Senate debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Budget; Order for the Production of Documents

12:15 pm

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Public Service) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to explain to the Senate why the government is not able to release the Budget Process Operational Rules at this time. I also I acknowledge that we did release the last BPORs, as they're called, after the October budget as a sign of transparency and accountability. The information was made public, and I have signalled that the government will be in a position to consider doing so again after the May budget is finalised. What the Senate has asked for is something that has never been asked for in this place before and something the opposition when in government never, ever, ever did, which was to provide the budget operational rules together before the budget is finalised.

I have said before that I think this is unreasonable, and I maintain that position. I understand why the opposition might form the view that they should be released, despite it never having been done or considered relevant when they were in power. But I would urge others who have supported this order for production of documents, especially the Greens, to consider the fact that we are trying to be more transparent and accountable than the current opposition and former government ever was. We have provided this information once the budget has been finalised and have said that we will look to do so again. But we do believe that it's unreasonable to release this document whilst the budget is being put together at this time.

The document directly informs the cabinet and ERC decisions. I think there are very strong reasons why, especially when we have foreshadowed that we will look to release that once the budget is finalised, it's not reasonable or fair and in fact is deeply hypocritical for those opposite to seek that document before the budget is finalised.

12:17 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for the Public Service) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the explanation given by the Minister for Finance.

How quickly the gloss comes off a Labor government, how quickly the rhetoric of opposition gives way to the political expediency of Labor governments. There was certainly a lot of talk from Minister Gallagher about transparency, about openness—indeed, it was only in October last year that she actually said, 'Transparency is a core part of APS business.' It's a core part of APS business, Minister Gallagher. In this spirit, I have to give credit where it's due. I was encouraged that when the Senate agreed to the order for the production of documents No. 87, which sought the Budget Process Operational Rules, the government provided them to the Senate. They were convincing about those proclamations of a new style of politics and new levels of transparency, and those proclamations were so convincing that for a moment even I almost believed them.

But it only lasted a moment. It's very concerning that the moment that those rules were updated, Minister Gallagher changed tack. In fact, instead of providing them, she then told the Senate that the BPORs govern the consideration of policies that are being brought forward in the '23-24 budget process, which has commenced. That's a line that she has repeated just now. She claims that those documents would divulges deliberations of cabinet and then she sought public interest immunity from the order. It is Minister Gallagher's right—don't get me wrong—to make that public interest immunity claim. However, when a public interest immunity claim is made, it is fundamental that it is genuine, it is fundamental that it's consistent—indeed, it is a test of honesty and integrity that it is so.

And with that in mind, I note that evidence provided at Senate estimates, from Minister Gallagher's own department, confirming that the documents we have requested are not classified cabinet-in-confidence documents, but rather 'Official: Sensitive'. That is a lower classification, and it is a significantly different classification. Senator Gallagher said herself, at Senate estimates, 'We are putting that budget together. My preference is that we don't release them once we're doing that, with a view—I think I said this in the Senate—that once that process is complete, I would be in a position to release them the Senate.' But this process is entirely inconsistent with the approach that Senator Gallagher took in November last year. She then admitted that the BPOR documents provided to the Senate on 28 November were in fact in operation at the time that they were tabled. They were in operation at that time. So what has changed between November last year and February this year? What has changed? It is entirely inconsistent with the reason that the minister has just provided the Senate.

I asked departmental officials at those estimates when the new rules—that is, the rules that were replacing the versions that were tabled on 28 November—were approved. Early December was the evidence that was provided. I asked if there was any vacuum in time when the old rules ceased to operate and the new ones came into effect. Senator Gallagher confirmed that this was not the case. Therefore, we know that the rules tabled in the Senate on 28 November were operating until at least early December. So it is totally laughable to claim that the minister cannot now table the new version of the BPORs as they're currently in use, because she has confirmed that the previous BPORs were being used at the time she tabled them. So what has changed? What has changed?

This is a document that was previously handed over with no hesitation at all. But now, all of a sudden, the government has decided that it won't hand it over anymore. Now that change of tack is surely no coincidence. Once again, we've seen that Labor are very happy to say one thing about transparency when it suits them, but another thing about transparency when it doesn't suit them. Just as the government starts to break its promises on no changes to super, on no changes to taxation, on no changes to franking credits, Minister Gallagher has suddenly decided that budget transparency is also no longer important. What a surprise that might be.

This is a government that doesn't take managing the budget seriously, and so it's afraid to budget. It's afraid to publish its budget rules because it doesn't want to be publicly held to the standard that it's apparently setting itself. Those opposite have dumped the objective of a balanced budget from their fiscal strategy. It was gone. Nowhere in the last budget did the words say, 'We are going to bring the budget back into balance.' Nowhere. Not once in the budget documents. It's been decades since that phrase, or even an implication of that phrase, was absent from budget documents. It's nowhere to be seen.

They have ditched the tax-to-GDP ratio, so there's no handbrake on taxes. Let it rip! Let it rip on taxes! There is no handbrake; there are no rules. It's part of their plan to let bracket creep eat into the wages of Australians to help prop up the budget. They won't rein in spending so that's why the RBA is being forced to do all the heavy lifting on interest rates, which is hitting everyday Australians in the hip pocket. And yet they have the audacity to point to the Governor of the RBA and say it's all his fault. Higher mortgage rates, higher energy bills, higher grocery prices: this is what this government has delivered. And let's not forget higher taxes. Perhaps the reason the government don't want to release their budget rules is because there is no offset rule anymore. That's disappeared from the budget process rules. Or the rule is there, potentially, but maybe it's just so flagrantly ignored that it's meaningless. Perhaps that's the case.

Labor announced $23 billion in additional spending, and we expect to see a hell of a lot more. We expect to see an awful lot more where that came from in the May budget. And how will they fund all that spending? Certainly not with making the hard calls about reducing expenditure. It's with taxes. It's with doubling of the super tax, it's with new franking credits taxed via stealth, it's by removing the personal income tax cuts that they tried to oppose at the time. This is a government that does not keep its promises. 'We have said that we have no intention of making any changes to super taxes,' said Anthony Albanese in May 2022. 'We've made it very clear, Kieran, that we don't have any proposals for tax increases,' said Jim Chalmers in April 2022.

These promises, clearly, mean nothing to Labor. They don't mean much to Senator Gallagher, clearly, or to the Treasurer or Prime Minister, but they mean an awful lot to Australians who are planning for their retirement. They mean something to the recent retiree who sold a business and is putting the proceeds in their self-managed super fund and now finding they're going to be charged tax twice. They mean something to a farmer who transferred their farm into their super fund and is suddenly looking at how to find cash to pay for unrealised capital gains for the first time. We knew the Labor Party would say anything to be elected and they did. This is the same Jim Chalmers who said he was 'pleased and proud' of the high-taxing agenda that Labor took to the 2019 election. Labor is clearly happy to say one thing and do another. In the case of the BPORs, Labor is happy to set the standard but not abide by it.

Australians are sick of the double standards. They are sick of the doublespeak. They are sick of broken promises, of having no intention to do something but then going ahead and doing the exact opposite only months later, of having no proposals to do something but then going ahead and doing the exact opposite less than a year later. Whether it be on transparency or reducing the cost of living, Labor is happy to say one thing and do another.

Who suffers for this? It's the ordinary Australians who felt that they were doing the right thing, who trusted the Labor opposition when they said they were going to make no changes to taxes. They trusted the Labor opposition when they said they were going to make no changes to super. They trusted the Labor opposition when they said, 'We have no interest in taking your franking credits away.' They trusted you and you duped them. They have a right to be disappointed.

Whether it be on transparency or the cost of living, you may be happy to say one thing and do another. You may do that. But in the coalition we are committed to holding you to account for the commitments that you have made. We will continue to do that every single day until you stick to your promises.

12:27 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of the ministerial response. We have a great deal of accountability hypocrisy from those on the other side. The BPORs, Budget Process Operational Rules, are a pretty arcane document, I think it's fair to say. Not many people listening to this broadcast would know what the BPORs are. There might even be one or two people sitting in this chamber today who don't know what the BPORs are.

Sadly, I do know what the BPORs are. I had some encounter with them, in a previous life, as a starter for the finance minister. The easiest way to explain them to the Australian people is to say they are the guide rails, for departments and ministers developing a budget, to stay within. They're the rules for the budget. It's pretty simple if you think about them that way.

What we saw when Senator Hume was able to have the government release the BPORs for their first budget was that there were some pretty significant changes in there. They revealed that the Labor government had ditched the requirement to offset new expenditure for election commitments. They removed the coalition government's tax to GDP cap of 23.9 per cent from the physical strategy. They also removed the cap on APS growth in Canberra. So we see, from the information that we got from the first release of the BPORs, that these make a real difference.

Now we've got this change of position from the Labor government. Just a few months ago they were willing to release the budget rules, and now they are not. So I think the question the Australian people should be asking of this government is: why? If they have changed the budget guidelines, why won't they tell? If they have changed the rules governing the construction of their next budget, why won't they tell the Australian people how they have changed those rules? That's pretty straightforward. That's honesty. That's transparency.

Remember, we've got a Prime Minister who came in on a very clear set of promises regarding transparency. It couldn't be more clear than this. Anthony Albanese said, 'Transparency is always a good idea.' He also said, 'Well, what we need is transparency, and I want politics to be cleaned up.' This is my favourite:

The Albanese Government is committed to integrity, honesty and accountability and Ministers in my Government (including Assistant Ministers) will observe standards of probity, governance and behaviour worthy of the Australian people.

Are those opposite are holding themselves to that standard? Under pressure from Senator Hume, they released the BPORs just a few short months ago, and they've acknowledged that they've change the rules—they've acknowledged that they've change the guide rails that govern how the budget is put together—but they won't come clean. They won't come clean about how they've changed those guide rails.

Sadly, this is now becoming a pattern with this government. You have to wonder, Senator Hume, whether the release last year was actually an accident. Was it because it was a government on training wheels? Was it because it was a government that wanted to try and stay within its promises for a little while anyway? I suspect a little of all of the above. The guide rails that they have now changed secretly and won't release are very important to the Australian people because they are seeing a pattern from this government. They're seeing a pattern. They're seeing a government that talk a lot about transparency and accountability, but the government are accountability hypocrites. They have accountability hypocrisy built into their DNA.

We have seen changes to the transparency of super funds, which was one of those actions of this government. Why? Coming into government, why was reducing the amount of transparency within super funds one of the first things they had to do? You have to question what this government's motivations actually are. Instead, we see a government that is attempting to keep quiet, whenever they can, information that will be damaging to them. As they put together what is going to be a very important budget for the Australian people at a time of rising inflation, rising interest rates—this budget is a very important one to craft in the interests of the Australian people. These budget rules are the guide rails for that budget process. It's vital to know that those guide rails are set correctly.

We have seen the government expect the RBA to do all the heavy lifting in terms of inflation, and so we have seen the fastest rate of interest rate rises pretty much in the history of Australia. We have seen mortgage interest rates on the average home go up to an extraordinary degree, with the average homeowner paying almost $1,000 more—it might be more than $1,000 now—for their home loan interest every month. It's a situation where the government has done nothing through its levers of power to take pressure off from those interest rate rises and assist the Reserve Bank in controlling inflation. Inflation is a scourge. Anyone who went through the 1970s and 1980s knows the scourge of inflation. Sadly I'm old enough to remember them. Senator Scarr, I think you probably do as well. The scourge of persistent inflation is absolutely devastating. I can remember back the sheer financial pressure that was put on my parents' family farm in the 1970s through a combination of high inflation and relatively high interest rates at the time.

The government do have things they can do. They've done absolutely nothing so far, but they do have things they can do, and putting the correct guide rails in place for the upcoming budget would assist them in doing them. Have they done that? We don't know, Senator Scarr. We don't have a clue, because the government are now not releasing their budget rules even though just five months ago they did, when those rules were still active. As Senator Hume has said, those rules were still in place when they were released five months ago. They were released to this parliament, as they should have been, and now Senator Hume has quite rightly asked for the rules at the moment. We know the rules have changed, and we want to know how the rules have changed. What has the government done to the budget rules in the lead-up to what is really a very important budget for this nation? We have the Reserve Bank doing all the heavy lifting on inflation. We have this government doing absolutely nothing to tackle inflation and the cost-of-living crisis faced by families. Instead we have them out there lifting tax on superannuation, something they very clearly promised not to do.

Changes to the franking credits, Senator Scarr. I'll take that interjection, even though it's disorderly.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's intelligent, though.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's very intelligent—changes to the franking credits. So we see the government without a clue about how to tackle the current pressure that's on the Australian economy. Showing us these guide rails, these budget rules, would help the Australian people understand just how this government is going to tackle those things. I suspect they won't release them, because they don't have a clue.

Question agreed to.