Published: 15 April 2024

Instead of appeasing its new partners, the government would be better served by a budget office,

Let's hope Premier Jeremy Rockliff has more success in achieving a workable parliament than all the king's horses and men had trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together.

The major problem with the Liberals' 2030 Strong Plan for Tasmania's Future, as with all promises made at election time, is our current situation. As the old Irish joke goes, "if I were you, I wouldn't start from here".

Unfortunately, we are where we are. We currently spend $1.07 for every $1 that comes through the door.

And that's just for the day-to-day operations of government - that is, paying nurses, teachers, police, interest on the increasing debt and paying pensions for retired public servants. Paying for infrastructure requires borrowings, although federal grants make a big contribution. More capital for government businesses require further borrowings.

If political parties are reluctant to discuss this, it's because they have no solutions. Some don't even acknowledge a problem.

One of the biggest reasons for the misunderstanding of our current predicament is when budgets are presented, federal grants for infrastructure are included as operating grants. That's blatantly misleading. They are specific purpose payments that must be spent on infrastructure. They are not operating revenues.

Cash deficits would have been even larger but for the $730m Mersey Hospital money received a few years ago being spent at the rate of about $100m every year and due to run out in three years' time.

We're not talking about loose change. In 2023-24 capital grants are estimated to be $499.7m. Included are funds for the Bridgewater Bridge ($145m), roads and rail grants ($165m), water infrastructure ($88m) and the UTAS stadium ($45m).

Remove them from operating revenue and we're deep in the red.

Treasury financial reports, available on the Treasury website, clearly demonstrate that after excluding interest and payments for past employees, the amounts to be spent providing current government services adjusted for inflation are projected to fall. That's something that wasn't discussed during the election campaign. The election promises when implemented may help arrest the fall in real operating expenses. Instead they may flatline over the next few years.

Another thing that was skipped over during the campaign was the $300m of budget cuts, labelled the BED (budget efficiency dividend), embedded in the forward estimates.

According to the Pre-Election Outlook Report by Treasury, the government has already decided which departments and agencies need to find savings. They must have forgotten to tell electors. Opposition parties were remiss in not asking.

Perhaps the new expanded crossbench will find out during their regular meetings with the Premier?

Once the BED is satisfied. the budget task will then move to find ways to squeeze $1.7bn of election promises into the 2024-25 budget and forward estimates. At least those promises that weren't conditional on the Liberals gaining a majority.

Which leaves ... ??? Who knows at this stage. I understand the government will be asking for an extra three months before handing down the next budget, in August, as it searches for magicians and prayer mats to help with the task.

The new enlarged crossbench offers hope. Both major parties have a vested interest in the two-party system and have never been keen on third parties and independents.

But the people have sent a message. They want change.

The preamble to the Premier's agreement with JLN members emphasises the need for a workable parliament for the welfare of Tasmanians. To that end another four staff are to be provided for three JLN members. There are eight independents in the Legislative Council with no extra staff for policy work. We have demonstrated we are up to the task of scrutinising the government, but more resources would mean better outcomes.

Increasingly, ministers in the executive government have surrounded themselves with a firebreak of minders and hangers-on who make decisions in the back rooms before presentation to parliament as a fait accompli.

It hasn't led to better government or a more satisfied electorate judging by the verdict delivered on March 23.

Perhaps this is where the BEDs should be found?

Resources need to be shifted to assist parliament itself, with more resources for committee inquiries, particularly those into highly complex areas such as energy.

In the past I have called for the establishment of a permanent Parliamentary Budget Office.

Understanding budgets and Treasury reports is not easy even for longer serving members.

All members, and thus the people of Tasmania, would benefit from access to a PBO, a body of professionals in the finance area who can, free of executive involvement, help members analyse the at-times difficult task of making sense of things like the 2030 Strong Plan for Tasmania's Future, which from my perspective, at this stage, looks like being built on quicksand.

The Mercury

Monday, 15 Apr 2024


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