Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Speech in Parliament - Parliamentary Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Bill 2013 - 28 May 2013

Mr TONY SMITH (Casey) (17:32): On behalf of the shadow Treasurer, I rise to speak on the Parliamentary Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Bill 2013. The coalition is supporting this bill. This bill amends the Parliamentary Service Act 1999 to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer the function of preparing a report, including costings of the publicly announced policies of the designated parliamentary parties, within 30 days after a government forms following a general election.

Let me begin with some history. The establishment of a parliamentary budget office was a coalition election commitment in the 2010 federal election. The establishment of a PBO was also a key element of the agreement between the government and the member for Lyne, the member for New England and the member for Denison, along with the Greens. On 23 March 2011, following the federal election, the government established a joint select committee inquiry into the proposed parliamentary budget officer, which subsequently recommended that the PBO be established. The coalition pushed ahead and introduced its own version of a parliamentary budget office on 22 August that year and the government immediately followed and introduced its own legislation. The government introduced its own bill into the parliament on 24 August 2011 and it is this bill which is now being amended.

The PBO currently performs services across five functions. First, it prepares policy costings on request by parliamentarians outside of the caretaker period. Second, it prepares policy costings on request by authorised members of parliamentary parties or Independent members during the caretaker period. Third, it prepares responses other than policy costings to parliamentarian requests relating to the budget. Fourth, it prepares submissions to inquiries of parliamentary committees at the request of committees. Finally, it conducts research on and analysis of the budget and fiscal policy settings on its own initiative.

The bill before the House seeks to make an amendment to the Parliamentary Budget Officer's functions by adding a sixth function. This function will be to audit election costings of all parties within 30 days after a government is formed. Specifically, the PBO will be required to prepare a report before the end of 30 days after the election for each parliamentary party on the costings of publicly announced policies and the impact the total combined cost of those policies would have on the Commonwealth budget. We have already indicated in public that we would support this amendment.

The coalition has nothing to fear from a review of its election costings and, indeed, looks forward to receiving the PBO verification. What is strange is that, even though the coalition indicated its support for this legislation, the government are today moving another set of amendments—so the government are amending their own amendments. This is typical of the chaotic approach of the Labor government to the business of this House. They did not take the time with the original drafting but rushed a half-baked bill into the House in order to score political points. It did not work, and we said it, 'Bring it on,' but now they realise their bill is deficient and needs further work—another example of total ineptitude.

It would be best to discuss the government's amendments together, both the original amendments and the new ones that are flagged to be introduced in the consideration in detail stage, as they flow together and make more sense as a whole unit. It would be best if the government withdrew its original amendments and introduced a new corrected set; however, that is not the way it is being done. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer indicates, he is determined to stick to their chaotic approach; so I will restrict my comments on the second reading to the original bill.

The bill confers new information-gathering powers on the PBO. At present the PBO has no legislative powers to require information to be provided to it. All it has is the power to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Commonwealth bodies. These MOUs are just agreements and are non-enforceable. To date the PBO has said these MOUs are largely working well. The information powers within this bill will expand the PBO's functions to require heads of Commonwealth bodies to comply with requests in time to allow information to be taken into account in preparing relevant policy costings. This is unless it is not practicable and lawful, or if it would disclose confidential commercial information or prejudice national security. This requirement applies only during the caretaker period.

The amendments also compel political parties to do certain things. Specifically parties must before 5 pm on the day before polling day in an election give the PBO a list in writing of the policies the party has publicly announced it intends to implement after the election. This compulsion is unusual. Up until now the PBO legislation has not mandated that any party should provide information to the PBO. It has been a voluntary arrangement struck under these agreements. Although these new provisions entail compulsion, we note that there are no penalties for noncompliance, so the provisions cannot be said to be onerous. There is no definition as to which person will be responsible for ensuring the parties' commitments are met, but presumably the ultimate responsibility lies with the leader of each parliamentary party. I note that the PBO is not required to take account of any comments provided by parliamentary parties. However, the post-election report must set out comments provided and note if no comments were provided.

Finally, I note each parliamentary party will be provided with a copy of the PBO post-election report at least 48 hours before its public release. That would allow the parties the time to properly consider the report and, if necessary, prepare a response. That is appropriate. It will prevent parties being ambushed. Parties will be able to submit comments to the PBO on this report. The PBO may either include those comments in the report or revise the report to take account of the comments. These arrangements are an improvement on the post-election audit that the coalition was subjected to after the 2010 election. At the time there was no opportunity for discussion of assumptions or parameters with Treasury or finance. There was little opportunity to discuss the report before its release. Having the opportunity to provide comments is a big step forward. Receiving the report 48 hours prior to its release is also a significant improvement.

Another new provision of this bill is that the PBO can request information for the purposes of preparing policy costings from an authorised member of the party or from any other person the PBO believes has been associated with the preparation of the policy costings. Anyone—a member of parliament, a member of their staff or third parties involved in the compilation of election policies—can be approached by the PBO for information. There is no compulsion. This provision is intended to provide the PBO with the capacity to obtain information to clarify a policy for costing. We would envisage that the information necessary for the costing of coalition policies would be provided by designated individuals, and that the PBO would not need to go to third parties. Nevertheless, the coalition will have no secrets and is supportive of full transparency in the provision of information.

Finally, the bill before the House also allows for the Australian Taxation Office to provide the Parliamentary Budget Officer with otherwise protected taxpayer information, so that he or she can properly perform or exercise his or her statutory functions or powers under the Parliamentary Service Act 1999. I note that the Parliamentary Budget Officer discussed the need for this legislative change in additional estimates held back in February. The coalition views this as a sensible initiative and is supportive of this change.

In summary, the coalition welcomes these amendments to the operation of the Parliamentary Budget Office. They apply equally to all parties. They will ensure that all parties are honest in their policy commitments and that all policies are fully and accurately costed. The coalition will support these amendments. However, to understand and appreciate this bill requires consideration of the new amendments the government will introduce in the consideration in detail. I cannot help but make the point that it would have been highly preferable if the government had got its act together up-front and produced a full and well considered set of amendments for proper consideration and debate by this House. Amending your own amendments is not the proper way to run a legislative agenda. Nevertheless, as indicated, the coalition will support the passage of the bill.

Now for the amendments. The government is moving substantive amendments, as I said, to its amendments to this PBO legislation. The scope of the policies on which the PBO is to prepare its post-election report is being broadened. The original amendment required this report to be prepared on 'publicly announced policies'. This is being changed to 'election commitments'. The definition of 'election commitments' is:

A policy that a Parliamentary party has publicly announced it intends to seek to have implemented after the election.

It sounds broadly the same, but there is a twist. In preparing its list of election policies, the PBO does not have to limit its analysis to policies that are provided by the party to the PBO. It can also include any public announcements made by the party before or during the caretaker period.

The final list of policies to be costed is being left to 'the best professional judgement of the PBO'. This provision is designed to account for promises that are designed to win votes but are then not costed or presented in the official policy documents. The coalition will not do that. If we make a promise, it will be a commitment. It will be included in our policy documents and fully costed.

The new amendments also introduce another element of compulsion on parliamentary parties, in that within three days of receiving a list of policies to be costed from the PBO the party must provide comments on that list to the PBO. The PBO is not required to take account of these comments. The coalition welcomes this additional requirement to comment. It means there will be full interaction with the PBO at every stage of the costing process. The coalition will submit its fully costed set of policies to the PBO. The coalition will comment on the list of policies sent back by the PBO before it prepares its final report. And the coalition will comment on the PBO's final report before publication. As indicated on behalf of the shadow Treasurer, the coalition will support these amendments. However, as the shadow Treasurer said in his second reading comments, it would have been preferable for the government to have gotten these amendments correct in the first place, rather than having to come back to the floor and amend its own amendments. This is a point I have reiterated again today.

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