22/07/2010 - 00:00

Uniform approach misses opportunities

22/07/2010 - 00:00

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Good government starts with getting the spending priorities right.

WHAT would you do if you came into a bit of inheritance money or had a moderate win from a shared ticket in the lottery?

Depending on the amount you’d won, presumably you’d weigh up the opportunities to treat yourself against the prospect of dealing with all the things you’d promised you would do if you had the money.

It would seem a bit silly to fly off for a month in Tahiti without fixing the constant drip from a leaking gutter, ignoring the letters from the bank about credit card debt, or if the home computer needed to be rebooted every 10 minutes because it was still using Windows 98.

A sensible person would probably fix all the long-term issues before they started acting like a rock star.

Admittedly, we are not all sensible, just look at the federal government’s track record.

In late 2008, Julia Gillard was federal education minister and one of four people who really ran the government led by Kevin Rudd.

At a time when the government was about to spend more than $40 billion, wouldn’t that have been an opportune moment to direct spending to something that clearly matters to her?

Ms Gillard might have directed the government to accelerate spending on the computers she promised for every high school student. Most kids are still waiting for them, even though they were promised in the last election campaign in 2007.

Instead, education spending went into construction, a process that we all know has been fraught with waste and unnecessary building. I realise that the infrastructure spending was developed as part of the stimulus package, but I don’t recall any promises to fund this before. Clearly, it was not considered an election priority, when computers were.

My question is why did the government not deliver first on the things already promised rather than spending up on things many didn’t think they needed?

You could extend this argument further. The government handed out $1,000 or so to half the population to go spend as they saw fit. Why weren’t those recipients of largesse directed to spend their cash on necessities?

A good example would have been the school uniforms that have suddenly become so important that it takes a prime minister to announce government funding to the tune of $220 million.

Why didn’t Ms Gillard think about school uniforms then, when the global financial crisis was enveloping us all?

Individualised funding

A COUPLE of months ago I was quite taken by some of the views expressed in a 7.30 Report story about changes to disability payments in Victoria.

The story was about how Victoria intended to offer a more flexible and individualised funding package for the disabled and their families, allowing them to spend their government entitlements however they chose.

This was a change from a very prescriptive model where funding went to institutions who then governed what the disabled and their families could and couldn’t do.

“... instead of us telling people with disability what supports and services they need, they will have control over their own funding allocation and be able to make those choices,” Victorian Community Services Minister Lisa Neville told the 7.30 Report.

This is a quite a fundamental shift in thinking, especially from a Labor government.

Nevertheless, it would have probably remained in my archives except for the fact that when Julia Gillard deposed Kevin Rudd to become prime minister, there was one federal parliamentarian put in the frame as a key player in the coup – Bill Shorten, former union leader and parliamentary secretary for the disabled.

Given Mr Shorten is an influential person in the government as both a potential frontbencher and one of the power brokers, it is worth hearing what he had to say in that 7.30 Report story.

“The thing about individualised funding is it says that a person with disabilities and their family are the best person to control how their money gets spent,” Mr Shorten said.

Why is this important?

Well this thinking, from my point of view, extends well beyond the disabled.

We already have examples in healthcare. When we get sick we can choose what sort of doctor we’ll go to. Medicare rebates us a certain amount of that cost but it doesn’t tell us which doctor to see.

What about widening this thinking to hospitals or schools, for example?

If the federal government really feels it needs to stick its nose into the state’s business rather than funding these institutions directly, shouldn’t the government be giving the money to the people who need it for them to spend it in the best way they see fit?

Why for instance spend more on state schools if parents would prefer to take a cheque and use that to reduce the cost of sending their kids to a private school?

State schools, too, would be more enthusiastic about meeting the demands of parents if they saw that they wielded a cheque.

Isn’t that empowering parents who, to paraphrase Mr Shorten, are the best people to control how their money gets spent?

To me this is the where the federal government could make a massive difference instead of creating a electoral quagmire for itself where future prime ministers will spend half their time answering questions about why emergency waiting times have increased, just as state premiers do today.

Instead of launching takeover bids to bring another layer of bureaucracy and create one-size-fits-all systems, why can’t Canberra use the populace, the voters, to shift resources to where they are needed most.

This is not a carte blanche approach. It can restrict what the money may be used for and how much can be spent on individual items – particular medical procedures, for instance, or specialist after-school coaching – but it allows a much more efficient application of the funds.

This, of course, is not a new idea. It is called the market. But if Mr Shorten wants to call it “individualised funding”, I’d accept that.

• mark.pownall@wabusinessnews.com.au.

 

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