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Monday, 23 March 2020
Page: 2872


Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (17:20): Thanks very much, Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, for the opportunity to speak on and support these supply bills—Supply Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021, Supply Bill (No. 2) 2020-2021 and Supply (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021. We support them for the usual reasons but also because in this case, considering some of the extraordinary measures in them, they are a sensible contingency for the next seven months to make sure that the usual operations of government can continue and so that we can update the advance to the finance minister provisions to allow for what are extremely uncertain times when it comes to the provision of public funds over the next little while.

As the assistant minister said a moment ago, they provide seven months of funding for the year, with a couple of exceptions around the National Disability Insurance Agency, and full-year funding for Services Australia, the tax office and the health department, which are crucial right now, and also for the measures specifically associated with the coronavirus response. They appropriate some large sums. That is a sensible contingency given the position that we find ourselves in.

I want to speak in a little more detail about the advance to the finance minister provisions. These have existed for some time but have been updated in the usual way in the bills that are before us. The advance allows the finance minister to appropriate money in unforeseen circumstances, when there's otherwise been an error or when there's funding which is supported but has not yet been appropriated in the other ways. The provisions are usually for a reasonable, modest amount. For example, there was a $295 million advance and a $300 million advance in recent times. These supply bills are proposing an unprecedented advance to the finance minister. We have supported that on this side of the House, consistent with what we've been saying all day about the other bills, which I was able to talk about at length this morning. We are being as responsible, constructive and supportive as we can be. We recognise that this is not business as usual in the economy, so it shouldn't be business as usual in politics either. We have engaged with the government on aspects of these supply bills. I wanted to recognise the work of the shadow finance minister, Katy Gallagher in the other place, working with her counterpart, Mathias Cormann, the finance minister. They have had their heads together for some time on these matters and have been able to negotiate quite effectively. Senator Gallagher, who is a far better shadow finance minister than her predecessor ever was, has done a great job in securing some commitments from the government. They've been mentioned by the minister opposite in his contribution a moment ago.

For example, when the government use the advance provisions, they now need to issue a press release so that there is some transparency after every single use of the advance. Secondly, if there's an advance greater than $1 billion, it requires approval from the opposition, via Senator Gallagher in the other place, with an exchange of letters. You can imagine lots of circumstances in the current climate where there might be a need for big health expenditure. If it is more than $1 billion, Senator Cormann would write to Senator Gallagher. They would exchange letters quickly, and the advance could take place. We think an extra layer of agreement and consultation between the government and the opposition is an important step, given the magnitude of the money involved here. These measures will enhance transparency and scrutiny and will improve the process of relying on that advance, particularly now when there is so much focus on what else we might need to do, whether it be in health spending or other types of spending, to help Australians get through a very difficult period.

I will touch on one other issue. I had an opportunity earlier today to talk about the broader economic stimulus measures. I will add one more point. In addition to the agreement that's been struck between the government and the opposition on the additional transparency for this advance mechanism, we do think it important that the government consider, more than they have to this point, releasing some kind of updated economic forecast and budget forecasts. We understand, and we said so publicly on the day that the government announced that they wanted to push the budget back, that there are severe workforce issues in the Commonwealth Treasury and the Department of Finance. We are cognisant of those. When the government pushed back the budget to October we said that we recognise that there are issues there and that it would be difficult to do a full, comprehensive budget on the original time frame. At the same time, we do think it would be very important to not keep the Australian people in the dark for the 10 months between the mid-year update last December and the budget in this coming October.

We need Australian businesses and the broader Australian community to know what the Commonwealth Treasury thinks is going to happen in the economy and in the budget. This is crucial. We can't have people in the dark for such a long period about what the Treasury thinks. It's really important that the vacuum is not filled in the absence of credible Treasury forecasts by all kinds of other guesstimates that we have to rely on. It's not a partisan point or a heavily political argument that we're having. I've engaged on it with the Treasurer and with the Treasury secretary, and we had the opportunity to engage with the Prime Minister on it in the cabinet room yesterday. We want the professionalism of the Commonwealth Treasury applied to giving the Australian people, Australian businesses and decision-makers of all kinds in the economy the capacity to know what the Treasury thinks is happening. The regular monthly updates in the budget are not enough. They're backward looking. We need a forward-looking sense of what's happening in the budget and what's happening in the economy. So as part of the constructive process that has happened here to agree to these supply bills and the advance to the finance minister provisions, ideally, the government would also reconsider their position on providing other kinds of forecasts so that people can have a sense of what the Treasury thinks about the state of the economy and the state of the budget.

That doesn't prevent us from supporting these supply bills for all the usual reasons but also the additional reasons of urgency and uncertainty right now. We are pleased to do so. We thank Senator Cormann and Senator Gallagher for their negotiation that led to this outcome. Other colleagues no doubt will avail themselves of the opportunity to speak about the supply bills and also about the coronavirus measures more broadly.

Debate interrupted.