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State Scene - Money monitors missing

MANY of us will remember seeing a baffled Health Minister Bob Kucera recently facing TV cameras and attempting to explain why his department had bankrolled a publication coaching Perth women on how to be sensual and client-oriented prostitutes.

But who recalls a Liberal tourism spokesman who found himself in a similar predicament 22 years ago over taxpayer funding of a tourism guide that, among other things, directed interstate and overseas visitors to Perth escort agencies and bordellos?

Probably very few because it’s so long ago.

What both cases show is that ministers – Labor or Liberal – simply cannot effectively monitor spending authorised by their senior bureaucrats, or that some bureaucrats were perhaps negligent by not reading what it was that they were financing.

Misdirected government spending was often emphasised by British public affairs commentator Dr Madsen Pirie, who visited Perth as a guest of the Liberal Party soon after its embarrassing 1981 tourism funding affair, on the eve of Labor launching its costly 1980s taxpayer-funded business ventures, which promptly failed.

Those ventures were further examples, though on a far more costly scale than the controversial health and tourism grants, of politicians and bureaucrats treating taxpayers’ money as if it was theirs.

Dr Pirie then and now heads a Westminster-based free enterprise think tank called the Adam Smith Institute (ASI).

While here he lectured Liberal MPs, stressing at all times basic tenets of good governance, meaning the necessity of ensuring that citizens weren’t overtaxed and that taxpayers’ dollars were carefully guarded by parliamentarians – something that’s evidently still not happening.

Recently the ASI took a closer look at related problems in Tony Blair’s Britain and made some simple but telling points that perhaps apply to WA.

The reason for ASI’s assessment was because Blair-led Labour has concluded that Britain’s public sector isn’t meeting taxpayers’ needs.

For example, much of the rolling stock in the London Tube, for instance, is outdated and run-down, while the National Health Service isn’t on a par with many European health systems.

Rather than simply harping on such obvious failings, the ASI took a back-to-basics approach, which is summarised in a 34-page report titled The Wrong Package, which in light of Mr Kucera’s embarrassing experience, could be studied here.

The investigation’s starting point was that public services, unlike services provided in competitive markets, don’t necessarily give consumers a way of clearly signalling to bureaucracies precisely what the public wants.

Put bluntly, politicians and bureaucrats too often quietly impose their ideologies and pet hobbyhorses upon the public, rather than giving the public what it wants and is paying for. “We can ask to what degree they [bureaucrats and politicians] follow the needs and comforts of their producers [departments] rather than what their consumers [taxpaying citizens] would prefer,” the ASI research paper says.

ASI grappled with this issue by commissioning a nationwide survey to determine what people saw as their priorities in just three areas – policing, schooling and local government.

Interviewees were asked to indicate from among 10 possible alternatives those regarded as most important and those seen as unimportant.

In each of the areas investigated the survey identified, to varying degrees, disparities between what Dr Pirie called a “producer agenda”, that is, what politicians and/or bureaucrats wish to see provided, and the “consumer agenda”, what citizens valued and desired.

Take, for instance, ASI’s policing findings. The survey showed citizens wanted:

p targeting criminal gangs and organised crime;

p tackling muggings and street crime;

p deterring street crime; and

p preventing burglary and recovering stolen property.

Citizens least wanted:

p counselling victims of crime;

p building good relations with ethnic minority communities;

p arresting anyone using force to protect their homes or property; and

p enforcing speed limit laws.

But the British public also gets lots of the last four, meaning that much less of the former four.

State Scene isn’t saying WA’s is the same.

Perhaps our politicians and bureaucrats are different, even though the Health Department’s case and the 1981 tell-a-tourist how to find a Perth bordello make one sceptical.

I’m sure that if an ASI-type survey were conducted in relation to the Health Department, then assisting prostitutes would rank well below the acquisition of cancer and other scanning equipment.

The Pirie survey also found differences in outlook across Great Britain.

Fewer southern Britons, for instance, worried about criminal gangs and organised crime. More northerners rated drink laws and police public presence higher than those in other regions.

Similar regional disparities may well surface if surveys were held here, giving politicians and bureaucrats a guide to ‘consumer agendas’.

There’s no reason why our various departments shouldn’t vary provision of services in different regions.

Both Labor and Liberal governments occasionally criticise each other over the monitoring of public opinion for what are allegedly blatant party political purposes.

What about doing it to help the consumers instead of solely seeking to get parties re-elected?

Perhaps it’s time Dr Pirie was again invited to WA, this time by the Labor Party.

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