Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It is only $10 billion - why ask the Cabinet?

First our PM is trampling on the states like Whitlam did.

Now he is conjuring up multi-billion dollar programs out of thin air.

Only 10 billion?

Or as the Finance Minister Senator Minchin put it before a Senate estimates committee “1 billion a year, which is less than half a per cent of Commonwealth government expenditure, let’s keep it in perspective”.

Perspective? It's about half as much again as the budget of the much anguished about ABC.

Here's this morning's story:

The Prime Minister’s Australia Day promise of $10 billion for the Murray-Darling basin was neither properly costed nor approved by Cabinet.

Revelations before the Senate’s Finance and Administration estimates committee confirm that the only costing details made available to the Department of Finance were one sheet of paper and the announcement itself. The Cabinet was not consulted.

Under questioning from Labor’s spokesman on Public Administration and Accountability Senator Penny Wong yesterday, the head of the Finance Department’s Infrastructure Division Mr Lembit Suur said that it was given very little detail about the $10 billion dollar plan.

“We were given a page which had the different components of the plan on it and a draft ten-year profile and to date, aside from the announcement of itself, that is the only documentation we have received in relation to this plan,” he said...

Senator Wong asked Mr Suur whether he was sure, whether a single page was all the department had received.

He replied: “Yes Senator”.

Earlier before the same committee the Minister for Finance and Administration Senator Minchin confirmed that the plan did not go to cabinet for approval before the Prime Minister announced it in his Australia Day address on January 25.

But he played down the significance of the package describing the $10 billion over 10 years as “1 billion a year, which is less than half a per cent of Commonwealth government expenditure, let’s keep it in perspective”.

“If the states continue their political intransigence, it may not even come to fruition. There are many steps yet to be taken before this thing becomes a reality, he said.

The department’s secretary Ian Watt told the committee he had been asked only to "run an eye lightly over the costings" before the announcement. He said he would have the plan fully costed by the time of the May budget, should state and territory leaders agree to it.

The plan requires Queensland, NSW, Victoria, and the ACT to cede control of the Murray Darling to the Commonwealth. A leaders meeting to discuss the package broke up without agreement on Thursday. The leaders will meet again next week.

Victoria’s Premier Steve Bracks said yesterday that the revelations added to his doubts about the $10 billion package.

"The more we learn about it the more concern we have," he said.

"Today we learnt this matter hasn't gone to federal cabinet. Can you believe that?

“One of the most significant issues facing the nation in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin ... has not gone to cabinet."

In Parliament Labor’s finance spokesman Lindsay Tanner asked the Prime Minister why a deciswion to spend $250,000 of taxpayers' money on a new carriage for the Queen had gone to Cabinet but not the $10 billion Murray-Darling water package.

Mr Howard replied that both decisions had been handled correctly.
"Appropriate processes were followed in both cases," he said.

The Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd who has until now backed the Prim Minister’s plan told ABC radio he was beginning to have doubts.

"I've tried to be positive about this but when we find things like this, that such a major proposal as this is not even taken to the Cabinet, then we begin to raise questions about how well thought out the individual policy, the administrative and financial details of the package in fact are," he said.