund that was not contracted. The secretaries accepted that and conceded that there were sufficient funds but, despite conceding the money was there, we got fitted up with another $3.3 billion as a black hole. They said, 'We've made our decision,' for about the fifth time in a row. These things are why we have lost any trust in the government in particular and in those that they send to deal with us in private. It was a stitch-up. It was a politicised process in the extreme. How can they defend that? There was by the admission of the secretaries $3.3 billion uncontracted, sitting there, available to be spent by an incoming government on the projects of their choice.

My question is: what happens if the Treasury at the next election says to the Parliamentary Budget Office in their memorandum of understanding, 'Thou shalt not receive a list of the projects and thou shalt not receive the amount of money that is uncontracted'? What does that mean? Does it compel the Parliamentary Budget Office to take out an FOI? If it does compel the Parliamentary Budget Office to take out an FOI, I understand there is a 28-day period of grace for delivery. That is pretty much the campaign proper.

Can you understand now why we are starting to develop a massive level of distrust in this process? When I look back at the number of items that we were stood up from—and which we were told were black holes—and when I go through each one of those to try to establish the assumptions, we were not allowed to get access. In trying to establish the amount of money in funds, we were not allowed to get access. In trying to elicit from the government or the secretaries why they used 4.9 per cent on the bond rate when it had never been that low—and the market average for the previous six months was 5.5—when I try to get that information, which we were denied, I see that the PBO is likely to be denied that same information.

How better off are we now? Just about every item that we were knocked back on, which have been hanging around our neck and lit in the last year because of some so-called black hole, was actually the product of a politicised process. They were all products of being denied information again and again. When we question the parliamentary secretary now, it would appear that that information in all prospects will be denied the Parliamentary Budget Office. We will go through this charade of a dogfight throughout the campaign again. When we want to discuss the merits of the policy we do not want to be discussing whether we have something right or not, because we do not have access to the assumptions, to the data or to the variables, and the Parliamentary Budget Office by all accounts will not have them either. I would be grateful if the parliamentary secretary could answer those three questions that I have put to him.