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Estimates Committee Fails to Meet it’s Obligations to the Parliament

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Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (10:34): I take the opportunity this morning to make some remarks on the Report on the 2020–21 Budget Estimates that was produced by the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee and tabled on 4 May.

Interestingly, the committee website indicates that it was completed on 1 April, and perhaps that is a more appropriate day given the absolute joke that the scrutiny process, the scrutiny of the appropriations, has become in this Parliament.

Deputy Speaker, as you know, the scrutiny of government expenditure is an absolutely central part of the Westminster system, but it is not just a central part of the Westminster system, it is an absolutely critical part of the Westminster system, because obviously government spending is funded by taxation. Taxation is not voluntary. It is an obligation imposed by law.

Taxpayers have a legal obligation to make the payments that the Parliament through the law requires of them. If they do not meet that obligation, then severe sanctions are imposed, and that is entirely appropriate. That is the way the system works.

This Parliament makes many of the laws that impose those obligations, and those that we do not make of course are made by our federal colleagues.

This Parliament therefore has an obligation to scrutinise closely the way the money is spent to make sure that the money that is raised by obligations placed on members of the public, on citizens, is spent in an appropriate way—not necessarily in a policy sense but spent certainly not in a wasteful way—and to make sure that spending is within the law. That is on the basis of the way the money is obtained.

That is why the spending is scrutinised. 

Now, traditionally scrutiny will take two forms—through the estimates process and through the outcomes process. The estimates process is obviously the Parliament’s scrutiny of the appropriation bills and the opportunity to examine those bills in the consideration-in-detail or committee stage. The outcomes traditionally have been undertaken by a public accounts committee, generally of a lower house.

Now, in this Parliament, unlike almost any other Westminster Parliament in the world, we have established a public accounts and estimates committee to do both those functions, and I think that is a good thing because it concentrates the financial knowledge of the Parliament.

But the estimates process is a critical part of that committee’s obligations, and that of course is what this report is supposed to be about. PAEC hearings take the place of the committee stage on the bill, as they do in the commonwealth Parliament the Senate estimates. They should be completed before the bills are debated. 

The bills for this budget will go to the guillotine today. The bills referred to in this report went to the guillotine prior to the commencement of hearings.

In contrast, in 2014 in the practice of years before, the budget was introduced on 7 May, the opposition responded on the 9th and then there were three full days of debate on the budget—three full days of debate before it went to the guillotine.

That debate occurred following the hearings, which had been conducted from 9 May to 23 May, so there was a full opportunity for members participating in the debate to have either attended the committee hearings and heard the evidence or read the transcript and reviewed the minister’s presentations.

People had the opportunity to debate the bills in an informed manner. 

Now, in terms of this report, despite the best efforts of the opposition members, and I am sure despite the best efforts of the staff, this report does not go close to providing adequate scrutiny of the 2020–21 estimates.

This government-dominated committee has comprehensively failed in its obligations to the Parliament. The report does not acquit its responsibilities in any way at all.