Monday, August 16, 2010

Coaliton "too dim" to stop its own rules being used against it

At the heart of the election costings debate is a tragedy. Both sides know the system is rigged against the Opposition. The Coalition knows it because it set it up while in government. Labor knows it because it said so in opposition.

Tony Abbott walked away from the system yesterday pledging instead to have his promises costed by an as-yet unnamed "respectable, reputable well-known accounting firm".

What's wrong with Treasury and Finance?

Whereas the government can get the departments to quietly cost its promises anytime up until the election is called, the Opposition can only ask at the last minute after the issue of writs.

All such requests have to go through the Prime Minister's office meaning that if the Opposition want's to get something costed quietly ahead of announcing it, it's got Buckley's chance (given its fear of leaks).

If it waits until after it has announced the policy, it'll have to endure the humiliation of Treasury and Finance coming up with slightly different costings (in all but the simplest cases) and be seen to have made a "gaffe".

No wonder Lindsay Tanner declared in opposition the system was "effectively rigged
against the Opposition" and vowed to change it when in office.

He didn't. But he did set up an inquiry... As an extraordinary act of goof faith he appointed as its head a member of another political party, Democrat Senator Andrew Murray. Murray's report Review of Operation Sunlight made recommendations exactly along the lines Tanner himself had proposed in opposition.

Under the Tanner/Murray reforms the Opposition would be able to privately consult Treasury and Finance about costings for 12 months before an election was due. The agreed costings would be made public. The Prime Minister would not be involved.

The first step was to refer the idea to the Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit. The committee's staff began to get the ball rolling, but the inquiry never took place.

Asked why in Perth yesterday, former Senator Murray was blunt.

"It wasn't in the interests of the Government to fulfill its desire for accountability, and the Opposition was too dim to realise that if they didn't push for it, they would suffer when the election came around."

"That's the problem with people who design partisan laws," he told the Herald/Age. "They hang on to them because they are not honest enough to acknowledge their limitations."

Asked whether the Coalition threw away the best chance it had to fix the system about which it now complains, the former Senator replies, "yes - their best chance to advance reform was well before the next election, well before people people got concerned about hanging on to advantage."

Murray believes Tanner meant well but was stymied by "hard heads".

"I wouldn't know exactly what happened, but tell me why someone like Tanner with his absolute commitment to Operation Sunlight never got his way," he said.

Published in today's SMH and Age

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