PARLIAMENTARY BUDGET OFFICER AMENDMENT BILL 2018

2nd Reading Speech

26 September 2018


The Hon. ADAM SEARLE (12:20): I lead for the Opposition on the Parliamentary Budget Officer Amendment Bill 2018. We support the legislation, but we will move amendments during the Committee stage. On this side of the House, we are very aware of the important role that the Parliamentary Budget Officer plays. It is a role that we support and believe in, and everyone in this Chamber should do so as well. Our amendments seek to strengthen and enhance the institution. The Parliamentary Budget Office is critical because it provides or should provide a real opportunity for the Parliament as a whole to propose, identify and flesh out policies and proposals that are in the public interest.

Presently the only two clients of the Parliamentary Budget Office are the leaders of the major parties. We have a vision for the Parliamentary Budget Office more akin to what is seen in Canberra and what is now in place in Victoria. Our vision is to have a facility, a resource, available to each member and all parties to assist them to develop their policies and proposals, to do so in a way that is responsible, to do so in a way that enables them to test their ideas and to have them fleshed out. Where they do not get to the pitch of the ball or they are flawed, we want to be able to review, revise and improve on them, because we recognise that that is ultimately what is in the public interest. It is not in the interest of the community that we seek to serve if parties have flawed proposals or ideas that are put before the community.

It is a great privilege to come into these Chambers of Parliament. It is a great privilege, particularly in the major parties, to propose policies for government. There should be a proper full-time Parliamentary Budget Office in place that is available to all members to rigorously test and enable them to analyse, prosecute and evaluate their policy proposals and ideas. Policies that are properly thought out, developed, tested, critiqued and improved are ultimately in the public interest and something that we should all support. When we aspire to be part of a government, our policies should bring about positive change in a realistic way. To do that we need to ensure that they are affordable, that the State and these communities can pay for them, and that there are not unintended consequences. The Parliamentary Budget Office process that we envisage will certainly enable that.

Recently the Victorian LaborGovernment has implemented a full-time Parliamentary Budget Office. Victoria’s Parliament and Government is smaller than ours, but it understands the benefits of having an independent, fully fledged, fully operational and properly staffed Parliamentary Budget Office in place, not only in the lead-up to an election, but in an ongoing way. As the shadow Treasurer noted in the other place, parliaments are not just for six months before an election; they are for four years. Issues arise that need responses from governments, oppositions, other parties and members in the meantime. There need to be appropriate mechanisms through which members and parties can develop appropriate public responses to those issues. The Parliamentary Budget Office is an important mechanism to do that.

As I indicated, the Parliamentary Budget Office is fully operational in the Commonwealth Parliament.Members of the Labor Opposition and any other party or member can put forward proposals to be critiqued, reviewed and costed. That should be available to all members in this place. Despite the taunts from those opposite over the last eight years, New South Wales Labor takes fiscal responsibility seriously. It is not a debating point, but it is a matter of record, that in the 16 budgets delivered under various Labor governments only two were in deficit. Fourteen years of surpluses were not propped up by privatisation proceeds, but through the diligent and hard work of reining in both debt and public expenditure.

We have the track record for fiscal discipline. We take that seriously. If you fail that test in the community, you will not be given the opportunity to govern this State. As the shadow Treasurer stated in his contribution in the other place, we have established our own expenditure review committee to review, cost analyse and critique all of our policies and proposals. When the Parliamentary Budget Office tables its operational planthe Opposition will be ready to go with policies to be costed through the Parliamentary Budget Office process. We will be utilising the skills and expertise of the Parliamentary Budget Office to ensure that the policies we put before the people of this State in the days, weeks and months before the March election enable the public to have the confidence that a future Labor Government understands and respects fiscal discipline and it will be part of everything that we do and put before the people.

The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Treasurer have already met with the Parliamentary Budget Officer and staff and have been actively engaging with him and them in the lead-up to the election. This is not a reflection on the Parliamentary Budget Office or its staff. However, because of staffing issues, the Opposition was fairly jammed in the lead-up to the last election. Many of our policies and costings were not available or had not been processed, in some cases, until the February before the election. That is not democratic and it is not fair. One of the benefits of having a permanently established and operational Parliamentary Budget Office will be that jamming effect on an opposition or any non-government party should not and will not happen.

Ultimately the government of the day gets a tactical advantage, but it should not stop the Opposition putting its policies before the community. It is anti-democratic and harms confidence in politicians and political processes more generally. That should be made a factor of the past. It is important to have a Parliamentary Budget Office in place. As indicated here and in the other place, we have a series of amendments that will be moved in Committee. We invite all parties in this place to give open-minded and fair consideration to our four amendments because they will substantially improve the Parliamentary Budget Office as an institution.

The first of the amendments will change the length of time that a government agency has to respond to requests. The bill currently provides for 10 days; we propose to reduce that to five days if the request is made before the commencement of the caretaker period. There is no need for a response to take 10 days; most of the proposals should not even take anywhere near the five days because a number of the Labor caucus and the shadow ministry have worked in government—some of us have been public servants as well as undertaking other callings. Many proposals have standardised costs, although they do not take into account every variable. There are average and standard costs for things like schools, hospitals of a certain classification or public sector workers, whether those are teachers, nurses or police officers. Many proposals will be very simple and it will be easy to provide costings that ultimately will be sought and delivered by the Parliamentary Budget Officer. We therefore think that the reduction from 10 days to five days is fair and reasonable.

We also propose that the length of time that a government agency responds to a request be changed from six days to five business days if the request is made on or after the caretaker period, which is also a simple proposal. During the caretaker period much of the day-to-day operations of government do not go at the same pace because obviously it is a status quo situation—there are no new policies or initiatives being pursued by the Executive Government, which takes up a lot of day-to-day operational capacity in public sector agencies. That will be missing because in the caretaker period the Government will not be undertaking those new activities, so there is no reason the permanent public service should not be able to produce the information in the time that we are proposing in the second amendment.

The third amendment relates to whether or not a government agency holds any information. We are simply requiring the Government to respond to the Opposition in two business days if it does not hold any of the information requested. Our experience in the past was that the official response would take every day of the allotted time, and where that ultimate response is “We do not have the information”, that causes the Opposition lost time and lost opportunities. Where the government agency does not have the information it should have a lesser period of time in which to respond and we think two business days is very fair and reasonable.

Our final proposal deals with the issue of whether the Parliamentary Budget Officer should provide copies of material to the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet [DPC] ostensibly to enable the department to prepare material for an incoming government. I was an Opposition staffer the last time the Labor Party won government from opposition in 1995, and there was absolutely no need for the public service to have documents of this sensitivity. The permanent public service delivers the package for the incoming government—the blue books—based on publicly announced policies put forward by the Opposition during the campaign. That is done professionally, competently and diligently by the permanent public service and those who are given the custody and control of those institutions and we have every expectation that they will do a competent and diligent job this time, but they do not need the information provided to and generated by the Parliamentary Budget Officer. That should be a matter between the Opposition and the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Obviously, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has its own statutory charter to make public the costings of the Government and the Opposition that have been publicly released during the campaign—essentially the score card of what each of the Government’s and the Opposition’s policies will cost, in a net sense, the taxpayers of our State, and that is all. The Executive Government and its agencies, led by the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, do not need that material. In fact, giving the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet that material strikes at the independence of the Parliamentary Budget Officer and also runs the risk of compromising the very purpose for which the Parliamentary Budget Officer was created: so that the Opposition has the capacity to have its policies tested and costed in an independent way without the anxiety that what are often works-in-progress policies that evolve in response to Parliamentary Budget Officer feedback are not being fed to the elected government for it to seek a tactical advantage at what is obviously a sensitive time in the democratic cycle.

This is not a reflection on the current Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, but the DPC, being so closely identified with the Executive Government of the day, if there were to be leak of sensitive information, would be implicated if it was to receive these sensitive materials. The Parliamentary Budget Officer obviously had to liaise with relevant departments and agencies and there was an apprehension during the last election whether there would be a leak of Opposition policies at that level. I am very happy to say that, as far as I am aware, there was not. The Parliamentary Budget Officer and each of the staff in the various agencies of the State with whom it had to liaise were absolutely professional and maintained the confidence of all parties. That is vital if the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to have value and it is vital that it does so to ensure that the democratic process in the lead-up to the election is not compromised.

We believe it is very important that the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet not be provided with this information. The reason advanced for it to have that information is simply not necessary; it does not need that information in order to prepare the blue books for the incoming government, whether it is the existing government or whether the Opposition is given the great honour of forming the next administration. We understand the mountain we have to climb and the difficulty we have to find the additional seats, but on this side of the House we take nothing for granted. But whoever is given that honour of being the government of this State, we know that the public service will have prepared the plan for the incoming government based on announced policies. They do not need this material and providing this material runs a very significant risk to the institution of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

We do not oppose the legislation. We support the legislation as we support the institution of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The amendments we have put forward are to improve the operation of that institution and, again, to maintain its integrity and the integrity of the process that it oversees, which is the costings of the policies put forward by the Government and the Opposition. Ensuring that the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet does not get that information is very important to maintaining that integrity. As I said, it is not a reflection on the institution or the current leadership of that institution; it is just that the institution is so vastly identified with the existing government—whoever the government of the day is—it ought not have access to the information passing between non-government parties and the Parliamentary Budget Officer for the purposes of evolving, testing, developing and costing those policies that are ultimately put before the people. With those observations, I urge the Government and indeed all parties to support our reasonable amendments.