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Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Page: 10894

Mr BILLSON (Dunkley) (20:19): I do share the frustration of my friend and colleague the member for Goldstein. We have the Marcel Marceau of the ministry here. He will not answer a question. He will not deal with any of these matters of substance that are brought before him. I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer is here purely for ornamental value. It is a lovely tie, but I think there could be more value added to this debate tonight than him sitting there like a stunned mullet unable to answer very basic questions that go to the integrity of the proposal that is before us.

It reminds me of the contribution when the member for Page was critical of the opposition's vision of a parliamentary budget office and warned that, under the coalition proposal, the government would not have control of it. The member for Page belled the cat. Under the coalition's proposal the member for Page was concerned that the government would not have control of it. This is where the MOU comes in. You put this coathanger of a legislative framework in place, which has already had the guts ripped out of it, and then rely upon a memorandum of understanding with no threshold minimum requirements of reasonable access. That gives you a sense of the efforts the government is going to to control the Parliamentary Budget Office so that it is yet another organ of the executive and not a resource that adds to the good governance of the country.

Then you go further and you actually have a look at what else was said to be the case. I refer back to the member for Fraser's contribution. He stood in this place and said on Monday, 12 September—and I quote—'the aim of the bill is to shine a spotlight on coalition costings'. The whole purpose of this bill is not to serve the parliament, it is not to serve good governance in the country, it is actually to provide another weapon with which the executive can seek to slap around the opposition. This is where we come to the whole debate about the motive with which the government is approaching this issue. You can absolutely understand, because there is case after case, example after example, evidence after evidence that shows the government is doing all it can to compromise, to hobble and to leg-tie the Parliamentary Budget Office so that it is in perfect synchronicity and harmony with whatever the government wants to have it do and the work it wants carried out. Even the Parliamentary Library, in its analysis of this, makes a point which is quite interesting. It talks about the debate in Australia and how the best known of such a parliamentary budget office is no doubt the Congressional Budget Office in the United States. It points to other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands that have established similar bodies, and it makes, I think, what is proving to be a quite courageous claim. It says:

While the precise nature and functions of each of these bodies differs, a key feature is that they share an independence from the executive branch of government.

I am sorry to say that this is no longer the case. This is a parliamentary budget office quite of its own creation—one that seeks to be a resource to the parliament but which turns out to be nothing but a tool of the executive nobbled in terms of what it can do and then constrained in the information which it can access.

As I mentioned earlier, the MOU is supposed to be the process through which these issues are elucidated and the exchange of information carried out. Read some of the material that has been brought forward to support what the government is proposing. Even in its response to recommendations from the joint select committee there is a statement relating to 'the government proposes that memoranda of understanding between the PBO and government departments will deal with interactions with the FOI Act.' My friend and colleague the member for Goldstein made a very good point: is the memorandum of understanding just going to be a glorified FOI process minus the fees? Is that all we are talking about? That is the risk that we have here: an outcome which is no different from what is there now—an opportunity and a utility of the Parliamentary Budget Office that adds absolutely nothing to where we are right now.

If you read further into the joint select committee's report it goes into a rather lengthy statement about what the Treasury proposes would be excluded under the information-sharing arrangements that would so apparently inform the Parliamentary Budget Office. The Treasury asserts that these things should be excluded: specific information which is commercially valuable in nature; information produced for the purposes of the deliberative processes or the national economy. That goes to some of the very points the member for Goldstein is making: which projects to fund and which ones not to fund; what is the recommendation that goes forward? Also excluded should be certain cabinet documents and ministers briefing documents. You can see it now. (Extension of time granted) This list goes on to talk about information which is subject to privacy and the like. What the Treasury is trying to do is shape up an expectation for these memorandums of understanding that seek to provide some flexibility but at the end of the day rule out anything that is useful in the effort of inquiry and inquisition that should be at the heart of the work of the Parliamentary Budget Office.

If you are wondering why we would be suspicious about this, it is because Labor has form. You look at what has happened in New South Wales, the process there, where there is an arrangement that is pretty much a tricked-up version of FOI that applies in New South Wales. The Clerk of the Senate considered these arrangements and the provisions that operated in New South Wales and offered to the committee this observation:

It seems to me that the Parliamentary Budget Office in New South Wales can get access to the sort of information from government agencies that anyone would be able to get under FOI in New South Wales.

The Clerk of the Senate then poses the question:

Is that good enough for a Parliamentary Budget Office?

He goes on to answer:

I do not think so, because the parliament is the grand inquisition of the nation, is scrutinising the operations of government on behalf of the people to use very broad terms and has both the rights and powers to have information to inform it to do that job properly.

That is the argument we are putting forward to make sure that the information is accessible and is not needlessly constrained. Yet the government offers up this fig leaf of credibility in the form of an MOU. But what sits behind every reference, every attempt to explain what the MOU would actually do is that it constrains, it restricts, it limits and it impedes the access to the very information the Parliamentary Budget Office should have access to.

So I again put to the Independents—the Independents, where have they gone? That is right, they are not here. The Independents are not here. This debate, so fundamentally important to the new paradigm in good governance, we are in here debating these issues—

Mr Robb: It is after six.

Mr BILLSON: As the member for Goldstein said, 'It is after six,' but I just wonder where they are, because these are fundamental questions about whether this Parliamentary Budget Office only has the credibility of the name above the door but once you walk through that door there is nothing there. It is like a Hollywood film set: great front of house, nothing of any meat behind it, and none of the tools, powers or resources that it needs to carry out the important job this parliament and certainly this coalition hopes it would be able to contribute to the better governance of the country.