At a parliamentary committee hearing last week on the need for a mini-budget in NSW, questions were asked about statements by the then Premier Iemma on 7 September, repeated by his successor Nathan Rees on 10 September, that a drop in the NSW AAA credit rating would cost taxpayers $500 million a year. Apparently the correct assessment of the additional cost is in the range of $15-$20 million in the first few years, rising to $ 110-$120 million, for a total of $500 million over four years.
Greens MLC John Kaye had these questions for Treasury Secretary John Pierce:
Dr JOHN KAYE: Were you concerned that the public debate was being informed by a $500 million a year figure?At the end of the meeting when Dr Kaye asked Mr Pierce to table the undated briefing note, he said he would need to check with the legal people, and it was agreed the matter would be raised again when Treasury appeared before the same committee for Budget Estimates on Tuesday of this week.Here is what transpired:
Mr PIERCE: It did cause me to cringe.
Dr JOHN KAYE: Did you translate that cringe into a telephone call to either the Premier or the Treasurer saying that that was not correct?
Mr PIERCE: We certainly discussed it with the Treasurer's office and put it in the documentation that the office would have used when talking to the Premier's office.
Dr JOHN KAYE: So, subsequent to those statements being made by one or both premiers, you did take steps to inform the Government via the Treasurer's office those statements were incorrect?
Mr PIERCE: Yes, I did.
Dr JOHN KAYE: Can you tell us on what date you did that? You cringed, so you would presumably remember the event—as we all did.
Mr PIERCE: Yes, I remember the event.
The Hon. GREG PEARCE: You referred to the briefing note earlier.
Mr PIERCE: Yes, but there is no date attached to it.
Dr JOHN KAYE: So it is an undated briefing note? That would be unusual for Treasury.
Mr PIERCE: It is easy to find out the date. It is in the system.
CHAIR: .. I requested that you advise us of the date of an undated interest-rate calculation, a briefing note, of the former Treasurer. Dr Kaye later requested that you provide the Committee with a copy of that briefing note and you undertook to consider whether to provide that briefing note. Do you have those documents with you?Well, I'm sure the Crown Solicitor knows his law, but why in the new era of transparency did the Treasury Secretary feel obliged to act upon it, particularly to decline to tell the committee the date of the document?
Mr PIERCE: I am advised that the Crown Solicitor has advised that the Committee does not have the power to order the production of documents. If necessary, that should be dealt with by the whole House under Standing Order 52. If the Committee wishes to progress this request, I ask that the Committee refer the matter to the House.
Dr JOHN KAYE: Does that include telling us what the date was of the supposedly undated memo?
Mr PIERCE: Yes.
The Hon. GREG PEARCE: That is answering our question. You were asked the question what was the date of the member. So, you are saying that the advice is you do not have to answer?
Mr PIERCE: Yes.
By the way this is the same Crown Solicitor who in October 2006 raised the alarm about the "crisis" in government in NSW arising from, among other things, the Legislative Council exercising powers to require documents to be produced, thus distorting our system of government, and the Government’s ability to govern. As I suggested at the time
"tone at the top" set by these kind of remarks (it got worse regarding the imperative of not disclosing legal advice) significantly shapes the organisational culture of secrecy in the NSW public sector..
Premier Rees needs to tell the public service, starting with Mr Pierce, that he is fair dinkum about open and accountable government and that there is to be no more sheltering behind legal advice about how to avoid responding to parliament and its committees when legitimate questions- like the date of a briefing note- are raised in the exercise of oversight responsibilities.