The Prime Minister says the election is about competence, taking the “right decisions” in the interests of Australia.
The Australian National Audit Office has examined the competence of his ministers in taking the right decisions and found it wanting.
Over 1,200 pages the Office paints a picture of ministers keen to approve projects in Coalition electorates regardless of the advice of their officials and so sloppy in the way they went about it that they often didn’t even bother to record the basis of their decisions.
It paints their behaviour as venal, lazy, and verging on unlawful...
It takes the trouble to remind Howard ministers including his deputy Mark Vaile and his former deputy John Anderson that when they are approving grants “they are approving the expenditure of public money”.
John Howard’s anointed successor Peter Costello made his name in the early 1990’s destroying the parliamentary career of the Labor Member for Canberra Ros Kelly after she was implicated by the Audit Office in the whiteboard affair. Her crime had been to use a whiteboard (which she later erased) to “shovel funds to marginal Labor electorates prior to the March 1993 election”.
She dished out $60 million.
The Regional Partnership Program directed by Peter Costello’s colleagues didn’t even use a whiteboard. The Audit Office finds that many of the reasons for its grants weren’t documented at all.
It shelled out $350 million.
The culture that allowed it to happen appears to pervade the Howard government.
Early this year when the Prime Minister allocated $10 billion to a water package without consulting his cabinet the Finance Minister Nick Minchin defended his behaviour saying it was only “one billion a year, which is less than half a per cent of Commonwealth government expenditure, let’s keep it in perspective”.
And as the Coalition’s spending promises in the current election have grown so big that on Treasury forecasts they threaten to deny it the budget surplus it has promised to maintain the Prime Minister hinted this week that it didn’t matter.
“What a lot of people have overlooked is the projected surplus in future fiscal years is likely to be higher than what's projected,” he told the Australian Financial Review.
The Coalition looks poorly placed to win an election about competence.
Government figures including the Deputy Prime Minister have become embroiled in a reprise of the so-called "sports rorts" affair that helped bring down the Keating Labor government in the mid-1990s.
In a damning three-volume report of an investigation into the government's $350 million Regional Partnership grants program released yesterday the Audit Office found that government ministers and parliamentary secretaries including Mark Vaile, De-Anne Kelly and John Anderson
. regularly overturned recommendations from departmental officials to reject grants;
. approved funding for projects for which no application had been made;
. frequently recorded no reasons for their decisions;
. demanded that officials present them with lists of grant applications arranged by electorate;
. demanded that officials fast-track the processing of applications in the lead-up to the 2004 election resulting in projects gaining a tick without “the usual level of scrutiny”; and
. in an extraordinary burst of activity between 3.25pm and 4.16pm on the day the government went into caretaker mode in 2004 approved 16 grant applications, two of which their officials had knocked back.
The Audit Office examined around 278 of the 1,372 grant applications considered by the ministers during the first three years of the scheme from July 2003 to June 2006.
Among the projects that it found had been fully funded by the ministers against the expressed wishes of their officials were a synthetic bowling green in the marginal Tasmanian Liberal Party seat of Bass and an ethanol refinery in NSW National Party seat of Parkes that received $1 million three years ago but has yet to be built.
The Audit Office found that the ministers were more likely to overturn recommendations to reject applications “in electorates held by the Liberal and National Parties”.
Conversely the government ministers were more likely to overturn recommendations to approve applications “in electorates held by the Labor Party”.
The report reminded ministers that they were “expected to discharge their responsibilities in accordance with wide considerations of public interest and without regard to considerations of a party political nature”.
It stressed that ministers, like officials, were required to make decisions on sound grounds, after making proper inquiries and to document the reasons for their decisions.
It found that the program had “fallen short of an acceptable standard of public administration”.
Campaign in Mackay in Queensland the Labor leader Kevin Rudd said the report was “an indictment of a government which has become arrogant and out of touch in its use and abuse of taxpayer funds”.
The Prime Minister Mr Howard said he had not seen the report, an advanced copy of which was delivered to the Department of Transport and Regional Services in September.
You are imputing a knowledge that I don’t have,” he told reporters in Cairns. “It came out only a short time ago and I’ve been engaged on other matters”.
However he said that as “a gentle point without claiming any great knowledge of the auditor general’s report” the overwhelming bulk of regional seats were held by the Coalition.
“Now as a matter of ordinary logic if you have a regional partnerships scheme you are going to expect that the great bulk of the grants under the regional partnership scheme will go to Coalition seats.”
The Deputy Prime Minister and National Party Leader Mark Vaile, one of the Ministers named in the report, is due to announce a grant under the scheme in Queensland today.
He said yesterday that his former department, Transport and Regional Services had accepted all of the 19 recommendations in the report.
But he said he “would not apologise for the success of the program in leveraging investment outside the major capital cities”.