Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 February 2012


Allocation of Departments and Agencies

9:31 am

Photo of Mark ArbibMark Arbib (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Sport) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Evans, I move:

(1)   That standing order 25(1) be amended as follows:

Omit "Environment, Communications and the Arts"

Substitute "Environment and Communications".

(2)   That departments and agencies be allocated to legislative and general purpose standing committees as follows:

Community Affairs

Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs

Health and Ageing

Human Services


Industry and Innovation

Resources, Energy and Tourism

Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research


Education, Employment and Workplace Relations


Employment and Workplace Relations

Environment and Communications

Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy

Climate Change and Energy Efficiency

Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Finance and Public Administration

Finance and Deregulation


Prime Minister and Cabinet

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

Defence, including Veterans' Affairs

Foreign Affairs and Trade

Legal and Constitutional Affairs


Immigration and Citizenship

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport

Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Infrastructure and Transport

Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, including the Arts and Sport.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

The opposition opposes this motion. The effect of the motion will be to significantly constrain the capacity of the estimates committees next week to examine portfolios. In particular, that will occur as a result of the reallocation of responsibilities for tertiary education into the economics committee without any compensating allocation of additional time for the examination of the economics agencies. That is a disgrace.

As recently as yesterday the Prime Minister said during question time in the other place that she wanted the debate this year to be about the economy. She said: 'Bring it on. We want the debate this year to be about the economy'. This is one of those rare occasions where there is unanimity between the government and the opposition, because we in the opposition would like nothing better than for the political debate throughout 2012 and potentially—if the government does not collapse in the meantime—into 2013 to be foursquare about the economy. Yet the very next morning after the Prime Minister made that declara­tion, what does the government do here in the Senate? It moves what appears on the face of it to be an innocuous procedural resolution which will significantly constrain the capacity of this parliament—and in particular of the Senate through the Senate estimates committees—to debate the economy by examining the Treasury and the economic agencies.

This motion bizarrely proposes that examination of the tertiary education and vocational education and training portfolios be moved from the education committee—or, to give the committee its full title, the Senate Education, Employment and Work­place Relations Legislation Committee—and placed in the Senate Economics Legislation Committee. I served for five years as the chair of the Senate economics committee, and I know better than most people in this chamber just how heavy the work of the economics committee is. The Senate eco­nomics committee examines the Treasury. It examines all of the great agencies of economic regulation: the Australian Compe­tition and Consumer Commission, ASIC, APRA and various other economic agencies. It examines, importantly, the Australian Taxation Office. The entire range of fiscal, macroeconomic and microeconomic policy of the government is exposed three times a year for public view and parliamentary scru­tiny before the Senate economics committee.

As all of us in this chamber know from our experience as participants in the estimates process, there is always a great deal of time pressure. I venture to say that in no committee are the time pressures so acute as they are in the Senate economics committee—not merely because of the centrality of economic policy to the political debate and not merely because of the multiplicity of agencies that report to that committee but also because of the extremely technical character of the evidence that must be adduced and examined in that committee. I do not remember a time in government or in opposition when the Senate economics committee had enough time to do its work. At the very time when the government says it wants to focus the debate foursquare on the economy, it allocates time away from scru­tiny in the economics committee by building into its program the examination of agencies within the tertiary education sphere—which are perfectly well accommodated and have always been accommodated where they ought to be—in the education, employment and workplace relations committee.

The lack of interest of the Gillard government in education is notorious. It was made manifest shortly after the 2010 election when the Prime Minister announced her new ministerial line-up. For the first time in recent Australian history—for the first time in the half a century since the coalition government of Sir Robert Menzies recognised education as a Commonwealth priority by appointing then Senator John Gorton as the minister for education in the early 1960s—we had an Australian gover­ment without a minister for education. I say it again: when the Gillard ministerial line-up was announced after the 2010 election, for the first time in half a century there was no member of the government described as the minister for education. We had the hapless Mr Peter Garrett, who was described as the minister for Schools, Early Childhood and Youth, and we had our friend Senator Evans, who was described as the Minister for Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations. You might think to yourself, 'Schools are obviously part of education. Senator Brandis is engaged in a quibble here.' But there was no minister with responsibility for tertiary education. There was not even a mention in the portfolio title or the departmental name. If I could let you in on a secret, Mr Deputy President, that is one of the many reasons why my friend Senator Mason, when he was made a shadow minister, was given the title 'minister for universities and research'. Whereas the coalition is interested in universities—no-one more so than Senator Mason—the government's indifference to the university sector was manifest in the fact that there was not even a minister with ministerial responsi­bility for it. Shamed by that act of inadvert­ence, the government had to change the titles of Mr Garrett and Senator Evans. So, as an afterthought, Mr Garrett was called the Minister for Education, Schools, Early Childhood and Youth, and Senator Evans had the words 'tertiary education' added to his portfolio responsibilities as Minister for Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations. We know that as a victim of the flailing knife of the Prime Minister he has lost a lot of that portfolio in more recent times.

The Australian people who are listening to this broadcast this morning need to know that when Julia Gillard, who prides herself on being a Prime Minister for whom education is the first priority, and who had in the Rudd government—the government, let it be remembered, of the man she knifed in breach of her solemn undertakings to support him; but that is another story—been the minister for education, first got the chance to form a government, she was so interested in tertiary education that it was added to Senator Evans's portfolio title as an afterthought. That is how serious they were.

Now we come to the consideration of the additional estimates for 2012. As I said earlier, at a time when the Prime Minister, as recently as yesterday afternoon, declared economic policy debate to be the central ground of contest for Australian politics this year, she has foreshortened the time of the economics committee to examine the economic portfolios; and Senator Arbib, through his motion, proposes to segregate the consideration of education by leaving the consideration of schools and early childhood where it ought to be and always has been—the education, employment and workplace relations estimates committee—and to move the examination of tertiary education and vocational education and training to the economics committee. Why would you do that, unless you were trying to foreshorten the opportunities of the Senate, through its estimates committee process, to engage in the economic debate and to hold the economic bureaucrats and the heads of the economic agencies to account? For what rational reason, when you have an estimates committee that has been established for the purpose of examining education, would you move consideration of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to the economics committee? For what purpose would you move examination of the Australian Skills Quality Authority from the education committee or the National Advisory for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment agency?

Senator Lundy interjecting

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Lucky you're there!

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Mason will speak later in the debate. That is, as I am sure Senator Mason will explain, the principal agency responsible for assessing tertiary standards. Why would that not be considered in the education committee, where it always has been, rather than in the economics committee? There is no rational reason for this change—and when there is no rational reason, one looks for a malign reason. That is what the Gillard government has taught us. Senator Arbib is monkeying around with the arts and sport portfolios by putting them into the regional and rural affairs committee, but that is another story. I will come to that if I get time. Not only is the Gillard government making a dog's breakfast of the consideration of educational policy but also next week in the estimates process, by segregating out into an alien committee the consideration of tertiary education and vocational education and training, about a quarter of the time that would otherwise be available to consider the economic agencies and the Treasury will be lost. Under the guidelines or draft program prepared by, I am told, the secretariat, we will now have less than two hours to consider the macroeconomic group of Treasury. We will have no more than two hours to consider the fiscal group.

Photo of Kate LundyKate Lundy (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

That's your choice!

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

No, it is not our choice, Senator Lundy. It is not our choice to give the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee insufficient work to do and to overburden and therefore to use the time of the economics committee so that the time for consideration of all of these economic agencies is foreshortened. I like you, Senator Lundy. You are a very good person, but you are not a very frequent participant in the Senate economics estimates committee. If you were, you would know that under the particularly expert scrutiny of Senator Mathias Cormann and Senator David Bushy, if I may single out two colleagues, the forensic examination of this govern­ment's policy and its policy failures through the examination of bureaucrats—or, I should say, senior public servants—in the macro­economic group has taken hours. These are not hours wasted but hours of fruitful inquiry. These have revealed, among other things, the scandal of the minerals resource rent tax where the assumptions, as it was revealed the year before last in the economics committee, did not stack up.

The modelling on which the forecasts were based was revealed to be wholly inade­quate, and the same or similar revelations were made about the carbon tax. The capaci­ty for the economics estimates committee to scrutinise at length in a forensic way the detail of economic policy and the assumpt­ions underlying that economic policy will be denied to it next week—and this at a time when the Prime Minister says she wants the economy to be front and centre.

The Senate estimates committees next week, if you add up all the different portfolios across the different estimates committees, will go for roughly 80 hours. Do you know how much time in that 80 hours, as a result of the motion Senator Arbib brought before the chamber, will be allowed for the examination of taxation and revenue?

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Two—there will be two hours for the examination of the revenue group of Treasury and the Australian Taxation Office. The great issues in Australia today, as the Prime Minister herself said, are the economic issues. Within those economic issues perhaps the greatest issue of all is the imposition on this country of a carbon tax, in defiance of a solemn promise not to introduce one, at the bidding of Senator Bob Brown. Yet to examine the tax policies of this government, the economic assumptions that underlie them and the consequences of them for Australian households, the Senate proposes to allow no more than two hours. It is a disgrace. The process of this chamber has been traduced in order to enable this government to attempt to avoid scrutiny.

I notice that Senator Mark Arbib, whose face I recognise—he is often described as one of the faceless men—

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Not to us!

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

He is not a faceless man to us, Senator Fifield; we see him all too often. We notice that in the latest episode of political butchery by the Prime Minister he has displaced Senator Ludwig as the Manager of Government Business, so he is responsible for this outrage. I thought Senator Ludwig was a very hard player, but not even Senator Ludwig, I fear, would have been so shameless as to say that the consideration of taxation policy at the additional estimates—and in the year when the Prime Minister has declared economics and tax policy to be front and centre of the political argument—should not go for more than two hours. It is shameful.

Consideration of the arts and sport and local government—perhaps local govern­ment is not so objectionable—has bizarrely been moved into the regional affairs portfolio. It used to sit in the Prime Minister's office where, and I say this with some feeling as a former minister in that field, it might have attracted some priority. But now it has been sent to what is, at least in this government's eyes, the backwater of regional affairs.

This monkeying around with the Senate estimates committees, particularly the economics committee, has been done for one reason and one reason only: to prevent the opposition from holding this government to account for its shameful mismanagement of the economy.

9:51 am

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

At first blush, the motion which is before us would appear to be innocuous. We do see from time to time, before estimates committee hearings, motions to rearrange agencies within the various committees and between the various committees. I might say, we have seen that a fair bit under this government. It would be fair to say that they have had more than their fair share of reshuffles—some occasioned by the odd change of Prime Minister, others not. We have seen, I think, a larger than usual number of changes of responsibilities for estimates committees in motions presented to the Senate.

And there has been a bit of sloppiness in that. I do take Senator Brandis's point that there might be some inappropriate motives for some of the changes to these committees but I also think there is a little bit of sloppiness. We have seen some of that sloppiness before in ministerial reshuffles and ministerial arrangements. As Senator Brandis mentioned, there was that, 'Oops, I forgot,' moment when the current Prime Minister forgot to appoint an education minister. That was not the only thing that she forgot to do in that particular reshuffle. In my own portfolio of disabilities she forgot to appointment anyone with responsibility for disabilities, initially. Then there was a change in title for Senator McLucas; she had disabilities added. And in the last reshuffle Minister Macklin had disabilities added to her title, which I think is a good thing. Again, I put that down to sloppiness. I do not put that down to bad intent; I just put it down to good old-fashioned administrative incompetence—nothing more than that; nothing less.

So we have seen a bit of a pattern under this government. I do not want to refer to the area of social inclusion but I will. We have had an occasion where the government have remembered to appoint someone to a portfolio but that person does not actually know what the portfolio means. When asked, 'What does it mean?'' Minister Butler now famously said of his portfolio, social inclusion, 'It means different things to different people.' But that is a separate issue. It is a portfolio. Someone has been appointed but they do not actually know what their job is.

The very significant concern which we have is that of the transfer of responsi­bilities—particularly tertiary education and VET—from the education committee to the economics committee. I know that there would be those in the government who would say VET and the tertiary sector are very economically significant. I know that Senator Mason is always saying how economically significant tertiary education and VET are and how tertiary education is one of Australia's major export industries. There is no greater advocate for the economic significance of the tertiary education sector than Senator Mason. So I would not be surprised at all to hear those on the other side say, 'It is logical, really; these are economically significant portfolios.' But there are a whole heap of economically significant portfolios.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

You could mount that argument about transport, as Senator Brandis said. But we have an education committee. I can imagine vice-chancellors tuning into the Senate education estimates committee. I am sure they often do, Senator Mason. They will be waiting, waiting, waiting, and they will not get to see Senator Mason. They will be bereft! They will be very disappointed.

I made that point with some humour but there is a serious point there: we have an education committee and it really defies logic why you would not have the tertiary and VET components of that portfolio in the education committee. The economics committee has a very heavy workload. And you may not have noticed but Senator Cormann and Senator Bushby in particular have no shortage of questions to ask in that committee. They do a sensational job of holding the government to account in the best Westminster traditions. They are truly forensic in their working through of the portfolio outcomes.

That committee has some very important public policy matters before it. There is the carbon tax and the MRRT, and then there is that little old issue of the budget surplus—whether we are going to get back into budget surplus. That is just a very minor issue of public policy that the economics committee looks after! Those very important areas of consideration are going to be squeezed out by tertiary education and VET. No offence to tertiary education and VET; they should have their place, but their place is in the education estimates committee.

Senator Brandis touched on something which I think is a factor in the government's consideration—that is, seeking to deny time and space for the consideration of the effects of the carbon tax on the Australian economy and the effects of the MRRT on the Australian economy, particularly in Western Australia. If there is one thing that this government wants to provide the absolute minimum of time for it is examining the likelihood of the budget going into surplus in the next financial year. That is an examination which this government is terrified of. And I think that what we see before us today is an indication of that.

There is, unfortunately, a growing tendency by this government to abuse the Senate estimates process. You may recall that once upon a time Senate estimates committees would meet through the night. They would sometimes sit until 3 am in the morning.

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

You weren't here then.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I was not here. That is why I am posing the question to someone who may have been, Senator Ludwig.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Macdonald was. He speaks about it.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Macdonald certainly was. There was at that time, I understand, an informal agreement reached between the then government and the then opposition. It was: we will not sit until three in the morning; we will finish at 11 o'clock at night. But the quid pro quo was that while that would be to the benefit of the government of the day the time in estimates would fundamentally be for the opposition. Of course, all senators have the right to ask their questions but the government recog­nised that Senate estimates is fundamentally a time for the opposition. In recognising that, the Senate supported one of the important accountability mechanisms of this place. That was the understanding; that was the compact which was entered into. There has been an erosion of that compact over recent years under this government, where, increas­ingly, government senators have sought, in effect, to put dorothy dixers to government ministers at the table—not genuine quest­ions, not questions seeking information, not questions seeking to represent a constituent and not questions seeking to hold a minister to account, which it is quite legitimate for people of the same party to seek to do from time to time. That is not the purpose of these questions—and you have almost come in on cue, may I say, Senator Cameron, to the subject matter of my discussion! But I will go no further on that because I do not want in any way to reflect on the chair, Senator Cameron.

10:00 am

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senate estimates is essentially an opposition forum and we have seen that eroded. In fact, Senator Faulkner, one of the substantial figures of this chamber, has always said that estimates is an opposition forum. So I cite no higher authority than Senator Faulkner on this matter. I think it is important that we return Senate estimates to being an opposition forum—to being what they should be, which is one of the great accountability mechan­isms not just of this parliament but of parliaments worldwide. Our estimates committee process is recognised as one of the best and one of the most robust accounta­bility mechanisms in any parliament and we need to reinforce that. I think this realloca­tion of portfolio responsibilities between committees is yet another subtle undermi­ning of the role that our committee system should play.

We have seen this pattern over the life of this government. We saw it with the carbon tax legislation. It was bad enough that that legislation was presented to this parliament by a government which formed office on the back of a lie—that was bad enough. What was also outrageous was the fact that this Senate denied that package of legislation the opportunity for scrutiny by the committees of the Senate. Legislation of such signifi­cance has always gone to Senate committees. The goods and services tax legislation and the A New Tax System package of legisla­tion went through multiple Senate committ­ees simultaneously for the best part of six months, yet that economically significant package of carbon tax legislation was denied the opportunity for that scrutiny. That is just another example of where the various forums of this parliament are continually undermi­ned by this government in subtle and not so subtle ways. We are seeing this here again.

We have another curious element to this motion: the reallocation of arts and sport to the rural and regional affairs portfolio. Minister Arbib, who is in the chamber, is the Minister for Sport, and when I look at him I do not see a regional figure—I have to say that. I do not think regional when I look at Minister Arbib, the sports minister.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

He is in the region of Sussex Street.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

That is right. I know as a senator for New South Wales he represents the whole state, but I suspect he has a particular focus on more metropolitan areas of the state.

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very regional, Mitch.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

As opposed to Senator Mason, who is very rural. The rural and regional affairs committee is a very curious location for the arts and sports portfolio. But our main concern is that of the overburdening of the economics committee. I know you take a close interest in the economics committee, Senator Cameron.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

There has to be a socialist voice!

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

That is right. The committee is a place for alternative points of view and, boy, you sure provide an alternative point of view, Senator Cameron. But, in all seriousness—and, I think, Mr Acting Deputy President, we probably have some sympathy for this view—the economics committee really is one of the flagship committees of the Senate estimates committee system. It looks at monetary policy, fiscal policy, competition policy, Corporations Law, financial services and retirement incomes—there is no significant area of economic regulation or economic policy that it does not have coverage of. If there is one committee that this parliament should think very carefully about when it comes to allocation of responsibility and ensuring that there is adequate time for appropriate scrutiny, it is the economics committee.

We have heard time and again from the government that they are good economic managers. We have heard time and again from the government that they, supposedly, saved Australia from the effects of the global financial crisis. We have heard time and again from the government that they are good budget managers. We have heard all these things—no-one believes them, but we hear them frequently. The Senate economics committee is the place for those propositions to be examined and challenged—to challen­ge the proposition that the govern­ment saved Australia from the full effects of the global financial crisis. I would contend that they did not, that it was not a massive spend on school halls and pink batts that saved Australia but that it had perhaps a little more to do with the fact that we have a floating exchange rate, that there was strong demand from China, that Australia has some of the best prudential regulatory arrangements in the world, courtesy of the Howard-Costello government, and that we have an independ­ent Reserve Bank and monetary policy did a fair bit of the heavy lifting in the face of the global financial crisis. Monetary policy could have done more. There could have been more space provided for the stimulatory effects of lower interest rates, but the massive spend by this government denied that opportunity. Those are things which still should be fully examined by the Senate estimates process. This government have told us time and again that they are good fiscal managers, that they will have this budget back in surplus in the next financial year. Again, no-one believes that. It may well be that on budget night the Treasurer stands up and declares that he forecasts a surplus for the next financial year. But, as we know, a forecast in a budget speech counts for nothing. In Wayne Swan's very first budget speech he forecast a surplus. We have not seen a surplus from this government.

What really matters is the final budget outcome, and we need to examine in Senate estimates the assumptions on which the next budget will be based. We need to probe and examine those, and that opportunity should not be denied as a result of the Economics Committee being overburdened with other tasks of examination of the VET portfolio and of the tertiary portfolio. We need to have that opportunity.

We need to have the opportunity in the Senate estimates committee to look at the effects of the carbon tax. This government are still not being forthcoming with all of modelling work behind the design of the carbon tax. We need to examine the focus that the Leader of the Opposition has put on this in the last few days, where we know from Treasury's own work that there will be a $1 trillion cumulative hit on the economic output of the nation up to 2050.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

That was discovered at a great Senate inquiry.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I should give credit to Senator Cormann. We need to further examine that matter. We need to further examine the MRRT. Senator Cormann quite rightly sought to suspend standing orders yesterday in order to move a motion which would prevent further consideration of that legislation until such time as the government has complied with the orders that this Senate has already passed to provide information on the MRRT. That was appropriate for Senator Cormann to do. Unfortunately, the Senate did not grant a suspension of standing orders and we did not have the opportunity to move that motion. But the opportunity to vote on that motion will present later this week.

These are all very serious matters of public policy, and the opposition takes its job of holding the government to account very seriously. The opposition takes very seriously the role of the Senate as a house of review. As I said the other day, often when it comes to legislation and often when it comes to matters of public policy those in this chamber are often the first people to turn their mind to it. They do not always do so over in the other place. They do not always do so in the caucus. They do not always do so in the cabinet. Often it is the case that the first time that a matter of public policy or a piece of legislation is seriously examined and seriously probed is in this place and in the committees of the Senate. We take that responsibility very seriously.

It is for that reason that we think it is inappropriate that tertiary and VET be transferred from the education committee to the Economics Committee. We do think it is a little inappropriate that the arts and sports area finds its way into the Rural and Regional Affairs portfolio. We do need to take our committee system seriously. We should not support the subtle and not so subtle undermining of the Senate estimates committee process and of the other accountability mechanisms of this place. We are unable to support a motion that seeks to do that. We will not be supporting the motion. I would recommend to the govern­ment that they reconsider this portfolio reallocation. It is not too late for them to do so. They can simply say, 'Look, we didn't actually have any bad intent here; this was just good old-fashioned incompetence, something which we are well known for,' and I think everyone would accept that and recognise that as a statement of truth. For those reasons, we will not be supporting this motion.

10:11 am

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

Acting Deputy President Cameron, it might have been one of your friends, Senator Lionel Murphy, who back in the 1970s introduced the notion of Senate estimates committees, and he did so, of course, Sir, as an accountability measure. It is perhaps the most important modern justification for the Senate. What it does is put the executive and senior public servants on the spot. And constitutionally it provides the following link. The parliament votes money to the executive for expenditure on government programs. That is what we do, and that is what the Constitution says. The parliament then wants to see how the executive has spent the money that it voted to them. It as simple as that, and that is what Lionel Murphy said. So there are constitutional reasons for the estimates process, and they are critical to the way our system performs.

My eloquent colleagues, Senator Brandis and Senator Fifield, said that estimates committees are good for the opposition—and that is true. Senator Faulkner and Senator Ray—when I used to try to chair them in the finance and public administration committee many years ago; and I did it very unsuccessfully I might add—said that it was the opposition's show. But I do not think they were quite right. There is much more to it than that. I actually think it is a tool for government, because governments often find out in estimates committees what is not going so well and where the holes are in their programs. And I mean that. That might seem self-serving but I honestly believe that—that ministers and senior public servants think, 'Gee, I didn't know about that,' or 'That isn't going so well.' So, sure, it is a forum for the opposition—I accept that; of course it is—but it is also a place where governments can learn about failures in the delivery of their own programs.

If I can throw in a quick partisan note: one of the great criticisms that the opposition has of this government is the implementation of their programs. If you had to summarise our criticisms of the government it is the implementation of government programs. It is not the aspirations. In my field of education, I would agree, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, with many of the aspirations of the government. But I do criticise consistently the way programs have been implemented—whether it is the Building the Education Revolution, compu­ters in schools, digital education revolution and so forth. We can have that debate later on, but certainly the argument from our side has always been that the implementation of government programs is where the government is weak. Finally, I honestly believe it is good for the country. I think it is good for the country that the government of whatever persuasion is put on the spot. I was only very briefly a parliamentary secretary before we lost government, but even in that very brief six months I found the experience of sitting in Senate estimates committees unnerving and uncomfortable. It is probably a very good thing. One day—and I do not know when it will be—we will probably be back in government and then we will be uncomfortable again. But that is probably not a bad thing either. I think the whole process of Senate estimates is good for the opposition. I do not quibble with that, and I am not trying to pretend it is not—it is our forum—but I do think it is good for government in the sense that it lets them know where the holes are, where they are making mistakes and where they are not delivering services well. Finally, it is good for the country because the country—if it cannot rest assured—can be more assured that the taxpayers' money is being well spent. So our general principle from this side is that these are really important processes.

Senate estimates are vital to accountability and integrity and we think that the Senate should do all it can to facilitate that process. I know my friends in the Greens would agree with us because they have always been very keen to push integrity and accountability in the Senate, so I am hoping they will support us when this motion is finally put to the vote. Senator Brown always tells the Senate—and he is right—that Senate estimates are vital to keep governments of whatever persuasion and the executive in check. Let us face it: when we had a Senate majority briefly in the Howard era the only check in that period, because the Senate itself was not a check, was Senate estimates. You will recall that, Mr Acting Deputy President.

To in any way compromise the capacity of Senate estimates to do their job is a very bad thing. I know my words are now going on the record for all time and I will be held to account for them, but I believe they are right. My colleagues have known me for long enough to know that I can be as partisan as they come. I know that, and I am not trying to hide that, but there is an issue that is even higher than partisanship and that is good government. Estimates provide for better government for all of us.

Senator Fifield and Senator Brandis put this very well before. My area is tertiary education and Senator Nash looks after vocational education and training and skills. Let me explain what it meant under the original budget estimates for this year that came out before the government had the reshuffle and changed the administrative arrangements from the first draft for DEEWR, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, which moved tertiary education into the Economics Legislation Committee. Under the original draft, which I have before me, we had higher education and vocational education and training commencing at 9 am and finishing at 2.15 pm. If you take the lunch hour out—that is fair enough—you are left with four hours and 15 minutes. That is a pretty typical draft of how the education committee operates in estimates for voca­tional education and training and also tertiary education. That makes allowance for the lunch break. Under the draft program for the Senate Economics Legislation Committee, tertiary education and vocational education and training are reduced to 1¾ hours, from 3.45 pm to 6.00 pm. So we have a reduction from four hours and 15 minutes down to 1¾ hours. That is much less than half—about 40 per cent of the original time.

Some people probably think that it does not matter. Who cares about tertiary educa­tion and vocational education and training? I know that Senator Evans does and I know that Senator Carr does. Indeed, I know that the Prime Minister does. I criticise the Prime Minister frequently, but I have never, ever criticised her enthusiasm and her support for education and education reform publicly or privately. I think she has done a great service to the nation in promoting education and educational outcomes as a really important industry. You are right that I have criticised her consistently for the delivery of educati­onal programs but never, ever her intentions or aspirations. I think she is well motivated.

As Senator Brandis said, I sound like a broken record, and I know this, but higher education is our largest export services industry and worth about $18 billion to this country. It is enormous, just behind minerals, iron ore, coal and now gold. It is a huge export industry. It is the largest export industry for the city of Melbourne. Senator Fifield knows that. You go to Melbourne and there are international students all over the place. We are talking about an industry that is absolutely vital to our nation's future.

Let us face it: when the mining boom finishes or softens—and one day it will—if we want a resilient economy that really works, an economy where people are trained and are productive and an economy where things like the GFC, a strong Australian dollar and competition from other education providers do not buckle it, it will largely come down to how well Australians are trained and how well they are educated. If you want to bolster Australia's productivity and supercharge outcomes, you do it with training and education. I see Senator Cormann sitting there. I know he is from Western Australia and a great advocate of the mining industry but, even with the greatest respect to him, one day demand for our resources may diminish or may soften. In building a resilient economy that can ride those waves, education will be absolutely critical, so we are talking about a really vital issue. It is pretty simple.

I always say, Mr Acting Deputy President, and I think perhaps my friends Senator Carr and Senator Evans would actually agree with me: we, Australia, are a superpower in just a few things. We are a superpower in sport and we are superpower in mining; that is true. We are a superpower in agriculture and we are a superpower in higher education. We educate per head of population more kids from overseas than any other nation on earth. In English-speaking countries we are the third largest provider. It is an extraordinary achievement. It is not a partisan achieve­ment; it is an extraordinary achievement for this country. So we are talking about an industry here that makes us a world superpower. We are not a superpower in many things, but we are in the delivery of higher education, right throughout the world.

Let us face it, Mr Acting Deputy President, you know, I know and the govern­ment knows that Australia is perfectly positioned to take advantage of a booming middle class in Asia. I have no doubt that the white paper that the government is producing at the moment on our engagement with Asia will look at tertiary education. We can provide tertiary education at the highest level for potentially hundreds of thousands more young kids from Asia. It is not just great for our economy—of course it is good for our economy; it even has the effect of cross-subsidising research and learning in this country. I know and accept that, but it also has other profound effects—for example, diplomacy. It increases Australia's soft power.

I was in Malaysia not so long ago and I swear that half the Malaysian cabinet was educated in Australia. That gives us enormous political purchase, emotional purchase and soft power in countries like Malaysia. So over the next few years—and to give them credit, I know the government are looking at this—Australia will be perfectly positioned. We used to say we were going to become the 'salad bowl' for Asia. We really can be the education provider for Asia, and we are perfectly positioned, better than anyone else in the world, to provide those services. That is why it is so critical.

These estimates are at a time—and Senator Evans says this all the time, and he is right—of significant reform in higher education. You would be aware, Mr Acting Deputy President Cameron, of the Bradley reforms. Professor Bradley's review came out a few years ago now and the first year of the demand driven system is this year. It is 2012—it has just commenced. The caps have come off for all qualified young Australians. They can attend university and the Common­wealth will support a place for them. This is a significant reform in tertiary history. The government's belief is that this is a way to provide access for kids who otherwise would not have had a chance—kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, Indigenous young Australians and young Australians from regional areas.

This is a significant reform. It is an expensive reform. You would have heard that I have some reservations about imple­mentation, standards and quality. I accept that. As a general proposition, subject to certain riders, the opposition supports it. I was going to ask a lot of questions about that. Of course I would because it is an expensive operation and it is vital for Australia's future, but I am not going to have the time now that tertiary education is being moved to the economics committee. I know it is a great committee and that Senator Bushby and the chair do a great job, but the fact is that there will not be sufficient time. The time has been cut by more than 60 per cent. For the first year of very significant reforms in the area, there will not be sufficient scrutiny.

You would also be aware, Mr Acting Deputy President, of TEQSA—the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency—that has just started. This is the way the government hopes to ensure that standards are kept in this country. Because more young Australians are coming into university the way the government wants to ensure that standards do not drop is through TEQSA. Again, it is vital that questions be asked of TEQSA. They took up their statutory obligations on 1 February and I have many questions to ask of the chairman of TEQSA. They are vital questions about how they are going to monitor standards and quality in tertiary education in this country. These are very important questions because the one thing that will compromise Australia's higher education system is the perception anywhere in the world—particularly in Asia—that our standards are dropping. If there is any hint that Australian standards are dropping in our universities in this country, then the export industry—the fourth largest in this country and the greatest services export industry—will either be compromised or all over. So TEQSA is a vital agency to ensure that standards do not drop. That is why it is important for the opposition to ask questions. To be fair, I know that the Greens have questions. I think my good friend Senator Rhiannon, who is looking after this area, has questions about TEQSA. It is a vital agency for the regulation of standards in higher education. It is absolutely critical.

Late last year, Dr Jane Lomax-Smith brought out the base funding review which talked about how much the course fees should be for young Australians at university and how much the government should provide. Is that a critical issue? Absolutely, because it impacts on all the young Australians who want to go to university. How much will they be paying? Dr Lomax-Smith had some ideas. Without getting into the debate about who is right and who is wrong—I accept that is for another time and another place—it is an issue that has to be ventilated, and estimates is the best place for it. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, I like nothing better than coming into the Senate and having a quiet chat to the chamber but I think the government is better served by opposition senators in estimates than it is by any rhetorical display by me or any of my colleagues. I mean that but we are going to be denied that. So the base funding review that Dr Lomax-Smith chaired, which raised really interesting and important issues about the future of higher education and funding, again will not be addressed. I should not forget vocational education and training, Mr Acting Deputy President, which I know you are very interested in. I know that Senator Carr, Senator Evans and indeed the Prime Minister have all spoken about training and skills often. When we talk about productivity the government talks about training and skills, as it should; but there is no time in the schedule to examine those issues. I know the shadow minister, Mrs Ley in the other place, and Senator Nash, the opposition spokesperson here in the Senate, have many questions they want to ask about that because vocational education and training has a new national regulator to regulate standards in the VET sector. Is that important? It is critically important for the VET sector. However the opposition wants to characterise it, the government has not stood still in higher education. I have never said it has stood still. I disagree with how it has implemented policy, but it has not stood still and there is plenty of fertile territory for estimates. Again, the way things are going we are not going to get there. In fact we are not going to get anywhere near talking about the new regulator for vocational education and training.

I know my friend Senator Cormann wants to spend time in the economics committee examining the carbon tax and the mining tax, as he should. I know it is politically combustible and I accept all that. It comes to this: in the end this is a matter of a govern­ment setting a precedent. I honestly do not think it is a good precedent. I do not know if it is advertent or inadvertent. Senator Brandis used the word 'maligned'. I do not know whether it is maligned or simply uninten­tional, but it sets a very bad precedent when the opposition is unable to address really critical issues, whether they are about the mining sector or about the carbon tax or in my area where there has been significant reform in universities and vocational education and training.

10:31 am

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Prime Minister tells us that she wants to put the economy front and centre in 2012, yet it is incredible to me that the first thing her government does this year is place further limits on the ability of this parliament to scrutinise economic issues. One of the strengths of our system of government over the past 110 years has been the accounta­bility of the executive—the government of the day—to its parliament. It is a strength which has helped deliver largely stable and corruption-free government regardless of which party has been in power over the history of our nation. That is not something that you can necessarily say about all countries in the world. One of the key aspects that has helped us to deliver—and I underline that—is the accountability of government to this parliament.

Over the last 40 years, the estimates system has been developed. My colleague Senator Mason went through some of the history of that and noted some of the think­ing behind it and some of its advantages. It has certainly enhanced the ability of this parliament to hold the government to account and to scrutinise its activities and the programs that the government of the day seeks to deliver and the way those programs are being implemented.

Traditionally in the development of estimates over the last 40 years the skills balance between those who are the inquisi­tors and those who are being subjected to questions usually leads to—and I know there is a bit of cut and thrust and a bit of parrying between the two opposing sides—relatively balanced outcomes where failings of governments of the day, the failings of their programs and the failings to implement them in a way that is cost effective and deliver the outcomes properly and well, are exposed and those activities of government that do need to be kept relatively close to government have been managed to be kept that way. It is a balance, and there is a need for balance in that. There are some things government does which need to be kept fairly close to its chest, and there are other things which need to be exposed to the public and which the public needs to hear about. Estimates has provided a traditional balance and a very effective way of ensuring that those things which should come into the public domain do come in for the betterment of our system of government and for the betterment of the Australian people. However, I would note that this government has taken evasion and deflection, which is a usual tactic in esti­mates, to new heights and has been putting that balance at risk. The approach by this government is starting to seriously under­mine the level of scrutiny that estimates can deliver for the benefit of the Australian public. The proposal we are debating this morning takes that deterioration in the effectiveness of estimates and makes it worse.

Estimates is important. It is a vital tool in ensuring that the activities of government are properly scrutinised. That is even more so in my view, speaking as deputy chair of the Economics Legislation Committee, for the economics committee. In estimates we have the opportunity to examine the performance of the economy, the fiscal position of the government—which has been of huge public importance over recent years—and issues such as interest rates, government debt, the impacts of international developments on the Australian economy and so on. These issues are central to the government of Australia—more so over the last few years than they have been traditionally. The economics committee is where these issues get aired.

It is appropriate, it is proper and it is good for the people of Australia that there is proper opportunity for the issues to be aired and for the elected members of this parlia­ment, the Senate, to inquire of the govern­ment about these issues. Estimates provides the only forum in which the members of the Senate have that opportunity. We all know the realities of question time, whether in the Senate or in the other place, when very few questions get answered in detail or properly, but Senate estimates traditionally has provided the opportunity for questions of importance and relevance to be answered. Generally and traditionally the questions do get answered and it is the appropriate forum for this to be done. The economics committee in estimates deals with issues of central importance to all Austra­lians. Any change that limits the ability of that committee to properly examine these issues is a retrograde step which can only fail to serve the interest of Australians.

Over and above the issues central to the economy, as I have mentioned, the econo­mics committee also traditionally looks into other Treasury portfolios: the Australian Office of Financial Management, which manages the issuance of government debt; the Australian Prudential Regulation Author­ity, which looks at the prudential regulation of banks, the superannuation industry and the insurance industry; the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, which looks into a very broad range of issues relating to corporate regulation, superannuation and financial services; the ACCC; the Common­wealth Grants Commission; and a number of other agencies, including as the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education and—importantly once again for the performance of the Australian economy—the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. That is its current load; that is what it already does, and it tries to pack that into two days. What we are talking about now is taking something we have heard from Senator Mason, taking more than half a day off a different estimates committee and packing that into a two-day program in the economics committee where we are already pushed and hard-pressed finding time to properly deal with the portfolio agencies that we already have. Not only does that fail to do justice to the tertiary education and vocational education areas, which quite clearly deserve that half-day that they traditionally have had in the education committee, but it undermines the ability of the economics committee to consider those issues that it already has. It is a lose-lose for everybody

I would not mind having a look at what we actually do in the economics committee but I think I will probably cut my time short in view of keeping the debate short. I note that the economics committee rarely, if ever, has finished early. I come down at 11 o'clock at night after estimates has finished and the day is finished and I note that some of the other estimates committees have finished early and have gone home. I am quite envious of the fact that they have managed to get out before 11 o'clock—and, Mr Acting Deputy President Cameron, as a member of the economics committee, you would be aware that we rarely get out before 11 o'clock. That is because we never, ever have enough time to adequately deal with the issues and questions that need to be asked of the agency portfolios in the economics estimates committee. I end up putting probably hundreds of questions on notice at the end of estimates, because there is so much that I think needs to be asked and there is no time to ask it.

Senator Mason very eloquently explored the reasons why vocational and tertiary education need the time that traditionally they have been allocated and the importance of those areas to the Australian economy and the Australian people. To take all of that and to squeeze and poke it into an agenda that is already inadequate in terms of the time that is available to explore the issues that it is charged with exploring, is, I think, an indication of either gross mismanagement or, in the context of a Prime Minister who wishes to explore the economy to a greater extent, something a little less noble than mismanagement.

So what are we looking at? Over the last few weeks since we found out that this change was going to be put before the Senate—and probably, depending on the outcome of the Greens' vote, likely to proceed—we have tried to manage by looking at where we can cut time from the existing agenda and which of those portfolio agencies we can take some time from. In some cases, some agencies will just be excused and not called because in terms of the overall priorities we will not be able to deal with them. That is not good for scrutiny of government. These are all agencies that do good things. They should appear before the committee and should be properly scrutin­ised. But given we are trying to squeeze a half-day program from another committee into our two-day program, we have gone through that and tried to make it work.

I commend the chair of the committee, Senator Mark Bishop, who is being quite reasonable in trying to work with us to fit all this in so that we can try to get those agencies before us that we really need to have and to maximise the time for each of them. But the reality is, as hard as we have tried and as accommodating as the chair has been, we have ended up with an outcome that is a very, very poor outcome for delivering the benefits and proper scrutiny of these areas so that we can make sure that the government in these areas is as it should be.

It is a very, very disappointing end, and I will just pull out a few examples of what we are looking at. There are four major Treasury areas: the Treasury Macroeconomic Group, the Treasury Fiscal Group, the Treasury Markets Group, and the Treasury Revenue Group which appears with the ATO, the Australian tax office. As Senator Brandis noted, the Macroeconomic Group has in itself taken half a day or more because of the issues that it deals with. In macroeconomics we look at the broader issues of the impact on the Australian economy of things like the global financial crisis, the impending threats that are coming out of the current European situation and the impacts of interest rates and all those types of issues. Those issues get looked at in the macroeconomics area. As a result of the changes we have now, we have allocated one hour and 45 minutes to deal with the overall macroeconomic issues. That is appalling in terms of the relevance and the importance of macroeconomic issues to all Australians.

Treasury Fiscal is about how the government spends the taxpayers' money that it collects. We have got two hours to go through spending right across all areas of government. That is grossly insufficient time to have any hope at all of looking into the issues of the spending of this government.

Similarly, there are two hours to look at the Markets Group. The Treasury Markets Group looks at the operation of all the different markets, like the banking market or the housing market, or whatever it might be right across Australia. There are a plethora of different markets that Treasury has oversight of, and yet we have two hours to go right across all markets in Australia. It is grossly insufficient time to do justice to examining the state of those markets, all of which feed into the economy, all employ people, and all create wealth for the people of Australia. Yet we have no opportunity other than these two hours to look at that.

Then of course there is the Treasury Revenue Group in the ATO. The government has argued—and this is all about taxes of course—that the reason it is in such a poor fiscal position is because of the collapse of revenue. This is the opportunity to examine that issue. This is the opportunity to examine new taxes like the government's mining tax and the carbon tax. It is also the opportunity to look at the Australian Taxation Office and how the Australian tax office deals with individuals and companies around Australia in raising those taxes. The two hours and 30 minutes which we have managed to negotiate for that is grossly inadequate. I could go on right through this program and talk about the importance of each of the portfolio agency areas and the need for more time to examine them. I could justify it for each one of those with a very, very strong case. But the reality is that, in summary, we have had to squeeze all of them. We have had to limit the ability for parliament to scrutinise them properly and, at the same time, tertiary education and vocational education lose because we do lose the opportunity to properly scrutinise this area. This is an appalling decision by this government, and I strongly support the position that the coalition has taken in not supporting it.

10:45 am

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

This government is incompetent, it is divided, it is deeply dysfunctional. It has senior ministers either at each other's throats or with knives in each other's backs. The motion that the government has put before the Senate today to change the program of Senate estimates less than a week before we fulfil that very important function of ours of holding the government to account is just another demonstration of the government's incompetence, the government's division and the government's deep dysfunction.

We have a Prime Minister under pressure. We have a Prime Minister who stuffed up the reshuffle. We have a Prime Minister who broke her promise to the Australian people not to introduce a carbon tax. We have a Prime Minister who stuffed up the mining tax deal. And, no doubt, because the Prime Minister is under so much pressure one of her spin doctors—perhaps the guy that she imported over from Britain, who used to be Tony Blair's spin doctor—said to her, 'Prime Minister, if you want to get rid of some of this pressure and if you want to get yourself into a better position you should try and shift the debate onto the economy'. This is extraordinary advice. It is advice that could only have come from somebody who has not experienced firsthand the disastrous economic and fiscal policy track record of this government over the past four years, consistent with the disastrous fiscal and economic track record of previous Labor governments.

But the Prime Minister took the advice. The Prime Minister tried to shift the debate onto the economy. Yesterday in the other place she said, 'Bring it on. Bring on the debate.' And at the first opportunity to engage on the economy and to put her government forward to the scrutiny of parliament on the performance of the government on the economy, what does the government do? They try to weaken the capacity of the Senate and they try to under­mine the capacity of the Senate Economics Committee to submit the government's performance in the economic area to some proper scrutiny.

The government claims that Australia is in so much better economic shape because of the actions of the Gillard Labor government. If that is the case, why are they not prepared to submit themselves to some proper, detailed and forensic questioning about that during Senate estimates? The reason the government does not want to submit themselves to some forensic questioning in Senate estimates is because they know that the claim does not stand up to scrutiny. They know that the claim that the Gillard govern­ment is somehow responsible for Australia's superior economic position in the world does not stand up to scrutiny.

The government know that four years ago they inherited a $22 billion surplus and a $70 billion net asset position by the Common­wealth. They know that over the last four years Labor has delivered $167 billion worth of accumulated deficits. They know that between the 2010-11 budget being announ­ced and the 2010-11 budget outcome—eventually—the budget position had deteriorated by more than $8 billion. They know that in 12 months the 2011-12 deficit deteriorated under this government from $12.3 billion to $22.6 billion to $37.1 billion by the time of the midyear economic and fiscal outlook.

This is a very important point, because this government, which is so afraid of public scrutiny of its economic performance, deliberately delayed the release of the midyear economic and fiscal outlook until after the parliament rose for the summer break in order to minimise scrutiny of the figures in that midyear economic and fiscal outlook.

The estimates Senate Economics Committee next week will be the first oppor­tunity to submit Treasury and the govern­ment to some detailed questioning about the figures in the midyear economic and fiscal outlook. And what does the government do? The government takes something out of the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee—tertiary education, which has never been part of the Economics Committee—and puts it into the Economics Committee in order to squeeze down the time that we have to question the govern­ment about its economic performance. It is completely inappropriate.

It is not as if we have time to spare in the Senate Economics Committee. The Senate Economics Committee always runs out of time. There are always more important questions to be asked than what we have time for. And, of course, there is a lot of time wasting in the Senate Economics Committee because Labor senators, desperate to protect the weak, incompetent, divided and dysfunctional government, run interference whenever they can. And there is a lot of ducking and weaving going on, avoiding questions—taking 20 minutes to explain why a particular question cannot be answered before taking it on notice.

Here is this government's track record on openness and transparency after we were promised by the Prime Minister back in August 2010 that this would be a new era of openness and transparency: in the last Senate economics estimates Treasury took 851 questions on notice; today 303 of those questions remain unanswered. As we go into the estimates next week to scrutinise the midyear economic and fiscal outlook and to scrutinise the government's bad performance across the economic policy and fiscal areas; and as we go into estimates next week to scrutinise issues, initiatives and proposals like the bad mining tax, the carbon tax and all of the other revenue measures of the government, the government has allocated two hours. This is a high-spending, high-taxing government and it gives us two hours to ask questions about all of its various tax grabs. If you are going to be a high-taxing government you have to provide proper time for the parliament to be able to ask questions about all of your various tax measures. So 35.6 per cent of the questions taken on notice by Treasury remained unanswered; this is pretty concerning.

I will focus on a particular issue. The Senate is well aware and, Mr Acting Deputy President Cameron, you are well aware that I have a particular interest in the implications of Labor's bad mining tax, which came out of a bad process. In order to make the Senate economics estimates committee process as constructive and as productive as possible, before the last estimates I wrote to Secretary to the Treasury Dr Martin Parkinson to advise him specifically about a series of issues that I wanted to ask questions about in order to ensure that Treasury officials would be in a position to provide answers.

Mr Acting Deputy President, as you are well aware, the government has so far refused to release the mining tax revenue assumptions, commodity price assumptions, production volume assumptions and so on even though that is information that is readily released as part of the budget process in states like Queensland and Western Australia, whose revenue is sensitive to variations in those variables, as would be the case for the Commonwealth budget if the mining tax becomes law. For Treasurer Wayne Swan it is a national secret. He is not prepared to share the mining tax revenue assumptions; no doubt because he has something to hide and no doubt because the serious questions that have been raised about the credibility of the mining tax revenue estimates are justified.

I wrote to Dr Parkinson a week before the last estimates and said: 'The government has attached all of these promises to the mining tax. They have attached a promise to increase the superannuation guarantee from nine to 12 per cent; the superannuation tax rebate for low income earners; a 50 per cent discount on interest income; the increase of concessional contribution caps for over-50s; the phasing down of interest withholding on financial institutions; early company tax cuts for small business; small business instant asset write-offs; standard deductions for work related expenses; the lowering of company tax rates; and the regional infrastructure fund.' The government has never provided the proper costings over the forward estimates for these measures. When the initial Rudd version of the RSPT package was announced many of these measures only had one year to run in the forward estimates. Since then we are into yet another budget cycle and we now have three years where these particular measures are going to be part of the budget.

So we said we wanted to have the costings of each measure that the government has attached to the mining tax over the forward estimates. That is a very reasonable question to ask. We gave the Treasury secretary a week's notice before the last Senate estimates. When Senate estimates came along we thought, 'The senior Treasury official should be in a position to answer these questions,' and guess what? They spent 20 minutes explaining why they were not in a position to answer. When you look through all of the mumbo jumbo and the weasel words you find it was because the government did not want Treasury to provide answers to those questions.

Ultimately, Treasury took the questions on notice, and guess what? As of this morning answers to these questions have still not been provided. The government is refusing to let the Australian people know what all the promises it has attached to the mining tax will cost the budget, and we know why. The reason the government wants to hide this from the Australian people is it knows that its mining tax package is a fiscal train wreck in the making, and it is trying to cover it up and avoid the scrutiny.

I am sure that Treasury officials are telling the government privately what I am telling the Senate now, which is that the mining tax revenue is highly volatile and is downward trending over time. Right now we are in a situation where we have record terms of trade—the best terms of trade in 140 years. Revenue is at a high. It will be highly volatile because of commodity price changes, exchange rate changes and product­ion volume changes. It is highly volatile and downward trending. The cost of all the promises that Labor has irresponsibly attached to the mining tax is fixed and increasing over time. Over the medium to long term the mining tax package will seriously put the structural stability of the budget at risk.

Over the current forward estimates, based on the best available information put to the Senate inquiry into the mining tax and extracted from Treasury in various hearings, our best estimate is that already the cost of all the promises Labor has attached to the mining tax exceeds the revenue by more than $3 billion. Added to that is the fact that the Gillard government made a promise to the three big mining companies that it would credit all state and territory royalties against any mining tax liability. There you have another $3 billion black hole.

We will stand corrected, but in our estimation right now the mining tax package will leave the budget worse off to the tune of $6 billion over the current forward estimates. That is $2 billion in state royalty increases out of Western Australia, which the government has to credit against the MRRT, $1 billion because the New South Wales state government is increasing royalties on coal, and the three billion dollar difference between the cost of all the promises Labor has attached to the mining tax and the revenue it says it will generate. And there is a serious question mark about whether it will raise revenue at all because the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Minister for Resources and Energy, in their secret, exclusively negotiated mining tax deal, gave those three big mining companies a significant upfront tax deduction by giving them the opportunity to use the market valuation method. There is a serious question mark as to whether it will raise any revenue at all over the current forward estimates.

These are the sorts of questions that are appropriately pursued in the Senate economics committee, along with a series of other questions. Of course, these are the sorts of questions that the government continues to avoid. Here we have it: yesterday the mining tax bills hit the Senate. But to this day, on the three key issues we are confront­ing—how much the mining tax will raise, how much the promises that Labor has attached to the mining tax will cost and what the net effect on the budget is—the govern­ment is ducking and weaving to avoid scrutiny. Not only have they refused to answer the questions put to them in Senate economics estimates; they have also completely and flatly ignored a Senate order for the government to provide that information passed on 1 November 2011. So much for the promise by the Prime Minister of a new era of openness and transparency. I think it is fair to say that we can put that particular promise into the very, very long list of broken promises by this incompetent Prime Minister who does not know where to turn next to put out yet another bushfire.

We now have the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook for 2011-12, which was released in December last year—just two or three months ago. It showed that the deficit in 12 months went from $12.3 billion for 2011-12 to $37.1 billion. That is a tripling in the course of 12 months. Clearly we need to explore in great detail the reasons for that. We have also seen there that the net debt position is now expected to go over $130 billion. In the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook three months ago the government said that their expectation was that unemployment would be at 5.5 per cent in both 2011-12 and in 2012-13. Less than two months later the acting Treasurer, the would-like-to-be-Treasurer-soon, Mr Bill Shorten—who would like to probably be anything from Prime Minister down, however close he can get to it—conceded that the unemployment rate was expected to balloon to six per cent this year. So here we have the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook in December 2011 which says the government expects unemployment to go to 5.5 per cent—up from 4.2 per cent when we were in government, by the by—both this financial year and next financial year, and less than two months later the acting Treasurer says, 'No, sorry; it's six per cent.' This government is all over the place. What are the implications of that for the budget bottom line? What does it mean for the government's claim that it will deliver a surplus in 2012-13? The $1.5 billion surplus they are claiming for 2012-13 is already a wafer-thin surplus.

To put that into context, the government's budget position deteriorated by more than $8 billion in 2010-11. It has so far deteriorated by more than $25 billion in 2011-12. But the government wants us to believe that, in the context of increasing unemployment and all of the wasteful spending that the government is pursuing on a regular basis as part of their DNA, somehow there is going to be this magical turnaround in 2012-13 and there is not going to be any deterioration whatsoever in the face of a $1.5 billion claimed surplus.

I would have thought that these are the sorts of areas that deserve proper scrutiny. But these are, of course, the sorts of issues that this government is desperate to avoid scrutiny on, which is why we get this stunt today where the government, with less than a week to go, comes into this chamber and tries to further squeeze down the time that this Senate has to ask important questions about the state of the economy, the state of the budget and the government's fiscal performance, if you can call it that. We get less than two hours to ask questions about all of Labor's new taxes and all of Labor's revenue measures, less than two hours to talk about the state of the economy and less than two hours to talk about all of the additional red tape that the government wants to impose on the financial services sector. This is just not serious. If the Prime Minister were serious about 'bringing it on', she would make sure that the Senate Economics Legislation Committee had a proper opportunity to scrutinise the government's performance. (Time expired)

11:05 am

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I do not know whether this parliament is confused, but certainly my Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee is. We were told, Minister, that because of your schedule and availability you and Senator Conroy could not fit into the estimates program. I have no idea what that means, but I do know the effect. The rural and transport committee deals with a whole range of very serious matters, presently ranging from coal seam gas and all sorts of things like that to the conduct of the wheat authorities. I have never really been confused about some things in life, but I am pretty confused about what opera, ballet and basketball have to do with an engine failure on a Qantas flight out of Canberra the other day—and that is what you are expecting us to mix together. Some people are confused about what an exit portal is and what an entry portal is. I am not, but I am certainly worried about what is proposed. I think it would be nice to get an explanation of why you cannot put sport into an appropriate area and instead have to lump it in with tractors, sheep, cattle, trains and God knows what else. Does that indicate a downgrading of the importance of agriculture, transport, airline safety and a whole range of other things in the eyes of the government?

There is a whole range of other things. What about the conflict that is occurring up in Gladstone Harbour? We would like to know what that is all about. I would love to get free tickets to the opera and that. Given that my mother was a ballet teacher, I want to go to the ballet when Alan Ramsey's daughter Tosca makes it to the Australian Ballet. She is on her way. When she gets there, I want to be there. Alan and Laura will have something to be really proud of there.

As for the sense of importance, you have lost the plot by putting sport and the arts in with trucks, trains and transport. They did try to stick it in with DAFF, but we managed to win that little battle—DAFF is a full program all day. They tried to stick it on the end of that. These portfolios have no home. You have shopped them around the various committees and we have been lumbered with them. I would like an explanation of that. Does it mean you do not consider the portfolios which the rural and transport committee deals with to be important?

Sport and the arts are important portfolios. It is a great privilege to be the minister for sport. I suppose you would get sick of going to the various boxes for the various games, but it is all part of the privilege. We really want to spend as much time as we can at estimates on the things that we in the committee can directly relate to, and we do not have a relationship with sport and the arts, even though they are important.

We think it is equally important to find out what went wrong with the engine on that QantasLink flight to Sydney the other day. I am sure the lady who took the video through the window when the engine stopped would like to know what caused that to happen, and we would like to be given enough time to find answers to all those questions.

We had a hearing last night where the might of the CSIRO came and gave evidence which I thought was embarrassing. Senator Waters was there. They said they have 452 scientists backing them, but they could not give us some simple answers on some of the propositions around water extraction for coal seam gas. We would like to be able to spend all the time that we can drilling into those sorts of issues. I think it is fair to say that the committee itself was pretty surprised—wouldn't you say, Senator Waters?—that we got landed with sport and ballet. These are important issues, but we wish there was a way that the government, in its wisdom, could find a more suitable home for them and give us more space for the things that we have dealt with for some years as a committee.

We recently put out a unanimous report, which the committee is very proud of, on the issues around coal seam gas. In what I call political blackmail, which I realise is strong language, Tony Windsor—God bless him; he is a smart bushie—got $200 million to go to some sort of overview of the issues around mining and coal seam gas. We put the appropriate people under scrutiny last night as to why it was $200 million, $50 million of which is going to the states and $150 million of which is going to a process which nobody knows anything about—they have no idea. The people who were there said: 'We've set up an expert committee to give advice as to how we're going to spend the $150 million. We don't know what we're going to spend it on, nor do we know why we made it $150 million.' But that shut down the objection to the mining tax by getting the support of Mr Windsor, and good luck to Mr Windsor; he is a pretty good horse dealer. But we would still like to know the ins and outs of that.

These things take time at estimates. I think this allocation of portfolios is a phoney proposition. It means you are either lowering our powers of scrutiny or you are lessening the importance of the arts and sport. I am afraid that we are at a loss to understand it. My view is that this debate is quite appropriate because some of the decisions are obviously made on the advice of some bureaucrat who would not know which end of a cow is the exit portal. I think you ought to reconsider this. I think it is an insult to rural Australia, agriculture and the transport industry to lump sport and the arts in their portfolio areas when one of the most important tasks of the Senate is to put government funding under scrutiny through the estimates process.

I had better not say what I really think about this because I will have to withdraw it. But this is blowing in the face of agriculture. It is downgrading the signal to all the hardworking farmers out there who want to know where we are going with the various issues around agriculture. Where are we going to end up—with the intermingling of mining? What are we going to do with the 20 million tonnes of salt that is going to come out of coal seam gas if we allow it to? This is not an issue at this time for the federal government. But the Queensland government, against the advice of their own bureaucrats, went ahead and gave British Gas, Santos and Origin permission to mine up there with no idea at all of the consequences for the environment. They knew that there were going to be consequences, but they gave that permission not knowing how to solve the problem of what you do with four million tonnes of salt from one tenement, which is a pile of salt 25 kilometres long. How do you store that safely, given what has just happened in Queensland with the rain and floods? They want to store it in agricultural areas, allegedly in safe storage.

We want to know the answers to all this stuff, and the one process we have available to us is to ask questions at estimates. I am sure the government does not know the answer either. In a preliminary hearing yesterday the CSIRO, backed by 452 scientists, did not know the answer. With great respect to the minister and the government, I think this is an insult to agriculture. I think it is an insult to infrastructure and transport, safe flying, biosecurity and a whole range of other issues that our committee deals with very fervently—and, to the credit of the committee, very rarely do we have a dissent­ing report. When we were in government we gave our government as much stick as we give the present government based on the merits of the issue, because we do not like to play politics with people's livelihoods. But, Minister, with this decision, you are playing politics with people's livelihoods.

11:15 am

Photo of Mark ArbibMark Arbib (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Sport) Share this | | Hansard source

That is an hour and 45 minutes lost that could have been used for debate on legislation. There is a large legislative list, and again the tactics of the coalition are quite obviously to delay and delay further so that they can talk about issues which they believe are important. I will now try to respond to a couple of the points that were raised and try to move this debate on. This is a procedural debate—it is a standard debate that happens after ministerial reshuffles. With a ministerial reshuffle you need to adjust the work that happens in estimates and in committees. This motion matches the new portfolio allocations to the committees and ensures that the pattern established by the portfolio list is reflected in the committee structure. This greatly assists both ministers and departmental and agency officials to understand which committees they will appear before, particularly for estimates. It should be a non-contentious motion for the chamber, as it assists the operations of the committees. That Senator Brandis and coalition senators are seeking to make this an issue today only indicates again their preference for making every issue a political point-scoring exercise. It also means that the time of the chamber is again taken up by procedural matters. Without using up more time, I hope the chamber will recognise the logic of aligning portfolios with committees. If there are substantive issues of workload between committees, these should be raised and resolved in the Procedure Committee, which is the appropriate place for such discussions. I have had no indication that this is the opposition's preference, though I am happy to accommodate the discussion after next week's additional estimates hearings using the allocation proposed today.

On the economics committee, my understanding is that extra time has already been apportioned to allow discussion to take place on the Friday morning. But committees are able to take extra time if they think they need it. In response to Senator Heffernan's points about sport and the arts, I say as the sports minister that my ministry is very important to the social fabric of this country. It is an insult for him to say that people in rural Australia would find it insulting that sport sits in the regional affairs committee. Sport is cherished by all Australians, particularly those in regional and rural Australia. The same goes for the arts. I see that day in, and day out when I travel around the country, so I think it is appropriate that those areas lie with the regional affairs committee.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Arbib be agreed to.