A speedy audit won't tackle the big issues
Joe Hockey's new Commission of Audit will be the most comprehensive in almost two decades. It will examine everything the government does. And what will it say?
Well, if it is anything like the last one established by Peter Costello 17 years ago, it will recommend further inquiries.
Truly. Here are extracts from that last Commission of Audit report delivered to Costello in 1996:
"The government should undertake a fundamental review ...
"The government should review its policy ...
"The government should initiate further work ... "
And so on.
Why did the commission recommend further work rather than do it itself?
It didn't have the time.
It kept saying so, using phrases like:
"Because of the very tight deadline for completion of this report ...
"In the limited time available ...
"Because of this time constraint ... "
And so on.
Costello had given it just three months.
If there is one lesson Hockey might have learnt from the last time the Coalition asked a commission to examine its entire financial operation, it is not to give it only three months.
Hockey has listened. He has given it three and a half.
The commission's first report examining the scope of government, the efficiency and effectiveness of spending, the state of the Commonwealth's finances and the effectiveness of budget controls is due on January 31.
That's right, January 31. Even working through Christmas with "a lot of resources", the commissioners will have to tackle really big questions at a breakneck pace.
Their second report, examining infrastructure and public sector performance, is due two months later.
The thinking behind the speed is impossible to fathom. Hockey himself wants the report to be "thorough and comprehensive". The Henry Tax Review was given more than a year. I've a suspicion the lightning-fast timetable wasn't his. To keep to it, the commission will have to take shortcuts. The most obvious is to purloin the findings of its predecessor.
But some of those findings will unsettle the Coalition, if not the commission itself.
The first commission was chaired by Professor Bob Officer, an expert in corporate finance from the Melbourne Business School. It took no prisoners. This one is chaired by Tony Shepherd, the president of the Business Council, which is a lobby group for Australia's top 100 business leaders.
The Officer commission wanted the government to "urgently review assistance to business and higher income earners".
It fingered the export market development grants scheme (which survives to this day), the 150 per cent research and development tax concession (only recently closed by Labor) and the non-means-tested childcare cash rebate (which the Henry Tax Review also wanted means tested and still isn't).
Its broader concern was that money was being shovelled to businesses and high-income earners by means of scarcely visible tax concessions rather than direct payments.
That's how the government shovels outsized support to the superannuation accounts of high earners and the family homes of Australians who are already rich. By contrast, measures that support poorer Australians are easy to see in the budget and always in line for the chop. Just this week the government announced plans to axe the low-income superannuation contribution. The more expensive support delivered to high-income super accounts was spared.
"The government should comprehensively review all existing tax expenditures programs," the commission recommended. It should convert those that were actually worthwhile into direct grants so the public could see where its money was going.
And that was just the start of its attack on privilege. It turned its guns on politicians themselves. Costello was infuriated. Politicians' super should be "structured in a similar way to arrangements for senior executives in the rest of the workforce". It took eight years and campaigning by the then new Labor leader Mark Latham for the Howard government to reluctantly act. It replaced the parliamentary super scheme with one much like that applying to other people, but only for new politicians.
Howard, Costello and Latham himself continue to receive a super benefit costing about 78 per cent of their salaries for the rest of their lives.
The Commonwealth should abandon its support for private schools. The states could fund them if they wanted to (and there are good reasons why they might; every privately schooled student is a student less the states have to teach). In fact, the Commonwealth would get out of school education altogether, keeping responsibility only for tertiary education, which it wouldn't directly fund. Instead it would fund scholarships that students could use to buy education from universities and TAFEs, which would charge full fees. Much of what the Commonwealth does in the field of health would be handed to the states as well.
And the Commonwealth would less fully fund pensioners. For obscure historical reasons their payments are linked to 25 per cent of male total average earnings. The government would instead link them to a lower measure (median total male and female earnings) or lift them only in line with the consumer price index, or not lift them at all except following regular reviews which would consider "all relevant circumstances, including budget pressures".
The unemployed would get no joy from their campaign for higher Newstart benefits. The commission saw sense in giving them a good deal less than the pension to make sure they weren't lulled into staying unemployed.
And leaders such as Tony Abbott, who want to build "roads of the 21st century", would be told bluntly Australia had enough infrastructure. There was "no evidence of overall infrastructure inadequacy". (Although it should be noted that is a view the commission might not hold if it revisited the question. What was true in 1996 might not remain true this year.)
The Officer commission was radical, gutsy and quick - so quick it never got the chance to flesh out its ideas. Perhaps that's why the Coalition has made its successor quick as well. It might be frightened of what it will find.
Peter Martin is the economics correspondent. Ross Gittins is on leave.