Just the facts: Treasury and CSIRO put space between advice and how ministers use it

By Stephen Easton

April 16, 2019

Treasury and the CSIRO have both recently felt the need to clarify advice they have provided the government, after opposition complaints about what ministers did with it. 

Having previously suggested Treasury was politically biased by the mere appointment of Phil Gaetjens as secretary, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen was quick to respond when the government started attacking Labor policies last week on the basis of cost analysis provided by the department.

Gaetjens responded by suggesting the situation was no different to one in 2012, when the roles of the major parties were reversed. Then, the secretary’s office belonged to Martin Parkinson, who now heads the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and he received a very similar complaint from Joe Hockey, the shadow treasurer of the day.

The important thing, according to Gaetjens, was the framing rather than the substance of the government’s request. “We were not asked to cost another party’s policies and would not do so if the request was made specifically to ‘cost Party X’s policy’,” the secretary wrote.

The Australian Financial Review reported “speculation” that Labor is considering three people it might ask to replace Gaetjens if it is elected and decides to sack him, as Bowen has hinted: secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, Steven Kennedy; parliamentary budget officer Jenny Wilkinson; or even Blair Comley, the recently departed head of the New South Wales public service who is now a director at Port Jackson Partners.

Gaetjens also explained how the government had turned Treasury’s advice into an attack line: by adding up the separate cost of each policy — calculated “on a standalone basis” – to produce a total figure that was never provided by the public servants as they had not considered how the policies would interact.

“I am deeply concerned that, yet again, the reputation of the Australian Treasury has been trashed by the current government,” Bowen told Gaetjens, asking him to publicly “respond in the strongest possible terms” to once again clarify the department’s “longstanding position” that it does not cost opposition policies.

“It is critical that Treasury is seen as impartial and credible and not politicised by the Government of the day,” said the shadow treasurer, who had also asked Parkinson to publicly distance the public service from the campaign.

Practically speaking, Treasury clearly does cost opposition policies as long the government doesn’t explicitly say that’s what they are, which is why this complaint-and-response scene is so well rehearsed.

Gaetjens explained the department would generally respond to any “lawful request … for information” and his letter suggested its usual approach was not to make a judgement about whether the purpose of the request was to research the opposition’s plans.

“In this engagement, as in previous instances of concern highlighted by elected representatives from both sides of politics, the Treasury has conducted itself to the highest standard and in the same manner as when requests were made by previous governments,” Gaetjens said, citing Parkinson’s 2012 letter as evidence that the department’s approach had remained the same regardless of which party was in power, and providing a hyperlink.

Back then, Parkinson told Hockey much the same thing but was perhaps more nuanced about the detail. He agreed it was “ imperative that departments, such as Treasury, and individual public servants are apolitical and professional both in substance and in how the public perceives the way they undertake their duties” but said no breach had occurred in the costing of three potential Coalition policies on behalf of the Labor government.

“It has long been the case that Treasury is periodically asked by the Government of the day to cost or analyse alternative policies, some of which are already in the public domain,” Parkinson told Hockey.

“These can include policies proposed by stakeholders or by non-government political parties.  In such cases, we draw, to the maximum extent possible, on publicly available information, in part due to the confidentiality we observe in responding to requests from Ministers.”

Now that the election campaign has officially begun and the public service is acting as the caretaker government, Treasury staff are working away on costing the policies of both major parties to brief the incoming government after the election. As Parkinson explained in 2012:

“Outside of a caretaker period, as defined by the Charter of Budget Honesty Act, the Treasury does not undertake unsolicited costings of the policies of political parties. During a caretaker period, costing requests from relevant political parties are undertaken in strict accordance with the Charter of Budget Honesty Act.

“The Treasury also does not provide to Government costings on policies of political parties to which the Charter of Budget Honesty applies during a caretaker period. It is only in the preparation of Treasury’s own incoming government briefs during a caretaker period that we would undertake unsolicited costings of the policies of the political parties – this is done in order to provide advice to an incoming government on the fiscal position.”

CSIRO had no role in Adani coal mine approval

The independent scientific organisation decided to clarify it had no role in environmental approvals after the last-minute decision by Minister for Environment and Energy Melissa Price to give the Commonwealth’s final blessing to the Adani group’s controversial Carmichael coal mine.

Labor members joined environmentalists last week in complaining that scientific and environmental officials had narrowly avoided Senate estimates hearings after parliament was dissolved, suggesting they would have asked the public servants questions about the approval and related processes.

Amid claims Price and the Prime Minister were pressured by the Coalition’s Queensland wing, the implication was the PM held off on firing the election campaign starter’s gun long enough for the approval, then pulled the trigger before the relevant portfolios came up in estimates.

The CSIRO would have been in estimates on Thursday night if parliament had continued (or if the Senate had previously voted to run estimates during the caretaker period), but instead released a brief statement explaining its work related to the coal mine.

The CSIRO said the purpose of two reports it produced with Geoscience Australia in late 2018 and early this year was to answer a set of “specific questions on groundwater monitoring, management and modelling planned by Adani” but not to play a role in the minister’s decision on whether to give the miner the green light.

“This advice was limited to answering discrete inquiries on whether elements of Adani’s proposed plans would be adequate to protect nationally significant environmental assets,” said the statement.

“CSIRO identified inadequacies in the plans and was subsequently asked to review Adani’s response to the recommendations CSIRO made to address the issues raised, as summarised by the Department of the Environment and Energy. Adani had committed to address the modelling limitations identified by the CSIRO and GA review in a groundwater model re-run to be undertaken within two years.

“CSIRO considered that this commitment satisfied its recommendations, while also acknowledging there were still some issues that need to be addressed in future approvals, particularly confirming the source of the ecologically-important Doongmabulla Springs.

“CSIRO has provided robust, peer-reviewed science on specific groundwater modelling-related questions about the plans. CSIRO’s role is to provide scientific advice to inform approval processes, but it does not have any role in making approval decisions.”

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