Thursday, 13 May 2010
Budget Estimates Hearings
That, when the Economics Legislation Committee meets to consider budget estimates in relation to the Department of the Treasury in the week beginning 31 May 2010, the Secretary of the department, Dr Henry, is to appear before the committee to answer questions.
I seek leave to amend general business notion of No. 796 in the terms circulated in the Senate.
Omit all words after “That”, substitute “the Secretary of the Department of the Treasury, Dr Henry, is to appear before the Economics Legislation Committee at a mutually agreeable time on or before 30 June 2010”.
Since this government has been in office, Dr Henry has appeared before every Senate estimates and before Senate committees generally on many occasions. I have to say that that was not the case under the former government. There were occasions when I asked for Dr Henry to appear and he did not, but I never brought it into the chamber to insist—in the way that Senator Bushby is doing—that he must appear. I think that, in these circumstances that I will outline, it is unreasonable for such a motion to be presented to the chamber. Dr Henry has explained to the Senate estimates committee that he has an immovable family matter. He is taking leave. He must attend that family matter, and it will take him outside the country. It is a private family matter.
I am sure it would not be a surprise to anyone in this chamber that Dr Henry has a very, very heavy workload; he always has done. Particularly under this government he has had a heavy workload. In all the circumstances, it is and was appropriate for Dr Henry to receive leave because of his family circumstances. I would argue to any impartial observer that Dr Henry fairly deserves an opportunity to take the leave to be with his family. We oppose the motion and the amendment, if it should be carried. There are any number of Treasury officials who will be appearing before the Senate estimates committee who are very capable of responding to the range of questions that will be put by the opposition and the crossbench team.
The opposition does not begrudge Dr Henry the opportunity to have an overseas holiday at this time. We are sure he has earned a holiday given the ad hoc way the government approaches economic issues and places demands on Dr Henry. But of course we have been reasonable in this. We have actually sought private clarification through the minister as to the nature and the timing of the trip to ensure that the circumstances leading to this are truly immovable and truly relate to circumstances that cannot be avoided. Despite making that effort, we have received no assurance that that is the case. All we have been told is what is contained in a letter from the Assistant Treasurer which we received last night—that he has unavoidable personal commitments and no further advice has been provided as to what that relates to. Given that he is not due to appear for three weeks, one can only presume that those relate to commitments that he has chosen to accept rather than those that might have been imposed on him through a sudden death or similar tragic circumstances.
The question is: why has this holiday been chosen to be taken during estimates? It has long been the case that the budget is held in the second week of May and that, after a week’s break, budget estimates occur in the two weeks following. It is not like the Secretary of the Treasury has not known when this will occur. The sittings for this year came out in November last year. He has had almost eight months to lock this into his diary and to make sure that he was available to turn up on these dates.
We are looking at a point in time that will be the first opportunity for the estimates committee to examine Dr Henry on the Henry review. For the last two years, he has been turning up to estimates committees and refusing to answer questions about the review because ‘it is not yet delivered’. It is now delivered; it is released. The government has responded. But it has responded dismally to the Henry review, and the people of Australia deserve the opportunity for parliament to examine Dr Henry on his review and his thoughts about the government’s approach to it.
There is always a means of coming to a reasonable agreement on the basis of the information available. I do not mind what the argument is in either direction, but the amendment put forward is to enable a mutually agreeable time to be found for Dr Henry to appear before the committee, and I am sure that can be arranged. I would point out that not only did Dr Henry not always appear before the committee during the period of the coalition government but quite recently I asked for the Governor of the Reserve Bank to appear before a committee to look into the matter of the scandal surrounding Securency, which has half its board appointed by the Reserve Bank, and, if I remember correctly, the opposition voted to prevent that happening. So there is a double standard here. However, we are in favour of information being made available to the parliament when it wants it and hence the reasonable amendment that I put forward.
I support this motion in its amended form. As I understand it from my discussions with Senator Brown earlier today, Dr Henry will be able to accommodate this amended request. I think it is important that we hear from the Secretary to the Treasury. He has recently completed the most comprehensive review of our tax system in many years, and I commend the government for commissioning Dr Henry to do that. I think it is important we hear from Dr Henry in relation to that. I think it would have been unreasonable to insist that he attend during estimates if he had genuine prior family commitments and I think it is important that this motion is passed and that we hear from Dr Henry before the end of the financial year.
I think it is important to note that Dr Henry has probably had better attendance at estimates under the Labor government than under the coalition government. I could be wrong, but that is my belief. And I think that is a good move. I am sure that the circumstances through which Dr Henry will not be available would be serious enough for him not to appear but I think this motion does make sense. To have Dr Henry available to the Economics Legislation Committee at a mutually agreeable time on or before 30 June 2010 does make a lot of sense, and we will be supporting the motion for that. What we have to realise is that Dr Henry was tasked to take a root and branch approach. The budget is just out and this is a very important period coming up to the election. I think this is a more than reasonable motion to support.
Question agreed to.
Original question, as amended, agreed to.