Parliamentary Budget Officer Amendment Bill 2022

9th June 2022

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (11:18): I am not going to say I am happy to speak in debate on the Parliamentary Budget Officer Amendment Bill 2022 because it has become much more confusing than we hoped it would be. The member for Heffron has included some very sensible measures that would be supported by the crossbench, and certainly by me in my role as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I fully support the intention of the bill introduced by the member for Heffron. I am concerned about how the debate has gone and the changes that are proposed. I have had a considerable amount of discussion with the Leader of the House, the Hon. Alister Henskens. I have been speaking to the Treasurer about the Government's concerns about the bill and why it wants to move the amendments, which the Leader of the House has moved, so I can now reference them.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The Leader of the House foreshadowed the amendments; they have not been moved.

Mr GREG PIPER: I foreshadow that I will speak to his foreshadowed amendments.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Lake Macquarie can speak to the amendments once we move to the consideration in detail stage. They have not been moved yet.

Mr GREG PIPER: I will speak to what I consider might be the amendments. I support the principle that all members of Parliament, whether Government, Opposition or crossbench, have access to a properly constituted, expert panel who can provide advice on policies that they may develop from time to time. The member for Heathcote, who is in the Chamber, was on the Public Accounts Committee with me when we reviewed the operation of the Parliamentary Budget Office [PBO] and produced a report in November 2019. We spent a considerable amount of time talking to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Mr Stephen Bartos, at the time and examining the issues that he experienced during that period.

They were largely the ability to recruit resources to establish the PBO and then to deal with the problem of getting timely responses from Treasury and various agencies. Those were the main considerations. I do not recall that he felt the problems were particularly manifest by an overuse of the PBO. Mr Bartos made a recommendation to the Public Accounts Committee to consider supporting a request to the Government to establish the PBO as a full-time office, not fully resourced for the period but to allow for the office to run right through the period of a Parliament and therefore to mitigate against the difficulty in establishing that office and getting up to speed prior to an election in very difficult circumstances. I think the PBO did an excellent job.

One of the major principles of the PBO has been to allow for some confidentiality around the requests and considerations that might come, particularly from the Opposition. I listened to the Leader of the House talk about the provisions that the Government wants, that they will be fair, across the board and applicable to the Government and to the Opposition. The reality is when one is in opposition nothing is quite that fair. One never gets that amount of balance because the Government always has the benefit of those additional resources from the agencies that it operates. In this case, the PBO allows the Opposition and—if the amendments are allowed—the members of the crossbench to test policies, to put something out there and have it kicked around, have expertise brought to it, have it put under a bright light and examined as to whether or not the policy stacks up.

The process at the moment is that once that is completed, the leader of the party who requested the examination by the PBO makes a decision as to whether or not those costings are then released, because at that point it would become policy. Before that, it is pre-policy; it is in the development stage. I do not believe that it is reasonable for the policy then to have a mechanism where it is published and exposed, when it is not necessarily going to be adopted as policy. The words that have been used is that it would have a chilling effect on that party or member from bringing forth a policy that may then be published and become subject to an attack from the other side. Mr Bartos advised in his report that there were complaints about the leaking of information that had been provided by the Opposition to the PBO that ended up in the hands of members of the Government. The concern was that came about through agencies, or people within agencies, who were privy to the information that was needed to make that request.

This should have been a fairly simple request. My request, and the requests of the member for Sydney and the member for Wagga Wagga, was to broaden the opportunity for members of Parliament to be able to use the resources of the Parliamentary Budget Office and for that period to be extended. We take the view that the PBO is of most significance for the information it can provide to the Government and the Opposition—the two parties that have the potential to form government. We also take the view that not every government will hold a majority in its own right and may need to work with members of the crossbench, Independents and minor parties and, therefore, those members should at least have the opportunity to seek information. We did that by saying that there would be a time limit on when crossbench members could access the PBO, so that the last few months of the operation of the PBO would be available exclusively to the Government and Opposition so that it was not weighed down by extraneous requests from the crossbench.

We also asked for it to be extended for a period of six months—half the amount of time that was recommended by the Public Accounts Committee in its November 2019 report. The PBO had asked that it be made a permanent body. The Public Accounts Committee took the position that that could not be justified but that perhaps a 12-month period might be more appropriate. The bill presented by the member for Heffron splits the difference and brings it down to six months. It also takes into account the provisions that seek to limit the number of questions that can come from the crossbench. [Extension of time]

I understand that the Government has some concerns that the Opposition, in particular, may be in a position where it can ask an extraneous number of questions and cause significant problems for the various agencies. Obviously, Treasury could be the agency that was most impacted but also other agencies that need to use their resources to test the policy or budget requests of the Opposition. The Government is actually thinking of making some provisions around the transparency of requests. That sounds very well and good. I often come into the Chamber and talk about transparency in government. But I also understand that there needs to be some confidentiality at some stage as well for the Opposition or other parties to be able to develop their thinking on policies. That is why they have gone to the PBO to get some of those measures in place.

The Government is proposing that those costings be published on a website without the request of the leader of the party in question. That could be a very retrograde step and hold a party back from seeking information about a policy that might never become policy anyway, because it could be made publicly available and weaponised. As I said before, it could have a chilling effect. Certainly, it could be a real blanket on innovation. The Opposition, in particular, has been trying to be innovative and courageous in policy development. As I said, I think that would be a very retrograde step. While the Leader of the House referred to an "equality" or words to that effect—that this is going to apply equally to the Government as it will to the Opposition—the reality is that that is just not how it works.

The Government is always in a better position to develop its policies in the first place, so it would be much closer to the mark, I would imagine, than the Opposition might be on understanding the actual figures and the impacts of policy. I am very concerned that we might pass those amendments. I have been very supportive of the member for Heffron. I am obviously supportive of the crossbench amendments that the member for Sydney will bring forward. But it is now getting quite complicated. I will wait and listen further to the discussion when the Leader of the House formally moves his amendments. But at this stage I am very concerned. What I am hearing from the Government will be detrimental to what we are trying to achieve with the expansion of the PBO.

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