Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Truth in promises. A policy worth voting for in the Victorian election

Now noone knows where the money is coming from.

Usually governments are restrained in what they offer in election campaigns. Their promises are already in the budget, already accounted for. It's the opposition that appears reckless, making promises that by definition aren't in the budget and aren't funded with savings.

Unless the government is in imminent danger of losing. Then it'll throw out money like an opposition on steroids, announcing unfunded promise after unfunded promise like a squid under attack squirting out ink.

Denis Napthine announced new promises worth $4.2 billion in his 33-minute campaign launch speech on Sunday. Something of a record, it works out at $127 million per minute which is more per voter per minute than John Howard promised in his final desperate pitch to get re-elected in 2007.

Most of it was for trains and trams, which is odd because just two days before, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott defined the election as a "referendum on the East West Link".

When you're facing political death it's wise to cover bases. Which means scrambling to find money.

We don't yet know where he would get the $3.9 billion for public transport, the $100 million to spend on regional cities, the $23 million to give to parents of kindergarten children and so on and nor do we really know how he would find the $8.5-$11 billion he promised in the budget to pay for the Melbourne Rail Link. Most of it is beyond the budget's four-year forecasting horizon...

And we are not likely to know until just before the election. "At a later stage" are the words used by the treasurer's office. If history is any guide we'll be told on the Wednesday or Thursday before the vote; or even on the Friday, election eve. It'll be too late for the Victorians who've voted early (more than half a million are expected to) and effectively too late for debate and discussion about what Napthine has in mind.

It'll be the same for Labor, although at least it has come up with a date. It'll outline the costs of its promises and how they will be funded >on the Thursday before the poll - that's 40 hours before we vote. Labor will outline these promises in a press conference attended by a representative of Moore Stephens, the private accounting firm that has been going over its numbers.

It's an appalling way to treat the people who are meant to be deciding how to vote, not to mention the press which is meant to be giving those people the information they need to decide.

"The big reveal" two or three days before the election can and does result in voters being misled, with no time to check the truth of what they are being told.

In the 2010 federal election the Coalition's treasury spokesman Joe Hockey released 12 pages of costings (with no explanation of how they were derived) late on the pre-poll Wednesday. They were covered by a one-page note from a Perth-based accountancy firm that said it was "satisfied that based on the assumptions provided, costed commitments and savings have been accurately prepared in all material respects".

But the costings weren't accurate, as the Treasury discovered after they were released after the election. Among other basic mistakes the Coalition had booked as a gain the interest it would save by banking the proceeds of selling Medibank Private without booking as a loss the dividends it would no longer receive after selling Medibank Private.

Four years later in 2013 the Coalition delivered an eight-page document that was no more informative. It did it on the Thursday, 40 hours before voting began. This time a post-election review by the Parliamentary Budget Office found it was mistake-free, but voters weren't able to know that at the time, and they weren't able to see the assumptions that lay behind it until after they had voted.

Victoria doesn't have a parliamentary budget office.

The Commonwealth has one, NSW has one, and the Victorian Coalition promised one when it was in opposition. Ideally a PBO works with political leaders to fine-tune and cost their policies and then makes public the final document when the policies are announced. The Commonwealth's has a major flaw. It is not allowed to make the documents public until the leader says so. In 2013 Abbott didn't say so. That meant the Coalition was able to claim the endorsement of the PBO without letting the public see how that endorsement was arrived at.

Victoria's wasn't going to have that flaw and the Baillieu government was going to write it into law on taking office. It didn't, for three years. Then under Napthine it introduced legislation for a cut-down "temporary recurring" PBO. Rather than working all year round it would accept costing requests only for the three months before each election and then shut down. (The NSW office is also temporary recurring but it accepts requests for many more months than three). Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews said he wouldn't cop it and Napthine dropped it.

Now Labor's putting forward a proper model that would work all year round. It would cost $3.3 million per annum. It's the least we deserve.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald