Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Senate urged to block budget

THE Senate should refuse to pass the 2011-12 budget until the government redrafts it to make it conform to proper budgetary standards, former Democrat senator Andrew Murray has urged.

Mr Murray, who led the crusade for financial transparency and accountability during his 12 years in the Senate, said the "appalling" confession by former finance minister Lindsay Tanner of deliberate misrepresentation in government finance should force Parliament to make a stand.

"The 2011-12 budget has examples of significant new policies included in the ordinary annual services appropriation bill, such as the allocation of $1.3 billion over eight years to reward payments for great teachers," Mr Murray said in a lecture convened by the Senate. Yet both the constitution and a 1965 "compact" between the government and the Senate agreed that spending on new policies should be excluded from appropriation bills and proposed as separate legislation, which could then be amended.

"Short of rejecting the annual appropriation bills, there is presently no mechanism for resisting breaches of the compact by the executive," Mr Murray said.

"A direct challenge by the executive to the unambiguous intention of the constitution, and a blatant disregard for budgetary propriety, will likely again go unchecked by the Senate."

In 2008, Mr Tanner as finance minister commissioned then senator Murray to report on how to improve budgetary transparency and accountability. But last month in his book, Sideshow, Mr Tanner revealed that as finance minister he deliberately misclassified annual spending as capital allocations, mixed up figures from different accounting systems to confuse debate, and allowed spending to overrun the budget estimates.

"I became adept at these dark arts," Mr Tanner wrote.

Mr Murray told the Senate forum that of his 45 recommendations to make government finances more open and truthful, the government has accepted only 10, rejected 21, with the fate of the other 14 still in doubt.

He urged Parliament to be "more critical and assertive" to force the government to obey the rules. Specifically, he called on the Greens and the crossbenchers to demand that Parliament set its own budget and that of the Auditor-General saying governments of both sides had starved them of the resources they need as watchdogs.

"Parliament has to do battle against the dark arts, against that which is wrongly hidden, that which is not what it seems, and performance that is not good enough," he said.