11 April 2024

ACT Treasurer Barr accused of 'providing misleading information' to committee inquiry into 2023/24 budget

| Claire Fenwicke
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Elizabeth Lee, MLA.

Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee wanted a censure motion against ACT Treasurer Andrew Barr. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Chief Minister and Treasurer Andrew Barr has been accused of “pulling the wool over the community’s eyes” regarding his previous comments about the latest ACT Budget.

The Canberra Liberals have accused Mr Barr of “cooking the books” to hide the “real state” of the Territory’s economic and fiscal position, and the Opposition again brought up issues it had about how he answered questions during the Public Accounts Committee inquiry in February.

Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee opened question time on Tuesday (9 April) by asking Mr Barr to “correct the record” after telling the inquiry that “no one in the history of self-government” had delivered a UPF [Uniform Presentation Framework] budget surplus.

Ms Lee said several surpluses had been delivered since self-government, including under former Treasurer Katy Gallagher in 2011/12.

“Treasurer, do you admit you were wrong and will you correct the record now?” she asked.

Mr Barr argued that the presentation of ACT budgets had changed over the years and that Federal Government emergency payments during the Global Financial Crisis had bolstered coffers at that time.

“So yes, now-Senator Gallagher didn’t budget for a surplus, but as a result of the stimulus payments provided by the Commonwealth … there were a couple of years that were in surplus,” he responded.

“There’s a difference between budgeting for a surplus and then, at the end of the year, under an audit, finding extra revenue.

“To the extent that I was incorrect in the estimates hearing, I correct the record … but the line of questioning was ‘who had budgeted for surpluses’.”

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Ms Lee then called for a censure motion and a suspension of standing orders, accusing Mr Barr of not being upfront when giving evidence to the inquiry.

“He was adamant, on a number of occasions [during the hearings], that no Treasurer in the history of ACT Government had delivered a surplus according to the UPF measures,” she said.

“Today, when he was given the opportunity … to correct the record when he was so blatantly wrong, he has stated that the line of questioning that was asked of him during the PAC hearings was about a surplus being budgeted.

“He could not be further from the truth … the question was, very clearly, about whether Mr Barr had handed down, not budgeted for … a surplus.

“For Mr Barr to sit here, scoffing, laughing and then try to rewrite history is an absolute disservice to the people of the ACT.”

She said he was either continuing to “pull the wool” over Canberrans’ eyes or that he was “so incompetent” that he couldn’t remember the surpluses delivered when he’d been a member.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr

Chief Minister and Treasurer Andrew Barr refuted suggestions he had misled a committee inquiry into the recent budget. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

In response, Mr Barr also quoted from the Hansard record, stating that the debate had been around whether the UPF had been applied to all previous budgets, and if so, would a surplus have been achieved.

He argued that the follow-up questions continued to refer to “handing down” a budget, which is different from the final outcome that is audited and tabled by the Auditor-General.

“I explained the differences in the accounting treatments over the journey of self-governance … there is no need to suspend standing orders. It’s a massive over-reach by the Leader of the Opposition,” Mr Barr said.

“My response was that there hadn’t been a budget surplus, and there hadn’t been. But certainly, under other accounting treatments and a consolidated standard year, there had been a few – three or four out of 30-odd years.

“This is quite an obscure debate about Australian accounting standards.”

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The Opposition wasn’t satisfied, with Canberra Liberals whip Nicole Lawder stating Mr Barr had still “failed” to admit that he’d “provided misleading information” regarding the question before the inquiry.

She accused him of selectively quoting from the Hansard to support his argument.

“He’s continuing to mislead the public … the question was not about whether a surplus was budgeted for, Mr Barr tried to twist the question [during hearings] … [it] was about whether a surplus had been achieved,” Ms Lawder said.

“He’s again failing to answer the question and trying to obfuscate and deny and muddy the waters here by saying he did answer the question.”

However, the Canberra Liberals’ push to suspend standing orders and have a debate on a censure motion was defeated, and the ACT Greens also decided that question time wasn’t the occasion it should be discussed.

“Other members and I are waiting to be able to ask our questions of the executive,” ACT Greens whip Andrew Braddock said.

“If there should be a debate about the accounting standards and treatments … there are appropriate means to have that debate in the order of sitting.”

The Liberals won’t have the chance to bring back this issue during this sitting week as Mr Barr will be away.

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HiddenDragon7:40 pm 10 Apr 24

This debate is a bit of a sideshow, not because it turns on the question of which is the appropriate accounting standard for the ACT, but because whichever standard is used, the resulting picture of the ACT’s finances is not a pretty one – underlined by the fact that there have, at best, been three or four surpluses in more than 30 years of self government and, as Mr Barr tells us, one or two of those have been fortuitous.

The real debate should be about the longer term trajectory and sustainability of the ACT’s public finances, particularly in light of the increasingly apparent reality that the days of “free money” – in the sense of very low, or even negative, real interest rates – are over, so borrowing very cheaply for big spending is no longer an option.

Likewise, with the federal budget in structural deficit and federal governments from both sides in the habit of pushing under-funded responsibilities on to the states and territories (as will soon be happening again with NDIS-related services) there can be no serious expectation of a bail-out in the form of markedly better federal funding for the ACT.

Incidental Tourist6:19 pm 10 Apr 24

Am I getting Barr correct that no treasurer in ACT had ever planed to balance the budget and any surplus was incidental? If this is the case then is what’s the point in having Treasurer?

So, Barr misled the Assembly?

Greens look very comfortable curled up and purring on the lap of Labor, it’s a pity they sold out their independence for a Ministry or two. What happened to the Greens, why did you drop your commitments?

The Labor-Greens parliamentary agreements of 2008, 2012, and 2016 included the statement – “The parties confirm their commitment to fiscal responsibility and the maintenance of a balanced budget through the economic cycle.” Why did you renege on this promise, why did you let the people down?

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