Liberal triumvirate called to account on fund

FORMER Murdoch University political scientist and now Premier, Dr Geoff Gallop, can be forgiven for concluding that reading some of Bill Shakespeare's more conflict-ridden plays would be vastly more helpful in under-standing Liberal Party machinations than studying political science.

The ploy to draft Curtin MHR Julie Bishop so WA Libs would have a female leader combating Pauline Hanson next election, and torpedoing overtly ambitious Colin Barnett in the process, was enlightening, considering it resulted in Mr Barnett being trounced 17-13 by a candidate who wasn't even in the party room or the same Parliament at the time.

Nothing to write home about for a new leader who was deputy to a party that copped such an unprecedented electoral trouncing.

However, now that Mr Court is to retire to his $1.5 million Hobbs Avenue mansion, his performance as treasurer will be re-assessed with flaws highlighted by Labor Treasurer, Eric Ripper.

Unfortunately for Mr Court and his longtime Budget Management Minister, Max Evans, things have already swung against them.

Just as the election approached, the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) released The Second Public Sector Performance Report 2000 which carried a brief analysis of what financial buffs call the Treasurer's Advance Account (TAA).

The TAA is the means by which governments can spend money without prior parliamentary approval.

The underlying intention is to ensure governments can handle "extraordinary or unforeseen" situations, (presumably floods, droughts or earthquakes) which is perfectly okay except that the TAA can easily be misused.

Controversial, big-ticket items can be bought and paid for through the TAA and Parliament may be none the wiser for months, even years. Hardly democracy in action.

By the time Parliament learns, it faces a fait accompli and there's no real opportunity for debate by elected representatives. Unfortunately, that's been WA's undemocratic practice for years with Parliament being treated like a house of mushrooms.

The Report of the Independent Commission to Review Public Sector Finances was commissioned by Mr Court and headed by former Under Treasurer Les McCarrey, who cautioned against this practice.

And I recall Mr Evans, before entering Parliament, and when Labor was in power, lecturing long and hard about the need for accountability.

Both Mr McCarrey's advice, and now the OAG's report, seem to have been ignored, however.

This is rather inexplicable in the case of the latter because the report surfaced on election eve.

That report explodes Messrs Court's and Evans's claim to being above-average budget managers.

Look at how often and how much they used the TAA.

As the table shows, it was more often than in Labor's disastrous years.

The Court-Evans duo also set the record for greatest use in any one year - in 1997-98 when TAA payments repre-sented a huge 7.5 per cent of total expenditure.

Since 1981 the TAA averaged 3.9 per cent of total annual government ex-penditure. There were signifi-cant blowouts, however, in 1987-88 (5 per cent); 1988-89 (6 per cent); 1995-96 (5 per cent); 1997-98 (7.5 percent) and 1998-99 (5 per cent).

The first two were the WA Inc years when Labor paid for the Swan Building Society, the Rothwells liquidation, and the ill-fated petrochemical industry debacles.

Fast forward to the Court-Evans years and they dipped into the TAA to cover, in 1997-98, outlays on the conv-ention centre, school comp-uters, and large unidentified payments to Western Power, health, and education.

Sure, it's hard to take issue at some of these - computers in schools expenditure being one.

Remember, however, that payments made through the TAA don't have prior parlia-mentary approval.

Remember also there's no apparent time limit on when Governments must come clean and set out the facts before Parliament.

Interestingly, the Court-Evans duo also shone out in this regard.

Since 1994 parliamentary ratification for TAA pay-ments has ranged from between 4.5 months to, incredibly, nearly two years after the relevant financial year.

Now for the punch line. On June 30, 1999 there was a $66 million payment from the TAA to Western Power as part of an agreement involving a simultaneous payment of $123 million by Western Power.

The AGO's report said: "Treasury records show that this was intended at least in part to be 'a budget correction measure'. Significantly, the budget at the end of that financial year ended in a surplus of $3 million.

"The $66 million payment was for the transfer to the State of future Commonwealth subsidy payments relating to the North-West Shelf Gas arrangements.

"The $123 million payment by Western Power was for the cost of the State assuming superannuation responsibilities for retired Western Power staff."

One also wonders at former Energy and Education Minister Mr Barnett's in-volvement in all in these extra-parliamentary advances.

Dr Gallop and Mr Ripper have four financial years ahead of them.

It'll be interesting to see if they manage them more openly - meaning less dipping into the TAA than the Court-Evans-Barnett trio.

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