Monday, February 19, 2007

Driving blind. Our government turns off its lights.

Today's Canberra Times editorial:

If you were getting into a taxi at night and your driver donned dark glasses and dimmed the headlights before taking off, you would have every right to feel concerned.

You would be concerned as well about a government that attempted to shut its eyes - and ears - as it managed the Australian economy.

Senate estimates hearings last week revealed that the Government's Employment Advocate has stopped collecting statistics on what is in them...

Last year he embarrassed the Government by revealing that all of the AWAs registered with it had removed at least one award condition.

63 per cent had cut penalty rates, 52 per cent had removed shift-work loadings. This year the Employment Advocate Peter McIlwain told the Senate employment committee that he had stopped collecting information on award conditions that were lost in June last year.

McIlwain said neither the former workplace relations minister, Kevin Andrews, nor his replacement, Joe Hockey, asked for this to be done. Labor's Senator Penny Wong asked how then the minister could claim, as he did on ABC television last week, that the new agreements were providing bucket-loads of flexibility. The minister's representative, Senator Eric Abetz, replied that Joe Hockey relied on information from his backbench colleagues and his own consultations.

It is not only in the area of AWAs that the Government has shut off its access to information. It introduced and defended the WorkChoices changes without the benefit of an economy-wide analysis prepared by either the Treasury or the Department of Workplace Services. Similarly, it introduced its wide-ranging media reforms last year without an economy-wide analysis prepared by either Treasury or the Department of Communications.

On climate change, the hottest political issue of the year, Treasury officials conceded before estimates hearings last week that they hadn't prepared any detailed economic analysis because the effect was not yet sufficiently large.

The Treasury official in charge of macroeconomic policy, David Parker, told the Senate economic committee that climate change was ``an issue of potential relevance in the future, but hitherto it hasn't been something which has been a large feature of macroeconomic development''.

Shadow Treasurer Wayne Swan described the statement as ``akin to John Howard saying we do not need security assessments because we have not had a terrorist attack on Australian soil yet''.

Certainly it contrasts with the attitude in Britain where the Government was hungry enough for information to ask the second permanent secretary of its Treasury, Sir Nicholas Stern, to examine climate change in depth.

On water, arguably the other biggest political issue facing Australia this year, the Government hardly seems to have involved its economic or financial advisers at all. Last week's hearings were told that until days before the Prime Minister's announcement of his $10 billion plan, the Finance Department did not know about it. It was then given a single piece of paper. The head of the Department's Infrastructure Division, Lembit Suur, told the committee that aside from the announcement of itself, that is the only documentation we have received in relation to this plan.

Finance Minister Nick Minchin defended keeping the plan from the cabinet, the Department of Finance and the Department of the Treasury as it was drawn up, saying the cost of the 10-year program was just ``one billion a year, which is less than half a per cent of Commonwealth government expenditure, let's keep it in perspective''.

Whether the amount of money involved is big or not, and some would say it is very big, the departments of Treasury and Finance are in the best position to advise on whether it is well spent.

Cynics might suggest that the reason the Government has not asked its economic and financial advisers to examine the impact of WorkChoices, media reform, climate change and its water package is that it fears what they might have to say.

If so, that is the wrong way to govern a country.

The policy divisions of the Australian public service are expensive. They contain within them some of the best brains in the country. The Australian people deserve to have important decisions made using the benefit of their expertise.

All this is surprising behaviour for a Government that has been in office for more than a decade. Traditionally governments are at their most suspicious of their public service advisers when they arrive in office and become more comfortable with them over time.

Governments are elected to govern. They have every right to reject every single piece of advice they are offered, especially when they are given a mandate to implement an election policy. But in the political system that has served Australia well they are also expected to seek and listen to advice from the advisers we pay good money for them to employ.