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Wednesday, 1 October 1958

Mr LESLIE (Moore) .- Honorable gentlemen opposite may say "Aw", when I rise to speak, but I remind them that they have a responsibility to the electors as members of this chamber. I put it to the committee that there is no greater responsibility than that of guarding the finances of the country. I want to tell the committee that there is a report by the Public Accounts Committee on the contents of this statement. Members of this Parliament may sometimes ask themselves why the Public Accounts Committee has devoted so much of its attention to inquiring into underspending of votes. The reason is that very often under-spending is related to overestimating in other departments. If honorable members care to study the 41st report of the Public Accounts Committee, they will see that that fact is dealt with there.

I am concerned about this one question of reliable estimating in connexion with the presentation of the annual Budget. Irrespective of what government is in office, the amount of taxation which it will be called upon to impose is dependent upon the volume of expenditure which heads of departments and the Treasury submit to the Government as being the minimum required to carry on the affairs of the country. The Government must be guided by its advisers and calculate the amount of revenue which it must raise by way of taxation to meet the expenditure represented by those estimates. All the money must come from the pockets of the taxpayers. That is an important fact to remember.

If there is over-estimating, obviously the taxpayers will be called upon to pay far more than is reasonable. On the other hand, if there is under-estimating, although for the moment it might relieve the necessity for raising a large amount of taxation, some departments will hope that other departments will underspend their estimate so that they can make up their deficiency, under the appropriate section of the Audit Act, or else meet it from the Treasurer's Advance.

Accurate estimating is the basis of good government. Recently, during a debate on the Public Accounts Committee, the honorable member for the Australian Capital Territory (Mr. J. R. Fraser) suggested that the Public Accounts Committee could only attempt to do something with the horse after it had escaped from the stable. I replied to the honorable member that that committee did manage to close the stable doors to prevent other horses from escaping. It is the responsibility of Parliament to make sure that the horses do not escape from the stables in the first place. This can be done by ensuring that the rate of taxation is' reasonable because the rate of spending is reasonable and that estimates are reliable.

On previous occasions the honorable member for Warringah (Mr. Bland) has pointed out that some honorable members want to turn a discussion on the Estimates into a sort of second-reading debate. If it is not possible for us to depart from that practice then Parliament should seek to make some arrangement by which the financial operations of this country are satisfactorily safeguarded. Australia is a young country and our parliamentary operations are in their infancy compared with those of the Mother Country. We can easily apply remedial measures. The problem which is facing us to-day is not peculiar to this country; it is found in the United Kingdom also. I should like honorable members to read a magazine published in the United Kingdom entitled "The Statist". In its issue dated 22nd August last, an article appeared under the heading "Tiptoe Through the Estimates ". Several members of the Opposition, including the honorable member for Watson (Mr. Cope), seem to be displaying an attitude of irresponsibility. The honorable member for Watson has been a most valuable member of the Public Accounts Committee, and I should have thought that he and his colleagues would have had a sense of deep responsibility in this important matter.

Mr Crean - The honorable member has no sense of humour.

Mr LESLIE - My reply to the honorable member for Melbourne Ports is that the subject of government finance is one in which honorable members can hardly find the opportunity to exercise a sense of humour. This article in "The Statist" refers to the sixth report from the Select Committee on Estimates of the United Kingdom Parliament. This is a joint, allparty committee of 36 members which examines the Estimates, apart from the Public Accounts Committee, before they are passed by the Parliament. In its report it made some very caustic comments.

According to this article in the " Statist ", the sixth report of that select committee - should raise public misgivings and ensure some action towards a rational system of national bookkeeping.

That was a comment on the procedure of a parliament which is centuries old. It might be difficult for the United Kingdom Parliament to effect remedies in its system of dealing with Estimates, but it should not be difficult for a young country like Australia to do so. This article goes on to say -

In the " Statist " we have often criticized the system of estimating which renders the Budget no more than an essay in guess work.

That has been characteristic of the Estimates in this country over the last 40 or 50 years. Instead of estimating, it has been guess work. I think that the honorable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr. Crean), who also has been a valuable member of the Public Accounts Committee, can take his mind back to inquiries into estimating when it was found that the so-called Estimates could more aptly be described as " guesstimates ".

Statement agreed to.

Motion (by Mr. Harold Holt) agreed to -

That the following resolution be reported to the House: -

That the committee agrees with the statement for the year 1957-58 of Heads of Expenditure and the Amounts charged thereto pursuant to section 36a of the Audit Act 1901-1957.

Resolution reported; report adopted.

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