I spoke in parliament on Monday on the government’s legislation to create a Parliamentary Budget Office.
Parliamentary Budget Office, 12 September 2011
Over 100 years ago, Alfred Deakin could have been describing the Labor vision when he said:
‘We look forward to social and unemployment insurances, to improved health services, to a wise control of our economy …’
Providing support for those in need, making sure that every Australian has access to health care and the responsible management of our economy continue to be foremost for the Gillard Labor government. It is in the words, ‘wise control of the economy’ that I believe Deakin would have approved of the establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Office—an independent institution will bring greater accountability and transparency to the policy costing process and strengthen Australia’s fiscal and budget frameworks. It will be an institution that stops parties avoiding scrutiny of their election policy costings as the coalition did at the last election.
We are not the first nation to establish such an institution. In the United States they have the Congressional Budget Office. Operating since 1975, the Congressional Budget Office provides congress with: objective, non-partisan and economic analysis; information and estimates for the budget process; and assistance in economic and budgetary decisions. The Congressional Budget Office also advises congress in relation to: budget, microeconomic and taxation analysis; health and human services; management and business; and national security. When in opposition, the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom made plans for an office for budget responsibility. With their victory last year the Cameron government have established the Office for Budget Responsibility. Now operational, the UK office provides economic forecasting that is independent of government.
If only those opposite displayed the foresight and economic responsibility of their conservative cousins in the UK; instead what they have to offer is a $70 billion hole from a swathe of uncosted and untested policy thought bubbles and an unwillingness to support sensible revenue measures like the fuel tax reforms, first brought into parliament by Peter Costello in 2003, and the perfectly reasonable move to means test the private health insurance rebate. This is, of course, the very same coalition that tried to conceal an $11 billion policy costing shortfall at the last election. Given that the Leader of the Opposition has been trying since that last election for a rerun of that election, it is no surprise that the member for Goldstein walked into this place deciding to refight the costings debate. The member for Goldstein just told this chamber that the work Treasury did in assessing the coalition’s costings and coming up with their $11 billion hole was fabricated. That is right—when they do not like Treasury boffins, they just say, ‘Their work is fabricated; they are politicised.’ They do not provide a sense of respect for Treasury, which traditionally has been what conservatives have done in Australia; they attack the bureaucrats and say that they are politicising everything.
The Parliamentary Budget Office will shine a spotlight into the coalition’s costings which even they will not be able to hide from. It will make sure the Australian community is better informed about the budget impacts of policy proposals and impose greater budget accountability. The Parliamentary Budget Office will prepare election policy costings upon the request of authorised party representatives and the Independent members of parliament, who played a critical role in bringing the PBO into being. It will be able to prepare policy costings outside of the caretaker period. It will prepare responses to budget-related, non-policy costing requests of individual senators and members of parliament. It will initiate its own work program with regard to research and analysis of budget and fiscal policy settings. It will provide formal contributions on request to relevant parliamentary committees. It will provide non-partisan and policy neutral analysis of the budget cycle, fiscal policy and the financial implications of policy proposals. It will also help ensure the Australian public can be better informed about the budget impacts of policies proposed by members of parliament. In short, the Parliamentary Budget Office will have a busy agenda.
The Parliamentary Budget Office will promote greater understanding in the community about the budget process and fiscal policy. Accountability and transparency are at the heart of democracy and at the heart of a government’s relationship with the public. This is something the United States and the United Kingdom have realised in establishing their independent budgetary offices. Accountability and transparency were the very values that the Joint Select Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office spoke of in formulating their recommendations for a parliamentary budget office. The committee recommended that the office have mechanisms that could ensure transparency of process, equality of access to its services and maintain the separation of the parliament and the executive. Currently there is no independent body that specialises in high quality research and analysis on fiscal policy for the parliament. That is the critical role the Parliamentary Budget Office will fill.
The joint committee also found that the election costing provisions of the Charter of Budget Honesty Act had significant shortcomings. As it stands, the act does not enable the electorate to be better informed about the financial implications of election commitments. We in this place owe it to voters to provide them with independent information that gives everyone in Australia more information about policy proposals during an election campaign. That is why the joint committee unanimously recommended measures to provide incentives for parties to use a costings process—a costings process that better informs the wider public and enhances accountability and transparency. With the Parliamentary Budget Office and the independent costing of election policies we will avoid the farcical situation the coalition found themselves in at the last election.
Rather than follow the provisions of the Charter of Budget Honesty Act ,the political party that had been relying on leaks from Treasury decided that Treasury could not be trusted. The shadow Treasurer infamously claimed: ‘The coalition’s numbers are exactly right.’ That was despite the $11 billion discrepancy between what was being promised and how it was going to be paid. This kind of dishonesty and disregard for proper costings processes should not continue. The Australian public deserves better than having to make a judgment on the responsible management of the country’s budgetary and fiscal frameworks according to figures provided by private accounting firms. That is not good enough for the Australian people; they deserve a proper, transparent and accountable parliamentary budget office.
Under this bill the election costings function of the Parliamentary Budget Office will complement that of Treasury and the Department of Finance and Deregulation. The costings service will be fully transparent and consistent with similar processes under the Charter of Budget Honesty Act. The bill also amends the Charter of Budget Honesty Act so that parties with at least five members in the parliament will be able to request election costings from Treasury and Finance. Previously only the government and the opposition were able to access this service. ,Independent members of Parliament and political parties with less than five members in the Parliament will also be able to have their policies costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office. To ensure independence from the executive the appointment of a parliamentary budget officer will be made by the presiding officers following approval by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit. This way the Parliamentary Budget Officer will be accountable to the parliament via the presiding officers rather than to the executive.
In respect of its annual work plan, draft budget estimates and annual report, the Parliamentary Budget Office and officer will be overseen by the Joint Standing Committee on Public Accounts and Audit. This was the model for a parliamentary budget office and officer that was unanimously recommended by the Joint Select Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office. Compare this to the kind of budget office the coalition wants. I spoke earlier today in this place about the private member’s motion moved by the member for North Sydney, and I noted there that that model would undermine the office by making it accountable to ministers, not the parliament. It would reduce the level of transparency and public accountability that a parliamentary budget office brings to the election costings process. Under the proposal put forward by the member for North Sydney, election policy costings can remain confidential and hidden from the public. This is not the right thing to do.
This government is committed to increasing transparency and accountability, but the coalition cannot seem to kick the habit of poorly-thought-through policies—a habit that showed itself at the last election, with their $11 billion black hole, and a policy that shows itself at the moment with the coalition’s $70 billion costings hole.
I also want to use this opportunity to note an additional issue which goes to the mechanics of the costings process—an issue which has not been raised in the debate so far. It is the issue of dynamic scoring. Dynamic scoring has been politically controversial in the United States, where the issue of how to analyse the cost of tax policy changes has arisen. Essentially what is behind dynamic scoring is predicting the impact of tax changes by looking at the effects of individuals’ reactions to policy. It is an adaptation of static scoring, which is the traditional method for analysing policy changes. The problem with dynamic scoring is that there is little agreement about how to model long-run economic growth and the effect of tax cuts on the economy. We have some reasonable estimates of multipliers as a result of fiscal policy such as the fiscal stimulus put in place by the Rudd-Gillard governments in 2008-2009, but the impact of taxation changes is highly controversial.
I draw the House’s attention to the 2003 report by the Congressional Budget Office commissioned under Douglas Holz-Eakin, who worked for the Bush White House and then went on to run the Congressional Budget Office. The study that the CBO did under his direction estimated the impact of a reduction in personal taxes and the claim that some in the Republican Party were making that such a tax cut would pay for itself. The CBO concluded that the free-lunch mantra—the so-called Laffer effect, which has been around for many years—is just plain wrong. The most optimistic assumptions the Congressional Budget Office could come up with were that tax cuts might stimulate enough economic growth to replace 22 per cent of lost revenue in the first five years and 32 per cent in the second five. But the CBO noted that that was the most optimistic case and, on pessimistic assumptions, the growth effects of tax cuts did nothing to offset revenue loss.
My point is that, if this legislation is enacted and a parliamentary budget office is set up, I would strongly urge that office to steer clear of dynamic scoring, to be pessimistic in their assessments of the impact of taxation changes on economic growth and not to get into the free-lunch mantra—the idea that tax cuts can pay for themselves. We have little evidence for that, and it is particularly dangerous because it sets up the potential for a government to simply suggest we can cut taxes and get the revenue back. That is not what careful economic studies have found. We have to be vigilant to the potential politicisation of the Parliamentary Budget Office in this way and in others. Its independence and its non-partisan character is paramount. By having an independent agent providing the costing and analytical services for policy proposals, I hope we can take away some of the embarrassment that the coalition currently finds themselves in with their $70 billion black hole.
It is a lot to hope for. Only last week the shadow Treasurer was telling 2GB listeners the number was not $70 billion, but at the same time the shadow finance minister was confirming that $70 billion was not a furphy. That was the gap that the coalition had to make up. This inconsistency and uncertainty does not befit a team that would like to have themselves regarded as the alternative economic policymakers in Australia. The accountability and transparency of the Parliamentary Budget Office will bring to an end this kind of deception—these kinds of attempts to claim that parties have closed the gap when, in fact, their costings simply do not add up.
A parliamentary budget office will be an important new institution. It will bring greater accountability and greater transparency to the policy costings process during election periods. I hope it will continue to draw on the academic expertise in Australia in public finance. This is an area to which I made a small contribution when I worked at the Australian National University, but, frankly, when you look at Australian economics overall, we have traditionally been stronger in macroeconomics and labour economics than we have in public finance. And the Parliamentary Budget Office will make an important contribution there. I hope they will engage thoroughly and deeply with Australian academic economists on this, as this government is seeking to do, for example, through the tax forum that will take place in early October.
The Australian people put their trust in us. They expect us to be honest with them about the policies we intend to implement that impact on their lives. Our respect for them means they deserve nothing less than a government that is accountable and transparent in presenting what Alfred Deakin called ‘its wise control of the economy’.