Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that a mutual agreement between the newly established Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) and the Coalition that the PBO lacks the expertise to cost the Coalition's alternative National Broadband Network (NBN) policy will mean that it will go to the September federal election uncosted.
The shadow minister made the comments on Twitter today, as first reported by Delimiter. The Coalition has claimed that its policy, which will see 71 percent of premises receive NBN services over a fibre-to-the-node network rather than fibre to the premises, will cost AU$29.5 billion, with the aim of ensuring that all Australians can get download speeds of at least 50Mbps by 2019.
As Australia heads to the ballot box on September 7, the opposition is now beginning to have a number of its alternative policies costed by the PBO. However, as Turnbull stated on Twitter, the Coalition's NBN policy has been deemed too complex for the office to verify that the estimates for the cost of its network would be accurate.
The PBO was established in July 2012 to provide to the parliament independent and non-partisan analysis of policy, and to lay out the potential financial implications of proposed policies for any side of politics. It was designed to allow the parties to float policy ideas privately before going public with any official plans. As such, unlike the majority of other government departments, the entire agency is exempt from Freedom of Information laws.
The department received approximately AU$6 million in funding in last year's Budget, and AU$4.5 million in additional funding in this year's Budget to "enhance the Parliamentary Budget Office's fiscal policy analysis and costing capabilities, and to produce post-election assessments of election commitments".
The Coalition does not currently have the option of using other government agencies to test its policy's costings. Turnbull also noted that the Productivity Commission cannot cost the policy, because it can only accept instructions from the government of the day.
Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said earlier this week that the Coalition's hands are tied in getting any other policies costed by the Treasury, because the government amended the Charter of Budget Honesty to state that the opposition party could use either Treasury or the PBO to cost policies.
"It was the government that amended the Charter of Budget Honesty to say that you could either use the Treasury or the Parliamentary Budget Office," he said. "We have been using the Parliamentary Budget Office."
The Coalition has come under fire for not releasing its policy costings broadly. Finance Minister Penny Wong said today that with the Pre-Election Fiscal Outlook (PEFO) document now released, it is time for the Coalition to reveal its costings.
"It may bore Mr Hockey to have to keep hiding his cuts, but Australians deserve to know how the Liberals would pay for their promises," she said.
"The release of the PEFO earlier this week means Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have no excuses left to keep their cuts secret. The Liberals have spent months trying to dodge scrutiny, but with the election less than four weeks away, Australians deserve to know their plans."
Regardless of whether the NBN policy is costed before the election, it is unlikely that it would have an impact on the budget bottom line for the Coalition, because the party backflipped on earlier complaints about the NBN accounting method currently used by the Labor government, and has since agreed to keep the NBN off-budget.