Monday, February 22, 2016

Parliamentary Budget Office: the next election fix

Fixing the Senate voting system is good, but it isn't enough. Unless Malcolm Turnbull goes further and also fixes the rules governing the Parliamentary Budget Office, the election will be a charade.

Here's what happened last time.

The Coalition (then in opposition) released policy after policy, which it said had been fully costed by the PBO. But it didn't release the actual costings.

In effect, it verballed the PBO. The Office assigns each of its costings a reliability rating on a scale ranging from "low" to "highly reliable". Where the costing is unreliable, it says why. And it sets out the assumptions it used to derive it.

While keen to lend the authority of the PBO to its claimed costings, the Coalition, for the most part, sat on the documents that would have allowed us to understand what they meant.

At times, it went to absurd lengths. It had claimed that cutting the public service by 12,000 would save $5.2 billion. When the government and others started questioning the costing, it showed the PBO costing document to select journalists so they could see it was genuine, before whisking it away so it couldn't be photographed...

It was happy for the public to pay for the PBO ($7 million per year) so long as the public couldn't read what it had written.

Now Labor is doing it. It's now in opposition and it is misusing the PBO in the same way that the Coalition did. It has released policies on negative gearing, capital gains tax, superannuation, tobacco tax and school funding, all quoting what it said were the PBO's conclusions but without releasing the documentation needed to assess them.

The Greens have no such reluctance. They often release PBO costings with policies. They've no reason not to.

Labor says its negative gearing policy would raise $32.1 billion over a decade. But without knowing whether the PBO regarded the figure as reliable and without knowing how it got it, its claim is difficult to assess.

It can and should be fixed by requiring the PBO to release each costing (just the final document, no drafts) as soon as the party that commissions it made the costing figure public.

It'd hurt the opposition (whoever is in opposition) but it would make the election make sense. We would be better able to decide who to vote for, as well as better able to fill in the form.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald