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Thursday, 29 April 1971

Senator WRIGHT (Tasmania) (Minister for Works) - I rise. only because 2 propositions that- have been advanced tonight should not - go -, on record undisputed, if only from the .point of view of upholding some sense of responsibility in the Senate. The first one is the statement by Senator Turnbull: which seems to imply that his rigid and , obstinate outlook on matters means that because the Government imposes a restraint on. expenditure all expenditure has to stop, and if new circumstances arise, involving a vote, for moderate expenditure to maintain an even or stable balance in the economy, the Government should not sanction that vote and ask the Parliament to approve it. It seems to me that that is an impetuous and unthinking proposition and that only a brief comment is needed to dispose of it.

The other matter is the submission made by Senator Murphy. It is really the one that brought me to my feet. I refer to a proposition that seems to imply that, because the Parliament votes $10m for a specific item in a certain financial year - let us say for the building of an earthworks dam - it is not within the right of the Government to reduce that expenditure to $8m during that year. That is a proposition for which I challenge any honourable senator to provide an authority. The appropriation is an authority given by this Parliament that the Treasury should disburse out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund an amount not exceeding $10m. Someone asked: 'Is it legal to reduce the expenditure?' The idea that a vote of a certain amount for an item of work or service imposes upon the Executive an obligation to spend that amount of money is unique in constitutional experience that has come to my knowledge, and I challenge any honourable senator to provide a precedent for it. It is quite obviously a misconstruction of the whole situation. An appropriation Bill is simply the expression by Parliament of authority for the Treasury, under the evercontinuing guidance of the Executive, to spend out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund an amount: of money not exceeding the sum stated in the item concerned for the purposes of that item.

Senator Murphy says that if our Budget is $7,000m - Iam taking round figures for the sake of simplicity - and, as a deliberate act, on the then known circumstances and the then appropriations we curtail expenditure so as to make the target expenditure $100m less than that, and if we then find that there are other items in respect of which overexpenditure is necessary, we should set them off and go through the Budget and say: 'You have saved $2m on this clam. Therefore you have to strike that out and put in the figure of $8m. And, until the new item has absorbed the $2m you have saved, you can receive no new appropriation'. What a confusion of accounts that would produce. Let us suppose that you did that in February. You would achieve an entirely different result from that which you would achieve if you did it in May. The requirement for clarity of accountsmeans that the Government is complained of because it is reducing the expenditure under appropriations made in the last Budget and, forsooth, we will be confronted with a proposition that we should be denied appropriations for new requirements that have emerged since that time.

I would have thought that that was so new tangled and so fantastic an idea that one had to consider it for only a few moments to see that a much better approach would be to consider the last Budget as an annual appropriation and to consider the current supplemental appropriation Bill as meeting requirements that have emerged since that time. Then, at the time of the next Budget, if the Government is to be castigated on political grounds, not on constitutional or legal grounds, let us hear any arguments on whether there has been a default in duty on the part of the Government in not spending the whole $10m on the earthworks dam and reducing expenditure on it to $8m. When the Government presents its accounts at the next Budget it shows any appropriations which were authorised the previous year but not expended. If the Government is to be taken to task, the Parliament has an unqualified remedy to submit the criticism and see whether in the judgment of the Parliament the Executive is approved or disapproved. The idea that there is anything illegal or unconstitutional in underspending an appropriation is fantastic.

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