04/05/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: Doubling up a losing bet

04/05/2004 - 22:00

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IT’S easy to forget that, tucked-away between both Burke Governments (1983-88) and the 36-month Lawrence Government (1990-93), an even shorter-lived Labor administration existed.

IT’S easy to forget that, tucked-away between both Burke Governments (1983-88) and the 36-month Lawrence Government (1990-93), an even shorter-lived Labor administration existed.

It was led by overly acerbic Perth lawyer Peter Dowding, who was premier for a year less than Dr Lawrence, and has emerged this election year as a fortnightly columnist for The West Australian.

However, unlike that of the Lawrence Government, which voters ended through the ballot box, Mr Dowding’s collapsed from within, via a cabinet revolt or a ministerial coup d’etat, plotted and executed by disgruntled frontbenchers who teamed up to arrange a tap on his shoulder.

They thus gave him what one wealthy Perth businesswoman who has hired, as well as fired, many leading local lights once dubbed as a DCM – ‘Don’t Come on Monday’.

Some, however, still recall Mr Dowding’s less-than-illustrious premiership.

The main reason is that he pressed for the fateful billion-dollar PICL project, a strange and costly move aimed at establishing a petro-chemical plant at Kwinana to transform North-West Shelf gas and Wheatbelt salt into plastics.

But apart from that fiasco and his DCM, Mr Dowding’s nearly two years at the top have largely faded from public consciousness.

In one important respect that’s regrettable, because he did one other thing that’s unfortunately also now largely forgotten, but which State Scene never ceases to highlight when hearing his brief premiership criticised.

Shortly after taking office, either Mr Dowding, his press officer, or one of his advisers – we’ll never know which – decided he should highlight and publicly condemn the enormous amount of duplication of services between Australia’s Federal and State tiers of government.

A simple scan of the ministerial titles of State and Federal cabinets starkly demonstrates the existence of wasteful duplication on a grand scale with transport, health, education, the arts, and other such portfolios at both levels.

All such areas of responsibility, plus more, should of course be handled by State-based administrations, not held by Canberra, which should basically oversee defence, national finances, international relations plus migration, social welfare, and an array of smaller nationally-oriented responsibilities (weights and measures, some pertinent scientific endeavors, and the like).

Instead there’s duplication on a grand scale, which means an additional burden on already overburdened taxpayers.

The main beneficiaries of this doubling-up between Canberra and each of the States are, of course, senior bureaucrats who constantly fly between capitals, coordinating and discussing their duplication.

This means Qantas, Virgin Blue and big capital city-based hotel chains are major beneficiaries of lots of taxpayers’ money.

Precisely what Australia’s abundance of duplication and coordination costs adds up to is something no-one, until recently, could quantify; not even State and Federal auditors general, and the battery of well-paid boffins at the top of their respective treasuries.

But it’s been known for years that it was an enormous amount of taxpayers’ cash, which was outlayed year in, year out.

However, just before Christmas – more than 16 years after Mr Dowding highlighted this wasteful and enormously costly burden – the House of Representatives Economics Committee (HREC) disclosed in a little-publicised report that it was – wait for it – $20 billion.

That means every man, woman, child and infant is being charged $1,000 annually for this huge exercise in extravagant doubling-up annual super spending spree.

In the case of, say, 10,000,000 taxpayers, that figure doubles to $2,000 annually for each taxpayer, or about $40-a week.

In other words, if all duplication and coordination costs were scrapped, each taxpayer could expect to have their tax burden lightened by that amount.

And that’s over and above the amount that should be adjusted for bracket creep, which neither Prime Minister John Howard nor Labor’s Mark Latham are likely to promise to do away with by introducing tax indexation.

On the day of the HREC report’s tabling that committee’s chairman, David Hawker, a Victorian Liberal MHR, basically repeated what Mr Dowding had stressed 17 years earlier.

“Our system of federalism is fracturing under the weight of duplication and coordination costs between three levels of government,” Mr Hawker said.

The report carried several sensible recommendations, including that an urgent meeting of Federal, State and local government representative be convened to develop an Inter-Government Agreement where Australia’s $20 billion duplication problem be remedied.

It went on to recommend that an inter-government summit be convened in 2005, 17 years after Mr Dowding first urged reform in this hugely wasteful area.

But, and unfortunately, several of the HREC’s reform proposals are likely to mean Canberra’s powers will be further boosted as a coordinator, especially of local government activities, which shouldn’t be allowed to be snatched from State governments.

In other words the Canberra-based Federal Parliament wants Canberra to gain a greater say over governance within States by involvement in local government – the very opposite to what’s required if we’re to see duplication and coordination costs severely cut back.

If the Hawker committee ends up seeing greater intrusion by Canberra into local government, State Scene confidently predicts that we’ll simply witness yet more duplication and a further explosion in coordination costs.

Let’s hope Mr Dowding turns his acerbic skills against this threatening move in his fortnightly newspaper column.

If he did that, and won out on the duplication issue he first highlighted 17 years ago, he’d be assured of going down in the history of governance as far more significant that his predecessor, Brian Burke, and successor Carmen Lawrence, who both presently overshadow him.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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