02/06/2011 - 00:00

Junkets often an unholy compromise

02/06/2011 - 00:00


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We take the provision of goods and services for granted, but few of us seem willing to pay full price for them.

Junkets often an unholy compromise

THE exposure last week of the gift taking and travel arrangements in the WA Health Department opens a Pandora’s Box of issues about who accepts what from whom.

The issue has arisen from the investigations of the Labor Party but the headline number of $745,000 from WA’s second biggest department and employer belies the broad nature of the various dealings of civil servants.

The amount, from a combined workforce of more than 31,000, reflects everything from those who have accepted a gift to experts whose travel has been paid for by pharmaceutical companies to give a presentation at an international conference.

This is an enormous grey area, which frustrates many sectors. It also provides great fodder for journalists, many of whom receive the same sorts of perks and junkets without much in the way of disclosure.

Clearly the issue arises from two problematic areas: 1) that those who receive gifts or travel apparently can’t be trusted to remain at arm’s length from those that they receive them from; and 2) that their employer can’t or won’t pay enough to negate the attraction of someone else offering to do so.

In the case of the health department we have a strange situation where many people in key decision-making areas are paid much less their private enterprise peers, many who are actually part of the public system through their consultancy.

We are asking these people to do without, presuming of course they are competent enough to go into the private sector, in order to serve the community.

For some this is an easier life, but for others it is a sacrifice.

Furthermore, we expect to have the best in medical care in Western Australia, which requires our local experts keep abreast of international trends.

I’m all for someone travelling for the right reasons, and have long backed state politicians and local councillors using their own time to travel interstate or overseas to broaden their knowledge of various situations, and bring the best of the world back here.

The same applies to medicine. In the end, we have to demand transparency and then provide confidence that these people are giving their best in whatever role that are playing.

If we want the best here we are not going to attract people by cutting them off from the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, the issue of who pays for what is sensitive because history has shown that we can’t trust everyone to act responsibly when their loyalty to the voter is confused by someone else paying the bills.

Partly that is the amount involved.

But there is an underlying issue that the community needs to deal with. None of us is prepared to pay what things are worth these days.

The state doesn’t want to pay to send its experts overseas to share their knowledge because some bean counter in Treasury is accountable to some politician whose horizon is limited to the current election cycle.

In a bygone era the state would have paid for such things, but budget crunches driven by voters who want to pay minimal taxes and get everything for free have changed things.

In the end, it is a compromise to allow a pharmaceutical company to pay instead – as if that cost doesn’t somehow make its way back to us at some stage built into the price of medicines.

The public needs to wake up to itself and decide what it wants – purity, in theoretical terms, in the public service or lower taxes? It seems to me that the two are not compatible.

The same thing has occurred in journalism. Bean counters have cut back on the things that they consider ancillary to the news business.

Increasingly, companies or the government pay for journalists who venture out of the capital cities.

The classic example of this is election campaigns, when a planeload of journalists joins the prime minister for a four-week road trip.

That is a massive compromise in my view. Then again, I go to the occasional footy game in a corporate box, so who is perfect, and who is able to judge whom?

Look west, Wilkie

THE independent member for Tasmania Andrew Wilkie has a great opportunity to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to gambling – and back up Premier Colin Barnett.

Mr Wilkie is the big opponent of gambling in this nation and basically backed Julia Gillard for prime minister on the back of curbing the poker machine industry.

And Mr Barnett is having a big fight with Ms Gillard’s government over the allocation of GST.

Where there should be a meeting of minds is that WA is the best example of what Mr Wilkie really wants.

This state has no pokies and is all the better for it. We don’t need the legislation he demanded as a condition to tip the balance of power in favour of Labor after the drawn federal election. WA is miles ahead of the other states in that regard.

But we suffer at the hands of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, which decides on GST allocations, because it doesn’t include the gambling revenue of other states when it goes through the process of horizontal fiscal equalisation.

This is one of the many reasons we get the short end of things when it comes to the GST – the reason Mr Barnett claims he has to raise royalties.

Mr Wilkie ought to go in to bat for this reasoning. It would appear that WA’s anti-pokies stance is the model that Mr Wilkie really wants and he ought to make sure we aren’t penalised for it.

He could argue that the GST allocations are unfair and that we are within our rights to supplement our losses on gambling by picking them up with royalties.

Which is better for society?

I’d argue jobs creation through mining is better than a poker machine addiction, which does little for the economy except strip money off those who don’t need to lose it.


• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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