Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (10:46): I thank the member for Moncrieff for his contribution, both said and otherwise. I am pleased to speak on this bill because it does have significance and reflects the fact that it is part of an ongoing process to change appropriations, governance and financial management issues. The Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1), if enacted as was indicated in the second reading speech, potentially amends four acts and will repeal two others over three portfolio areas. This is all designed as part of the ongoing process of clarifying aspects of the Commonwealth’s financial framework. As I indicated earlier, it is not the first time this has been done. In fact, since 2004, there have been nine different versions of this bill. It is designed as part of the overall process to take a collaborative, whole-of-government approach to looking at the way in which we can improve the management of finances.
The breadth of appropriation, governance and financial management issues means that we do need to keep looking at how we can best improve on those matters. That is the reason why the Department of Finance and Deregulation works with all parts of government to help address financial framework issues once they emerge. If there are things that do need to be dealt with it is important that they are dealt with quickly and that, as part of that process of departments being able to appreciate changes to the way they need to operate in order to provide better value for money and better management of our finances, we do move swiftly to encourage a different focus and a different operating approach by departments.
The act will amend four acts. First, it will amend the Auditor-General Act 1997. By doing so it will clarify, for instance, that the Auditor-General may accept an appointment under the Corporations Act 2001 as the auditor of any company that the Commonwealth controls. There are a number of government business enterprises. We have heard reference to the National Broadband Network Co., NBN Co., but Australia Post is another GBE that may be affected by this. This will align the Auditor-General Act 1997 with amendments made in 2008 to expand the meaning of ‘Commonwealth control’ in the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997, an act that is followed closely by the GBEs that I mentioned earlier, as they are compelled to do.
The other aspect of the changes proposed is that the bill will amend the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997, which I have just referred to. It will ensure that the directors of these authorities and of wholly-owned Commonwealth companies, other than GBEs, will prepare budget estimates as directed by the Minister for Finance and Deregulation. The significance of this is that departments will be compelled to follow direction from the finance minister as opposed to their own minister. Again, this is a signal sending an important directive about the way in which finances will be managed into the future. It is also consistent with an ongoing practice over many years. As a result of the amendments to the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act, it will ensure that directors of authorities and wholly-owned Commonwealth companies notify their responsible minister of any decisions regarding certain significant events, such as creating a subsidiary.
During the member for Moncrieff’s contribution, I was particularly active in attempting to bring him back to relevance to the bill, specifically because some of the matters he was raising in reference to NBN will be dealt with by this bill. For example, if NBN were to change anything that it indicated it would do under its corporate plan, it would need to notify the minister for communications accordingly. This bill will have the effect of doing that just that. If NBN Co. decided to change its direction in a significant way, this would trigger the significant event provisions that are dealt with under this bill and it would need to notify the minister accordingly. I think it is important for that to happen, particularly if there is an impact on the financial elements of NBN Co.’s operations. For example, if the change were going to affect its stated returns on investment or if it were to affect the way in which the rollout is to occur and that would have a financial implication, I would imagine that that should be notified. The changes that we are making here today will ensure that that occurs.
The bill will amend two other minor misdescribed provisions, as they are called, that appear in the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Act 2010. Those provisions sought to update the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997 to replace references to ‘at common law and in equity’ and ‘at common law or in equity’ with the phrase ‘under the general law.’
The bill will amend the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 to make four changes. It will clear up the commencement date for the determination of special accounts and it will also make sure that certain determinations will start on a date specified, outlined in that determination if that day is later than the last day upon which a disallowance resolution is passed by the parliament. It will also ensure that we concentrate on the operating of drawing rights on payments, and it will remove the penalty relating to those drawing rights. In addition, it will insert a new whole-of-government element that would make sure that the finance minister could set-off, in whole or in part, an amount owing to the Commonwealth by a person with an amount owing by the Commonwealth to the same person. Finally, it will increase certain limits around which the finance minister could delegate to officials in relation to the making of certain instruments.
The bill that we are debating will repeal two acts that include special appropriations that no longer have any effect or are redundant. They are the Appropriation (Development of Bank) Act 1975 and the Car Dealership Financing Guarantee Appropriation Act 2009. When taken in their breadth, all the changes that are occurring, as I said earlier, are designed to ensure that we are keeping up to date with events as they are occurring on the ground. They are also important in ensuring that departments are finetuning the way that they are approaching the management of finances.
This government is proud that it has been able to oversee the fastest rate of fiscal consolidation in, I think, four decades. Anything that can be done at a micro level within departments needs to be encouraged. As I said before, this is not the first time that this has been done. The coalition, when it was in government, also embarked on similar sorts of changes in a similar vein. Again, these changes need to be made to ensure that departments are moving with the times and that we are prudently oversighting the expenditure of funds. To not do so would see the compounding of potential problems or difficulties in the management of finances so that we would be unable to halt or better and efficiently manage finances within departments. I indicated earlier that I have been concerned about the breadth of criticism of NBN Co. These bills ensure that significant events are picked up and that they require notification to the government of anything that would change, for example, the way NBN Co. operates. That has an impact on the rate of return or the stage at which expenditure would be required to be outlaid as part of the rollout over a significant period of time, and it has an impact on the size of that infrastructure project, where we are renewing the nation’s technological infrastructure in a way that has not been done before. If there is any significant change to the way that that project is done outside the corporate plan, bearing in mind that this corporate plan is submitted to the shareholding ministers—the minister for communications and the minister for finance—which would ultimately, in some major way, change the rollout, then that should be picked up. That is why the member for Goldstein and the member for Moncrieff, who both made this point when was talking about the NBN, should rest assured, as should the coalition, that any changes to those corporate plans will be picked up by this bill.
Also, bills will be repealed. For example, as I mentioned at the tail end of my contribution, we would be repealing the Car Dealership Financing Guarantee Appropriation Act 2009 and the Appropriation (Development Bank) Act 1975. They have either been in existence for some considerable period of time and are simply redundant or the events which required the establishment of certain acts, such as the Car Dealership Financing Guarantee Appropriation Act 2009, which flowed out of the fact that during the GFC car financing was directly affected. We needed to act quickly to ensure that, for the auto sector, customers who were purchasing vehicles had some sort of security and ability to procure finance. As has been previously described in the House, 46,000 Australians are employed within the sector. That act at that point in time was useful. I notice that the member for Corio and the parliamentary secretary, whose electorates are deeply affected by these issues, would have been two of many electorates that benefited from the Car Dealership Financing Guarantee Appropriation Act 2009. However, as times have changed, we no longer require that act. There has been stabilisation within that sector with people being able to obtain finance and it is clear we no longer need those acts. As I said, this fits within the broader attempt by government that we change acts and repeal them when they are no longer required.
I was particularly pleased to see in the bill, and I made reference to this earlier, that the Department of Finance and Deregulation approaches these things within the spirit of collaboration. It does so clearly to ensure that departments have buy-in in the way in which these regulations are introduced because it will have an impact when rolled out within departments. These types of finance provisions and the impact they may have on programs or people within the department should be managed in a way that there is buy-in at a fairly early stage. It will ensure that we are able to quickly address financial framework issues. Once those issues emerge we are able to design solutions in the repealing of those two acts.
The other thing is that directors get clear signals. It is not just departments, but directors of Commonwealth authorities or wholly owned Commonwealth companies get a clear signal that they, ultimately, in managing finances within GBEs are accountable and are required to report to the finance minister. GBEs themselves are subjected to quite a degree of oversight. There are not too many companies in Australia required to appear before Senate estimates committees and have their entire operations scrutinised to the finest detail in a very public way. A lot of this would occur behind closed doors. Auditors or authorities like APRA, for example, would have the ability to scrutinise finances or issues closely.
If the Minister for Finance and Deregulation requires that budget estimates be compiled instead of going through the responsible minister, it is entirely appropriate that the Department of Finance and Deregulation be involved in this process to ensure that there is consistency across departments and that we are better able to scrutinise, and for the accountability of parliament and what is expected of parliament—in particular the Senate—it is only right that that occur.
While a lot of people will say that there are a lot of things in here that are dry and not necessarily the stuff that would attract significant debate within the House, I would actually counter that by saying that the things that we are doing in here are absolutely consistent with what we on this side of the chamber are focused on, which is, as I said, the finer and the efficient management of funds and spending within government. I commend the bill to the chamber.