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Friday, July 27, 2012

Policy costings should be disclosed-if they're someone else's

Eraser Girl
Mathew Franklin in The Australian reported this week on the Treasury knockback (paywall) to an Opposition Freedom of Information application for documents concerning Greens policies submitted for costing, an arrangement agreed at the time of the formation of the Gillard government. Today Franklin gave the Greens a hammering for hypocrisy given their strong advocacy for open government as Senator Milne defended the Treasury decision to refuse access:
If such costings could be obtained under FOI, Senator Milne said, it would mean parties would be unable to "get a reliable costing to make a decision". The comment was neither logical nor consistent with the Greens long-claimed devotion to openness.
When Franklin rang on Wednesday to seek a comment on the Treasury FOI response I said refusal of access on cabinet document grounds seemed strange. How would the Greens costings end up in a document submitted or proposed to be submitted to cabinet, and prepared for that dominant purpose? So too the Treasury claim the documents were deliberative documents.

Perhaps The Greens shouldn't have been surprised FOI came into play. Senator Milne in the Senate last November in debate on legislation to establish the Parliamentary Budget Office said:
One of the important reasons for the Parliamentary Budget Office is that those costings that you get done between elections remain confidential. If you have to put them to Treasury then they do not remain confidential, and you run the risk in that circumstance of the government anticipating what your election policies might be.
But as to hypocrisy..

Franklin quoted the FOI applicant, Liberal MP Jamie Briggs:
“I don't think that taxpayers should fund the costings of policies of a political party absent the public being able to see those costings,” and  “If the taxpayer is funding the costings of minor parties, they should be able to access the results.”
A far cry from last November when confidentiality for policy costings was the biggie for the Opposition.

For one, all sides agreed so the Parliamentary Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Act 2011 exempts the PBO entirely from the Freedom of Infiormation Act.

For two, Opposition speakers at the time were troubled at the prospect that their policy costings would be released during the caretaker period before an election. In fact front bench senators Mathias Cormann and Scott Ryan then sounded remarkably like Senator Milne now.

Opposition Senator Cormann:
"The bill before the Senate sets out confidentiality arrangements which will be different for policy costings during the caretaker period compared to other times. No reason has been given for this different treatment. The standard policy costings function will be confidential unless otherwise indicated by the member or senator. In contrast, the function provided during the caretaker period will not be confidential. So requests for costings will be immediately published on the websites of the Treasury and/or the Department of Finance and Deregulation. The result of the costings exercise would also immediately be published on the websites. That is not conducive to good process and it is not of course the way the government itself operates. Non-government parties would not be able to get costings done and then choose when to release a policy. Non-government parties would not be able to change their mind and reassess the merits or otherwise of various options and to release policies following some sensible reconsideration because they will be made public immediately, even though they might not have run their proper course. There is no facility for confidentially testing the costings of a range of policies and then choosing which ones will be policy undertakings for public release, and there is no right of consultation with or review by the department—their view is the final word.
 Opposition Senator Simon Birmingham:
If a party chooses not to go ahead with a policy then it should never be made public unless that party chooses to make it so themselves. That would seem to me to be a core and fundamental aspect. I would urge those on the crossbench in particular to think sensibly about the benefits that could be had if we get this legislation right, to think about it with clear eyes, to think about it in the real world of politics, where some things have to remain confidential. Sometimes good ideas do not turn out to be that good after all and so you ditch them. In that world, you do not want those ditched ideas to drag you down during a campaign—and nor should they, because you have made a rational decision, once informed by all of the facts, to cast them aside. Senator Cormann is pursuing a range of sound amendments that deal with the concern about confidentiality that I highlight
 Opposition Senator Ryan:
What has happened of late is that we have started to debate what the cost of a policy might be rather than having competing policies, competing for the use of limited government resources. That is a reflection of the increasing professionalisation of politics, for lack of a better way of putting it. Costing policies is now increasingly resource intensive. It is not something that can easily be done outside the resources of the Treasury and the Department of Finance and Deregulation. That is a challenge that has existed for oppositions all through the Western world. What this Parliamentary Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Office) Bill would do, with the incorporation of the amendments to be moved by Senator Cormann, is to start to redress that... The government can seek to refine policies as often as it would like with the departments of Treasury and finance—and I understand now so can the Greens and the Independents. However, none of those details are released, none of those earlier assessments as they are attempting to refine policy are released—and I would not necessarily in all cases seek access to that information. Why on earth should people seeking to use the Parliamentary Budget Office have that information released as they attempt to develop and refine policy? There has been no justification and no explanation for this particular provision.
Back to the opposition's Mr Briggs this week:
“I don't think that taxpayers should fund the costings of policies of a political party absent the public being able to see those costings,” and  “If the taxpayer is funding the costings of minor parties, they should be able to access the results.” 
Thanks to Open Australia for the Hansard links.

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