Victorian Public expenditure – breaking through dark mystique

In AMEP, our thesis is that the majority of Australians want unity, harmony, fairness, well being, and a ‘fair’ share of our national prosperity; all elements of human flourishing. The Victorian government even has a plan to achieve ‘well-being’ among all Victorians. Every local government area, i.e. Cities and Shires, are bound by legislation to implement their own plans. We support this great aspiration. We hope you do, too, and through your family groups, local communities and other networks will engage in this aspiration for all Victorians!

Using the Victorian government budget as a central piece in a ‘supply chain’, these articles try to track where money flows through political planning and budgeting processes to enhance human flourishing and well-being in these Cities and Shires; where family groups and communities of all Victorians live and breathe.

Previously, I wrote that there seems to be no obvious authority that regularly holds the Treasurer publicly accountable to report actual financial results, against the annual budget approved by Parliament.

I was wrong and I apologise.

There are the Council and Assembly of the Victorian Parliament. There are acts of Parliament that demand attention, one of which requires the Treasurer to present a Budget and Forward Estimates; and submit a review of progressive expenditure  to Parliament. Others detail matters to be covered in budgets and reviews.

Also, there is the Joint Public Accounts and Estimates Committee of the Parliament, comprising seven Parliamentarians across the Parliament.

Then, there is the Victorian  Auditor-General who must examine the financial accounts and report to Parliament.

On page 149 of the published review submitted by the Treasurer to the Parliament you will read, “The Financial Management Act 1994 (the Act) requires the Minister to prepare a budget update for tabling in Parliament each financial year. The provisions of the Act have been complied with in the 2016-17 Budget Update.”

However, despite all this machinery and process, we must question the level of public trust  we have in the transparency, accountability, management and reporting of Parliament. Do we trust the Parliament? Do we trust the agendas of Parties that dominate Parliament? Do we trust each other enough to achieve the goals set by the State of Victoria for the human flourishing and well-being of all Victorians?

Why is this ‘trust’ so important? Because human flourishing and well-being, which is the key goal in secular thinking and mainstream spirituality and religion, all begin with relationships that honor each other, are reliable, honest and constant; trustworthy.

By definition, if you’re not trustworthy, you’re “corrupt.”

In practice, how do public funds distributed by the State government agencies flow into Cities and Shire across Victoria, to effectively enhance human flourishing and well-being.

So, the Treasurer submitted a six-monthly review of the Budget to Parliament! There is a big glossy report! About this, I tried to track Parliamentary comments on his submission in Hansard. If there are any, they’re hard to find. Herald Sun journalists Alex White and Matthew Johnston provoked my interest in the deteriorating budgeted surplus for 2016/2017. But their report on the Treasurer’s submission, regarding our surplus falling by nearly 40% to $1.7 billion, opened up many more questions than it answered.

Why as a matter of public trustworthiness did the Treasurer not say in Parliament, and later media presentations, “Here is an easily understood reconciliation between the budgetted surplus of $2.9 billion, and the now forecast surplus of $1.7 billion?” Why could  the Speaker of the Assembly and President of the Council, independently on behalf of the people, request and expect the Treasurer do so? Focus your minds on the fact that this is about 1.2 billions of dollars?

From experience, I’m reasonably equipped to understand financial reports of large organisations. So, I searched! There in Chapter 3 of the Review on page 17 is a reconciliation between $2.9 billion and $1.7 billion. The long search ended! So I thought! But then I needed to explore the explanatory appendices. Then, I realised I’m not well-enough equipped to do this, and after some time, I gave up.

But, I didn’t give up altogether. I went to the pages of the Joint Public Accounts and Estimates Committee of the Parliament, and found this recommendation by the Committee, and positive response by the government.

“RECOMMENDATION 4: Future Annual Financial Reports for the State include discussion of significant variances between budget estimates and actual results for operating expenditure by government purpose classification.”

This sounds like a promising start! But then I read the “Action taken to date and commitment to further action”, from the Department for Treasury and Finance (DTF).

“DTF will seek to provide further clarification within the existing GPC tables by way of footnote where reclassifications between purposes or significant changes between budget estimates and actual results for operating expenditure have occurred in areas that have not already been explained in the commentary provided for significant variations on the financial statements.”

Doesn’t this type of language suggest why practical, commonsense people, who are the heartbeat of Victoria,  lack trust in bureaucrats and politicians?

Why couldn’t they have just said, “For purposes of the Treasurer reporting to Parliament, DTF will clarify significant changes between budget estimates and actual results for items comprising Victoria’s annual budget surplus/deficit position. Further, DTF will provide the appropriate Statement in review papers required by the applicable Acts of Parliament.”

Whether this information is favourable to the government, or not, submission of this simple Statement to the Parliament, would facilitate easier and, arguably, more effective public review of the Annual Budget position.

After all, this basic piece of information begins enquiry about the future financial capability of Victorian governments to facilitate enhancement of the human flourishing and well-being of all Victorians. It also begs journalistic questions about how government intends to bring the annual position back to balance, while preserving the long-term goals of flourishing and well-being of Victorians.

Forcing meaningful debate in our Parliament on the budget review, and enabling independent journalism, would be a valuable step towards rebuilding trust in our elected representatives and journalists. Both are called to bring deeper explanations on important issues that affect us.

Such a change will require a movement from us all. If you are interested in making a difference through this conversation, let your comments further the process.

Want to share your thoughts on this topic? Do you have an idea for a story?
Email bob.simpson@amep.org.au

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About Bob Simpson

Bob is project manager of The Australian Media Engagement Project (AMEP). He believes that ethical and independent journalists are vital to the continuing freedom of Australian citizens. You could argue that In recent decades media organisations have subtly subverted journalism to their own private commercial interests, and away from an integrated sense of fairness, well being and shared prosperity in Australian society, especially for the disempowered. AMEP aims to change general media narratives towards greater fairness, well being and shared prosperity in Australia.
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