Mar 2, 2016

Procedure Committee Report

Federation Chamber

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (10:36): I rise to support the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure’s report into the consideration in detail of the main appropriation bill. It is appropriate that this debate takes place in the Federation Chamber because, for the last two years, some issues have arisen with regard to the interpretation of the existing standing orders in dealing with the appropriations consideration-in-detail debate. The consideration in detail of appropriations is an important opportunity for House of Representatives members to question the budget and the details of the budget—whether that be in a general sense, in my case as shadow minister for infrastructure, transport, cities and tourism, or in a specific, electorate based sense, in my case as the member for Grayndler, in the inner-west of Sydney. Unlike senators, who, of course, represent the states and territories, House of Reps members should be given the opportunity to raise issues that are of concern to their particular electorates. This is the only real opportunity that House of Representatives members have to question the executive about budget details.

What has occurred, though, is an attempt on two occasions—which were unsuccessful—by ministers to organise the debate so that there was one speaker from the opposition, then a speaker from the government and then the minister in response. Effectively, that cut down the opportunities for the opposition members to question the budget to one opportunity out of each three. Of course, that is contrary to the standing orders, which require the call to alternate from the left to the right of the chair or from government to opposition members. It created some tension in the chamber when there was an attempt to change that system. Hence I asked the then Speaker, the member for Mackellar, to initiate an inquiry into those issues, and the Speaker did so, and this report is as a result of that. I am pleased that the committee saw fit to ask me to give evidence to that to improve the functioning of those processes.

What they have come up with is essentially a confirmation that the call should alternate, and in some cases it suggests that the minister should not seek the call and should therefore allow a government backbench member to participate in the debate. But it also recommends, importantly, that the time of contributions be reduced to two minutes. What that should do is encourage more debate across the chamber and encourage members to genuinely ask questions of ministers and ministers—who, of course, have departmental representatives in the chamber advising them at the time that they are presenting—to be able to answer those questions.

I think it is a very important part of accountability in terms of the budget. In recent times, since the last budget was handed down, there have been three announcements by the government of infrastructure projects, all of which, we have been told, come from within the existing budget. That can only mean one thing, which is that other projects are being cut to fund the new announcements. But we do not hear what they are, and that is not accountable—to this parliament or to the Australian people through this parliament—for budget matters. That is, I think, one of the issues that individual members would have a right to ask about: why is it that projects are proceeding faster or slower than was envisaged in terms of the budget detail?

Of course, we have another announcement on top of three new projects, and that is, I think, far worse than taking money from one project and giving it to another. That is the $18 million that is being taken from infrastructure investment—to actually build projects—and being used to pay for advertising the government’s failure to build infrastructure. I have seen one of the ads that are on television, and I have had a look at the website that advertises the projects that the government, in the lead-up to the election this year, is spending $18 million on. You will not be surprised, Madam Deputy Speaker, that just about all of the projects that are mentioned are projects that were initiated by the former Labor government, and the government is spending $18 million—cut from the existing infrastructure budget that was there for actual construction—to hide the fact that it has failed and that, indeed, public sector infrastructure investment has fallen by 20 per cent according to the ABS figures for September 2015 compared with September 2013. So it is quite an extraordinary proposition that you cut funding and you then cut it further in order to pay for an advertising campaign to pretend that you have not cut funding.

They are the sorts of issues that ought to be able to be raised when it comes to the appropriation bills. Members of parliament get only one opportunity for each portfolio area to scrutinise the executive. Government members, of course, can far more easily drop by a minister’s office and request information of relevance to their electorate, but for non-government members, whoever the government of the day is, that is a prime opportunity that they have in real time to get answers. That is why this reform, which is recommended by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure, which would confirm the alternating of the call, is the appropriate way to go, as I suggested in this chamber on more than one occasion. It confirms that my understanding of the standing orders was right and that ministers’ attempts to manipulate those processes so that they were not accountable to this chamber were simply wrong and have been seen for what they are. But also I think the reduction of time to two minutes is worthy of support, and the recommendation is that it be a trial. I think that will encourage genuine questions to be asked and hopefully ministers—certainly competent ministers—should be able to answer those questions for members in this chamber.

Debate adjourned.