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Wednesday, 07 December 2016

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) — I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement on the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee Report on the 2016–17 Budget Estimates, which was tabled last sitting week. 

In doing so I acknowledge the work of all members of the committee and the mostly collegial spirit in which the estimates process and the preparation of the report is undertaken. I also particularly acknowledge the contribution of my colleagues the member for Kew and the member for Gippsland South and their work in the process, and the committee secretariat, led by the acting executive officer, Mr Phil Mithen, together with Dr Kathleen Hurley, Mr Alejandro Navarrete, Mr Bill Stent, Dr Jeff Fang, Ms Melanie Hondros and Ms Amber Candy.

The committee process this year was very different in that members were allowed the opportunity to ask questions of both ministers and senior public servants. Regrettably we frequently received no information in response, just a barrage of words. If there was an answer, invariably it was not to the question that was asked, unless of course it was an answer to a government question.

The changes arose entirely from an internal committee agreement on the format and do not acquit in any way the government’s commitment to reform the estimates process, which was made before the election.

I do want to acknowledge the role of the chair of the committee, the member for Essendon, and the other members in working with the opposition to develop what should have been a more productive format. 

Sadly we have not freed ourselves of the sycophantic Dorothy Dix questions from government members. Despite its promises, the government has taken absolutely zero action to make the estimates process more effective.

In fact the reverse is true. Despite its public claims that the estimates process was broken and only they could fix it, the government has moved to restrict the flow of information to the committee. We now have a systematic approach to avoid answering questions, whether via the questionnaires, through questions at estimates hearings or through questions on notice.

This report of course contains a minority report which addresses this very issue. Indeed the minority found that the Andrews government had been negligent in its approach to the 2016–17 estimates hearings in that:

For the second year running the government … failed to keep its election promise to reform the estimates process.

In the case of some portfolios there appeared to have been an attempt to prevent the committee from receiving all necessary
information to complete the inquiry as required by section 14 of the Parliamentary Committees Act.

Despite a commitment from witnesses at a public hearing to provide the necessary information — many questions were simply not answered:

While a response has been provided to every question, in many cases the words completely fail to address the issue, or to provide information requested in the question.

Indeed, we provided some examples of that. Perhaps the most egregious was the then Minister for Industry. The minority certainly
believes that the government has provided insufficient information to answer many legitimate questions raised as part of the budget process — and failed to provide the information as requested.

The failure to provide information requested, combined with the incomplete, and often potentially misleading answers that have been provided mean that it is impossible to guarantee the integrity of the budget documentation, and provide assurance to the Parliament that the appropriation bills should be passed.

Utilisation of spin in order to avoid providing information is of course nothing new for this government. It is a government that preaches transparency but in fact practises secrecy.

We have seen it in answers to questions in the house and to questions on notice. Now we are seeing it in the deliberate restriction of the flow of information to committees.

The fact is that the Parliament has a right to know what the government intends to spend its money on, and the Parliament has the right to question why the government has made certain decisions before agreeing to appropriate the funds.

This government appears to be doing everything in its power to prevent the Parliament from undertaking its legitimate task in the public interest.

If anyone doubted the lengths the government will go to to hide information, you only have to look at the schedule proposed for sitting dates next year and the impact that will have on the capacity of the committee to discharge its duties appropriately.

The committee has historically had two weeks to consider the estimates following their introduction before bills are debated in the house. Consequently ministers were quizzed on the details of their plans before this house was asked to make a decision on the budget. From next year we are going to be asked to debate the bills almost certainly without the opportunity for any minister to be quizzed in a timely and appropriate fashion.

This is a new level of secrecy, the likes of which we have not seen before.

Frankly, I very much doubt, if the government continues to conceal information from the committee, whether the committee will be able to discharge its legislative duty to this Parliament.

Legislative Assembly 7 December 2016

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