Two better heads for Abbott’s audit

The new leaders of Tony Abbott's audit commission will be able to hit the ground running. That's important – it's a critical opportunity for Australia.

The best thing about the Abbott government’s Commission of Audit is the inclusion of Peter Boxall and Tony Cole: these two former heads of Finance and Treasury know where the proverbial bodies are buried and will start the job with plenty of ideas built up over long careers in the public service.

The group appointed by Peter Costello in 1996 included no former public servants of their standing, which was a mistake. Including Boxall and Cole from Finance and Treasury will make a big difference to the outcome.

And with Tony Shepherd as chairman and Amanda Vanstone on the team, Joe Hockey is obviously looking for something more practical than Peter Costello got 17 years ago.

The 1996 group chaired by Bob Officer from the Melbourne Business School came up with a good report but it was quite theoretical. For example, there was a lot of effort put into an accrual accounting framework that was probably wasted.

Looking again at the 1996 recommendations, it’s clear that Tony Shepherd and his colleagues could simply get that report out and re-use some of the chapters on the theory of what governments should be doing, which still apply, so they don’t have to do that work again.

This 2013 group needs to produce specific, practical and politically doable ideas for improving the way government is run. It’s an enormously important opportunity, and should be done at least every ten years.

Above all they need to keep their eye on the goal of removing the structural deficit and getting the budget back to cycling around zero according to economic conditions.

It should be like a company bringing in management consultants: the only reason for doing that is to improve long-term profitability, usually by re-examining processes, often minutely, and often by refocusing the culture.

To do it, they need to get stuck into the specifics of government contracting, the duplication between the Commonwealth and states – and in particular in health and education – and the means testing of welfare benefits.

Means testing in Australia is a mess. There needs to be one simple and understandable set of income and assets tests for receiving government assistance, whether cash payments or tax relief.

There are far too many Commonwealth public servants producing policies and functions that are state responsibilities, and always will be.

The public service will need to be reduced by more than the 12,000 promised before the election and to achieve that will require some new thinking about the way it operates. Some of that work was done by Bob Officer’s Commission in 1996 and never implemented.

The time-frame looks short, but the one in 1996 took three months. Shepherd’s commission has the luxury of more than five months.

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