Published: 05 September 2019

Too few Tassie MPs understand policy and finance — hence our budget

The tide seems to be going out much faster than anyone expected.

When that happens, skinny dippers will greet an earlier day of reckoning.

That is the position facing the Tasmanian Government.

It is ill prepared for what is about to happen. The tales they’ve been telling us aren’t right. We’re not pouring additional funds into health.

This year’s budget allocation was the same as the actual spend in 2017-2018. We are not running cash surpluses. When infra-structure spending is included, spending will be $1 billion more than receipts over the next four years. Assuming of course the government finds $450 million of yet to be identified cost savings flagged in the May budget.

Frontline services were to be quarantined from cuts, but reductions in elective surgery and allied health services undermine that commitment.

Why won’t the subsequent four-year period also result in cash deficits of similar size? We are too easily diverted from our most pressing problems and allow ourselves to think that reducing the number of local government areas, restoring numbers in the House of Assembly or even achieving the Holy Grail, our own AFL side, will give the state the lift it needs.

I’ve never had strong view on council amalgamations. People may complain about the numbers of councillors representing them, but they do like the idea of local representation. Possible cost savings pale into irrelevance alongside the impending cash deficits of state government.

More people in the Lower House might make choosing a minister a little easier but shouldn’t we first look at the number of ministries and how they’re organised? For instance, the Department of State Growth, under the control of one department head, has five ministers. Is that the optimum structure?

Furthermore, shouldn’t political parties acquaint themselves with candidates’ abilities before preselecting them? Why should we all pay for the costs of providing an incoming government with a few more faces in the line-up for ministerial selection if the diverse skill set required for policy development is absent?

Extra government members on the backbench won’t improve outcomes because party hacks do little more than seek to protect government and ask Dorothy Dixers, entrenching the worst features of our adversarial system. If the problem is, as I believe, lack of understanding of our financial position and the options facing us, we should consider establishing a Parliamentary Budget Office to assist members’ understanding of policy, policy alternatives and costs.

The lack of resources available to opposition parties and other members compared to the government makes it virtually impossible to responsibly develop alternatives, made even worse by government practice of preventing the public release of documents needed to fully understand our policy options. We in the Legislative Council have been gradually trying to use the committee system to shed more light on policy issues, and thus enable more informed decisions. But we are dependent on third parties lodging submissions to point us in the right direction. It would be of great assistance if we could commission answers to questions or short reports from a Parliamentary Budget Office, responsible to parliament and not the executive. Public servants are usually more than happy to help but governments keep them on a short leash.

The Legislative Council is better placed to take a non-adversarial approach to policy than our colleagues downstairs. Who can point me to a debate in the Lower House in the time of the current government where the robust and respectful exchange of differing opinions led to a better outcome than originally proposed?

I acknowledge there’s a view that a government with a majority in the Lower House should be able to pass its legislation unimpeded.

It’s not a view I share, nor I believe do most Tasmanians. They expect us to make sure the legislation will achieve the policy intent and is in the best interest of the state, even if it means saying no on rare occasions. Regardless how one views Speaker Sue Hickey, few believe she hasn’t made a much needed contribution to public policy debate, confirming party discipline is an overrated commodity. Uniformity means mediocrity.

We have been lulled into a false sense of wellbeing. The Government’s line is that by delivering surpluses every year, it has engendered the spirit of optimism that abounds out there where it matters. This is wrong for a few reasons. First, coincidence doesn’t imply causation.

Second, it is not running surpluses. The cash deficits over the next four years, even if the Government achieves its budget savings of $450 million, will still see a blowout in unmet demand for health and education. The economy is making slow but steady progress, despite the Government not because of it.

There’s a mental block that prevents many from seeing government services as a crucial part of a modern economy. Too often one gets the feeling governments are regarded as a deadweight, the less tax they raise the better.

Restrict their services or you’ll encourage dependency. It’s an outdated view. Health and education are highly productive knowledge-based industries with important spill-over effects for everyone. Infrastructure likewise is crucial. Our present path is unsustainable. We raise less revenues than the average state even allowing for our disadvantages. As a consequence we deliver less than the average level of services. Revenue will be lucky to grow faster than inflation. Demand for government services will also grow faster.

The Government isn’t telling us the unvarnished truth. Opposition parties are struggling to put forward alternatives. We in the Legislative Council are in a good place to contribute to non-adversarial understanding of challenges.

We need better processes to assist this for the benefit of all Tasmanians.


The Mercury Thursday 5 September


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