JIM COOMBS : Bean Counters Stand Up and Be Counted

Budget problems arise for governments who don”t control spending. Where are their financial advisers when gross overspending takes place. No business could survive the profligacy of our government’s spending.

Our Political discourse is full of complaints of waste of tax-payers money, well, more exactly, of government revenue. Yet even a cursory view of government spending, let alone any analysis of “The Budget” shows absurd overspending.

This government would happily support Adani’s coal mine in Queensland to the tune of over a billion dollars. This is not only a gratuitous gift to a foreign corporation, but the cost to the nation of the destruction of the Barrier Reef’s tourist industry (dare one say jobs and growth), and supporting an activity which contradicts our commitments at Paris to carbon reduction, not just here but generally. But as a bean counter, you’d have to ask, “Why spend the money?” A few jobs at the beginning and our natural resources exported to pollute an already choking India, where nationally renewables are government policy.

Defence spending is of an order beyond telling, not just the odd billion, but billion dollars per item, submarine, fighter bomber or warship, which we are unlikely to see until they are superseded. Doesn’t any accountant in the government service ask, “Isn’t this a bit exxy ?” Worse, the money seems mostly to go to military-industrial-complexes of other countries, US, UK, France, etc. Jobs and growth, but not much here for the billions spent. While people may feel content that we are spending on our defence, it is a huge part of our spending which is remote in terms of what I am likely to see in my lifetime. The accountant in me, small though he is, shrinks at the disproportion, let alone the lack of product. Remember the F-111 ?

More morally despicable is the huge amount, again in billions, being spent to keep 20-40,000 refugees coming here by boat, as opposed to those who can get in by plane freely. It is a fact that most of these desperate people (mostly genuine refugees) could be accommodated and cared for by their own ethnic communities here at minimal expense. The simple way to defeat the “business model” of the people smugglers is simply to undercut them. If we assisted the boat people to get here, there would be NO people smugglers. We could even charge these desperate folk a nominal fee to get off a boat here (the accountants should like that !). But to spend billions on “border protection”, Manus and Nauru, apart from being in breach of human rights law, and the Refugee Convention, makes no sense, especially in economic terms.

Another great sink-hole for government funds is the extensive and oppressive operation of pension and unemployment benefits. The monumental costs of operating a system for the unemployed which requires persistent and multiple job applications for jobs which do not exist, is simply throwing money at a problem which does not lend itself to a solution by persecuting the victim. This money should be spent finding jobs for those who are out of work. But, beancounters take note, the government has actually privatised job finding, which is even more replete with shonky operators than the education sector. Job-seekers are charged for a job being obtained and then garnisheed during the period of employment, and the employer also pays for the service. The government subsidises this travesty. Where is the value for money here? Even the administration of the age pension, the last lifeline of human dignity for many, is wastefully bureaucratic and less than helpful, with constant reviews. To speak on the phone to Centrelink usually entails a wait of hours. There must be a beancounter who can get better value for money.

Well, we hardly need to get onto the “privatisation” and commodification of education. While our universities are now directed to selling a product to wealthy overseas students, which hardly fits with Newman’s concept of the university as a place of study and search for truth, that is sad but not as bad as the selling of “educational products” through profit-oriented businesses. That the government has funded this denial of what education should be ought to start beancounters’ bells ringing. Only now are the shady operators selling dubious “qual;ifications” with doubtful incentives, ripping off the revenue to pay for the process, and when they are caught , they disappear into the woodwork. Where is the value for money, once we’ve prosecured the shysters.

If we stopped throwing money away on all these things, we might even not have the ludicrous election “debt crisis” propaganda. Come on, beancounters, speak up !

Jim Coombs is a retired magistrate and economist.

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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