Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Undemocratic spending by Oz governments

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-07-19

I’d intended to give some specific details about taxpayer-funded political advertising (following my riff on a Senate occasional lecture about taxpayer-funded political advertising – which I extended to include spin within the names of bills), but Unsilenced has already done a good job of this a couple of days ago.

So I’ll go on with my next planned piece about anti-democratic spending, that on programs not yet signed-off by parliament or reported on by relevant public inquiries.

Unfortunately, this is not just a practice of the federal executive, but is also all-too-common in Victoria.  I’d be interested in notes from readers about similar shenanigans in other states.

Federal hubris

Regular readers will be aware of my issues with AccessCard (2007-07-11, 2007-06-22, 2007-02-22, ParlSubmissionsPage) and the arrogance by the government in progressing so far into implementation without approval by parliament.

While I’ve detailed how the AccessCard website tells us all the gory details about administrative procedures for this unmandated project, and the audit office has stated it’s intention to go through the suspicious way contracts have been awarded for the project, it’s worth pointing out a 2007-07-17 AustralianIT article "Big spend on project in limbo" which discusses 8 more contracts for the project awarded in the last month.

Remember, this bill has been rejected by a damning Senate inquiry, sent back for redrafting, and the federal executive has indicated it won’t be put to parliament before the next election.  From The Oz:

Nevertheless, the Department of Human Services has spent an additional $730,000 on the access card in the past six weeks for products and services ranging from software to advertising.

The contract signings take Department of Human Services spending to date to almost $42 million despite a lack of firm plans for launching the card, if it is in fact ever launched.

Now, I can understand a few million to put up a website informing us about how a system might work and preparing draft technology plans and estimates, but to continue such spending is not only arrogant, but ignoring reasonable demands for responsible spending of public monies.

Victorian Hubris

Steve Bracks ousted Jeff Kennett in Victoria largely because he promised to lead a government that was more accountable to the people, and more consultative before implementing projects.

Accountability has been repeatedly thrown to the dogs, with ministers putting up more barriers to democratic review – even preventing parliamentary committees from reviewing the gambling industry and the reasonable concerns about croneyism and former minister (now gambling industry lobbyist) David White.

But the Bracks executive has the same habit of spending money on unconfirmed projects (among other undemocratic tendencies) as outlined by Tracee Hutchinson in The Age 2007-07-14 article "The Bracks way means to hell with democracy".

Hutchinson’s frustration is clear:

In short, the Port of Melbourne Corporation, a statutory arm of the State Government, had started spending our money on a project before it has been approved — environmentally or politically.

And all while the people opposed to the project — ordinary citizens concerned about the future health and amenity of Port Phillip Bay — were putting together submissions for a public inquiry so they felt part of a democratic process.

Perhaps Bracks should simply tell the people planning to deliver their opposing submissions to the channel deepening inquiry next week they shouldn’t bother?

The Port of Melbourne Corporation weren’t spending money on reasonable things like developing draft proposals and costings, but hiring equipment to perform the unapproved work, as reported 2007-07-11 by The Age in "Govt defends channel dredge procurement":

But the Blue Wedges Coalition likens the move to a developer “plonking building materials on site” before gaining council approval to build.

“It suggests that the Port of Melbourne Corporation are fairly indifferent to proper process, the inquiry process is still underway, not all the evidence has been heard yet,” spokeswoman Jenny Warfe said.

A six-week independent inquiry is assessing a 12,000 page supplementary environment effects statement into the proposal.

Public hearings before a three-member panel of inquiry are due to conclude at the end of July.

The panel has until October 1 to report to Planning Minister Justin Madden about whether the project should proceed.

This sort of behaviour by Bracks has been all too typical for some time, and one of the reasons why I was hoping for a reasonably strong Liberal Party opposition, and preferably a minority Labor government, to result from the last state election.

But Victorian’s can’t expect much with an Ombudsman rendered toothless by Kennett, and then completely castrated by Bracks.  The Ombudsman can’t launch investigations of the activities of government and ministers, but can only investigate complaints about how individuals are treated by agencies, as outlined in the Legal Affairs section of The Australian 2007-07-13 "Calls for a watchdog with teeth":

"Once the existence of corruption is recognised, a society has only two choices. It can accept corruption or it can fight it.  There is no middle course."" Those words of warning from Australian Wheat Board inquiry commissioner Terrance Cole to a conference of anti-corruption investigators late last year also ring true in Victoria, where the Bracks Government appears determined to evade closer scrutiny and accountability.

The article’s author, Garry Hughes, notes the following further into his article:

The result is that the main line of defence in the fight against public sector corruption in Victoria is the Ombudsman’s office, with its 28 overworked investigators, a comparatively tiny $5.7 million budget and a primary mission statement to "investigate, review and resolve" complaints about the administrative actions of state departments, statutory authorities and local councils.

There’s one glaring mistake in Hughes’ article: the subheading "A series of political scandals has rocked Victoria" is totally inaccurate – such issues have not "rocked" Victoria, but barely raised a murmur.

Lessons for us all…

These process failures are not highlighted by the major parties.  Labor at federal level hasn’t made a noise in the press about Liberal party abuses.  Liberals at state level haven’t kicked up a stink.

It makes me wonder if both major parties find it convenient for the public to have no focus on such important issues.

Lefties and sophisticated righties alike should be angry about such wasted money and more importantly the anti-democratic behaviour of governments at all levels, regardless of which political party is in power.  I’ll blame the Liberals for lowering the bar, but had hoped that the Labor states wouldn’t follow suit.

Silly me.

A plague ‘o both their houses.

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