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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 12495

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (11:10): The Parliamentary Budget Office is a good idea, and it is a good idea that was a long time coming. Put quite simply, the purpose of the Parliamentary Budget Office is to ensure that private members in this place can have their policies and their ideas costed. It means that, if members want to introduce private members' bills and those private members' bills are likely to have a cost associated with them, they are able to go to the PBO to ensure that they are appropriately costed. It means that members of an opposition party who do not have access to all the facilities of the agencies of state can access the Parliamentary Budget Office to ensure that, when they are putting forward policy proposals, those policy proposals can be appropriately costed. It means for the public at large that, when we are having a public debate about a contest of policies, we can do that in the appropriate context, because governments are about ensuring that we distribute scarce resources in the public interest and in the most appropriate way. It ensures that, when we are having those public debates, they include appropriate costings of contested policy ideas, particularly in an election contest when the people of Australia are being asked to make a decision about which side of politics will govern this great nation.

It is in the interests of the public and it is also in the interests of all members of this place. Had the Parliamentary Budget Office, for example, existed in 1987 when the then Leader of the Opposition John Howard launched the Liberal Party's tax policy for the upcoming election, they would not have been subsequently embarrassed by the fact that there was a $540 million black hole in their costings. They could have, quite simply, accessed the facilities of the Parliamentary Budget Office and presumably that gaping mistake in their costings would have been identified well in advance. So it is in the public and it is also in the good interests of all members of this place.

This legislation is designed to ensure that the Parliamentary Budget Office operates in the way that it was intended to. The purpose of the legislation is to ensure that we have a non-partisan and independent Parliamentary Budget Office, and one that will be used by members of this place.

The bill amends the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to protect the confidentiality of documents held by agencies in relation to confidential requests made to the independent Parliamentary Budget Office. The PBO is currently an exempt agency under the Freedom of Information Act, the FOI Act. It is exempt for good reason. The reason is that members of this place are unlikely to use the Parliamentary Budget Office if they were to think that their requests and submissions to the PBO would then be subject to an FOI discovery. For that reason the PBO is currently an exempt agency under the FOI Act.

However, the FOI Act does not provide a specific exemption for documents relating to PBO requests that may be held by departments and other agencies. Why would departments and other agencies have these documents in relation to FOI requests? Quite simply, a member, let's say the Leader of the Opposition, approaches the Parliamentary Budget Office for a request on some costings around some of their policy proposals. The PBO under its charter is able to make requests of a government agency to get information in relation to those requests. Under the law as it currently stands those requests may be FOI-able.

So, the purpose of this legislation is to ensure that you cannot do through the back door what is prohibited through the front door. It is currently prohibited through the front door that the PBO be subject to an FOI request, and what this legislation does is ensure that you cannot get that information through the back door by going directly to a government agency and cleverly crafting an FOI request which would cough up those otherwise prohibited documents.

The legislation will enhance the integrity of the independence of the PBO process, which is something that should be welcomed by all members of this place. It will further strengthen Australia's fiscal and budgetary frameworks by ensuring that information is protected and that independent advice can be given on budget, fiscal and financial implications of proposals of private members in this place.

As a consequence of this amendment, the bill also amends section 25 of the FOI Act to provide that an agency is not required to give information as to the existence or non-existence of a document where it is exempt under the new exemption for documents that relate to a confidential request to the PBO. It is not hard to imagine why this might be a necessary and important consequential amendment. It would be quite possible to craft an FOI request if you knew the proposals were being costed or, indeed, not being costed. It would be possible to craft an FOI request to a government agency and then either the existence of non-existence of that document could provide great political mileage to a person in this place who wanted to expose or embarrass the proponent of a particular policy proposal. Indeed, members of our esteemed media who report on the goings-on of this place might also seek to make a request similarly crafted for similar purposes. It is a sensible amendment to ensure that you cannot do through the back door what is prohibited and intended to be prohibited through the front door.

The bill also includes amendments to section 34 of the Privacy Act which provide that the commissioner, in carrying out functions under the Privacy Act—for example, investigating an act or practice of an agency that may be a breach of privacy—must not give a person any information as to the existence or non-existence of a document where it is exempt under the FOI Act. It is proposed to amend section 34 to refer to the new PBO exemption reflecting the amendment to section 25 of the FOI Act and ensuring that PBO documents are confidential.

The bill will operate retrospectively from the day after introduction. Retrospective legislation should be rare and this subject matter is one of those rare occasions when it is appropriate to ensure that discoveries of documents cannot reach back into the past to the beginning of the operations of the PBO, given that it was the intention of all members of this place that the discovery of such documents should not be available. The bill's limitation of the right of individuals to receive confidential information is reasonable and proportionate to its objective of protecting the integrity of the PBO and enhancing public administration.

These amendments, together with the crafting of the substantive legislation, are all aimed at a singular public purpose, and that is to ensure that, after establishing the Parliamentary Budget Office, funding it and ensuring that it is adequately funded to perform its purpose, it is actually used. All members of this place should see that it is in the public interest that a contestant in the political process should not be able to go to an election or go through three years of an electoral cycle and be able to put up policy proposals that are not adequately costed, inappropriately costed, or wilfully inappropriately costed, to escape public and parliamentary scrutiny. This bill will ensure that that public purpose is furthered—to encourage all members of this place to use the Parliamentary Budget Office. It is consistent with many of the reforms that we have introduced since Labor was elected to office in 2007.

To hear the shadow minister recently take a swipe at the record of this government in relation to our practice under freedom of information laws beggars belief, quite frankly. It is the equivalent of Colonel Sanders calling for vegetarianism. Their approach to FOI when in government was something that experts, members of the media and all right-thinking members in this place looked on with great scorn. You need look no further than their practice of using conclusive certificates as an example. This is relevant to the legislation before the House—because it is relevant to ensure that this legislation, which is directed at ensuring appropriate scrutiny of public policy proposals, is facilitated.

That is the complete opposite of what we saw under the previous government. The opposition spokesperson who spoke just recently on this issue was a member of that government. They scattered these conclusive certificates, which are designed for the sole purpose of precluding public scrutiny of policy proposals by the government, around like confetti. Then we hear a member of the opposition—a member of the Liberal Party—stand up here and make some snide comment about our commitment to freedom of information, when we put in place the greatest overhaul of the freedom of information laws as well as arrangements to ensure that the FOI laws work in relation to the operations of this place and the operations of government in exactly the way they are intended to—in the public interests of transparency. It stands head and shoulders above the operation and provision of any government in the history of this parliament. So the proposition by members opposite that somehow we are not committed to the reform of FOI and to ensuring that the legislation operates in the way it was intended cannot stand unchallenged.

Our FOI laws are good and proper, and the reforms that are being proposed by this bill are good legislation. The legislation is aimed at ensuring that the Parliamentary Budget Office operates in the way it was intended. Perhaps I can conclude by making this remark. Having funded and established the budget office, it is now incumbent on all members of this place to use it, to ensure that we do not have the embarrassing spectacle of parties or individuals going to an election with uncosted or inappropriately costed policy proposals. As a result of these reforms and of the legislation that was put in place by this government, there will now be no excuse for them not to use it. I commend the legislation to the House.