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Why Set up the PBO If the Government Won’t Use It?


Victoria’s Parliamentary Budget Office’s (PBO) latest report (pdf) has revealed that the Labor government, who set it up, did not even use it to cost its 2022 election promises.

The report notes that “There appears to be a disconnect between the Treasurer’s 2016 speech recommending the bill to parliament, in which he outlined his intent for the PBO to support open and democratic government by levelling the playing field between government and the opposition, minor parties and independent members.”

Rather than using the PBO, Labor used taxpayer-funded resources to cost its policies.

The PBO was established in 2017 as an addition to the state’s political integrity system. Operating since April 2018, it provides ongoing policy costing and advisory services to Victorian MPs, as well as playing a role in public debate about financial matters and policies.

It also provides a resource for MPs regarding broader economic and financial matters.

Prior to the establishment of the PBO, government members had access to the public service for assistance with policy costings and related economic advice, whereas non-government members had to make their own arrangements.

One of the key roles of the PBO is to be, and remain apolitical and not provide any non-financial opinion or commentary on a policy proposal. The PBO is also bound by strict confidentiality requirements, thus protecting the integrity of the entire process.

After every Victorian election, it publishes a post-election report, with the most recent being tabled in the Victorian Parliament on March 7, 2023.

Issues to Address

This report outlined a number of areas of concern to the PBO and contains six recommendations.

In his foreword, the Office noted that it was “the second election we have supported political parties with election costing services and informed the Victorian community through our independent analysis.”

He further wrote that, “Most political parties used our election services and chose to publicly release their pre-election reports to increase public awareness of their policies and budget impact.”

The PBO received 894 election policy requests from ten political parties, which was a 621 percent increase from the 2018 election. It also had 54 policy costings from other MPs and issued 442 requests for information to public sector bodies.

Epoch Times Photo
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews delivers his victory speech at the Labour election party in his seat of Mulgrave in Melbourne, Australia on Nov. 26, 2022. (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

One of the main issues of concern to the PBO was that, since its inception, the government has appropriated an unchanged $3.3 million (US$2.2 million) for its operations.

Recommendation two in the report addresses this issue and calls on the government to “establish an Independent Commission/Tribunal under legislation to ‘support transparent, accountable and evidence-based decision making in relation to the resourcing arrangements for Independent Officers.’”

Another significant recommendation was that the PBO should be the sole election costing service. Under the current structure, government MPs are able to use the supposedly independent and apolitical public service to assist with proposed election costings.

This gives the incumbent government a distinct advantage, having all the resources of government available to them, in particular, the extensive resources of the Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF).

Theoretically, DTF should be available to assist all MPs at election time, but due to the extensive politicisation of Victoria’s public service, no non-government MP would consider using DTF, knowing their material would likely be in the hands of the government before they left the building.

The PBO also recommended that “The government should improve the visibility of budget contingencies.”

Budget contingencies remains an area in the state’s financial reporting structure that lacks transparency and clarity, which suits an incumbent government.

The PBO states also that there should be “unrestricted access for the PBO to all projects and funding in all contingencies on a confidential basis.”

It also says the government should publish “a list of projects where funding is held in the contingency reserve ‘Decisions made but not yet allocated’ in each budget and budget update.”

Adopting these recommendations would improve accountability and provide greater visibility for all Victorians.

Consequently, if the Victorian government is serious about increasing transparency and accountability to the public, it must implement the recommendations made by the PBO.

To do anything less is to perpetuate the status quo and leave the incumbent government at a significant electoral advantage and Victorians uninformed.

Additionally, by not using the PBO, the Labor government has shown breathtaking hypocrisy by continuing to use taxpayer funded and government-controlled resources rather than the PBO that was established for this purpose.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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