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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 9418

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (18:00): It has been an afternoon for quotations. I think the government, including their partners, the Greens, should very much keep in mind the adage, 'As ye sow, so shall ye reap.' The Parliamentary Service Amend­ment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Bill 2011 produces a very pale imitation of the commitment made by the coalition—the coalition of the Liberal and National parties, I might point out—during the election campaign to establish an independent, and fearless therefore, Parliamentary Budget Office. In fact, the legislation was introduced by the shadow Treasurer, Mr Joe Hockey, into the House of Representatives on 22 August. Soon after, on 24 August, we had the government bringing in its own pathetic attempt at a bill to establish a Parliamentary Budget Office.

There is nothing at all independent or useful about the organisation that the government is going to set up. For a start, it will be within Treasury, basically, and it will do the bidding of Treasury—or whoever the government chooses to ask it to do it for. It will immediately release information on costings it has been asked to do and it will release those costings as soon as they are done. I am very concerned at the cynicism of this apparent exercise by the government in this area, because what body, what group within this parliament, is going to give the government their figures and the costings without an opportunity to review them themselves?

As the shadow Treasurer, Mr Hockey, pointed out, there was an example at the last election, where costings were done by Treasury on some of our policies that suggested that there would be a shortfall. After the election, Treasury agreed with Mr Hockey and Mr Robb that the interest rate we had chosen to use was the correct one. Of course, the damage had already been done. The government had run around, based on the incorrect assumptions used by Treasury, to claim that there was a black hole in our election costings.

The purpose of having a Parliamentary Budget Office is to give every person in the Senate and every member of the House of Representatives the opportunity to get sensible and independent economic advice and costings on policy ideas. This will not happen if these figures are not able to be kept private whilst people work through what may be wrong assumptions or matters that they did not take into consideration when they first raised the policy idea. There must be a confidential service for costing policy proposals for all MPs and senators—the opposition, minor parties, Independents and even government backbenchers if they have the courage to put forward policy ideas that differ from those of their party. It must be a crucial and non-negotiable element of the legislation that this confidentiality is available. It will be absolutely pointless and useless to have a Parliamentary Budget Office that does not include the prospect of confidentiality. Senator Cormann will shortly be moving amendments to seek to ensure that this is what happens. We will not be submitting our policy costings to either Treasury or a Parliamentary Budget Office prior to an election if we do not have the opportunity to talk to the body doing the costing about assumptions that underlie the costings or even perhaps—though highly unlikely—errors made in costing the policies in the first place.

The Charter of Budget Honesty was actually brought in by the Howard coalition government. Its primary task was to ensure that a government could not mislead the public prior to an election about the state of the fiscal position. It was put in place because of the misleading and disastrous position that the Howard government discovered when the Keating government went out of power in 1996. The Labor Party has really never used the facility at all—not in opposition, not in government. In 2007 and in 2010 they released their full policy costings the day before the election—with the intended idea that this could not be challenged in any sensible way. There were shortcomings with the Charter of Budget Honesty, and one of those was that the service was not confidential; hence our promise at the last election, our commitment at the last election, to have a confidential costing service available to any member of this place who wants to develop policy and find out what the fiscal effects of that policy would be. Under the government's scheme, members of parliament would have no control over the timing of release of policies. They would not have the prerogative to decide to change their policy or amend their policy if the costing turned out to be substantially different from what was expected. So why on earth would they bother?

The point of a Parliamentary Budget Office is to improve governance and policy-making in this place. The only way that that can happen is if members of the opposition and members of minority parties have the same access to information that Treasury and Finance do, but they do not because this bill is designed to ensure they do not. The Parliamentary Budget Officer will have no right to seek information, in fact from anywhere; no right to ask people to appear before him or to pass on information. You cannot arrive at accurate and agreed costings unless there is the opportunity to test those costings with people who understand what is happening in the field. The idea of a Parliamentary Budget Office as we set it out was to level the playing field so that not just the government has the ability to access Treasury and Finance figures but there is the opportunity for everyone to access proper information.

This is a very important change, if it is done properly, to assist in good government of this country. It means that the opposition, the alternative government, would have the opportunity to properly test its policies against the figures that are available but not given to anyone by the government. We have so many examples where the government have chosen to keep secret parts of the modelling—we need only to go back to the carbon tax—they have used. There is no opportunity other than the work—the very good work—done by many stakeholder organisations to disprove the government's figures. The government might like it that way now but they need to remember that they will be in opposition very soon and that a system with probity and that is independent would help. It is quite interesting to note that Senator Sherry in 1997 said:

Costings of opposition policy can only be undertaken at the discretion of the Prime Minister. This is unbalanced and clearly advantages the incumbent government. Only costings of previously announced policies is allowed—that is, policy decisions would have to be made on the basis of incomplete information and be announced.

The paragon of all things good governance, the Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, said he would be moving amendments so that:

… all participants in elections can avail themselves of having their policies vetted. I think it should be expanded beyond Labor, Liberal and Democrats to all players …

These people are right: that is how it should be. It should provide objective and impartial advice and it should be able to do so in a confidential manner for the person or the party seeking the information. It is very, very short-sighted of this government and their coalition friends the Greens not to accept the amendments that we will be proposing to this bill.