Integrity and accountability on Victorian public expenditure in 2016/2017

How many leaders would read another’s thoughts on ‘integrity and accountability on Victorian public expenditure in 2016/2017’? Digest them! Reflect on them! Then, as a social responsibility, act to improve governance of government for the benefit of more and more Victorian families and communities.

Take real action; rather than just talk about it! No spin! There’s too little space between a marketing spin and a social nightmare.

It’s an issue for any leader; any place in the world! Beyond politics and the market!

On December 14, 2016, journalists Alex White and Matthew Johnston reported on a blowout in Victoria’s public sector wage bill by $3.2 billion against the 2016-17 budget. White and Johnston also reported the ‘just announced’ cost ($???) of 2729 new police is not included in the Budget.

By my estimate $3.2 billion could mean government employing around 20,000 more people than they planned, or inexplicably increasing wage levels by that unplanned amount.

Unplanned expenditure of this magnitude questions government competence.

Journalistic reporting on budget blowouts and government accountability is vital. They are complex issues made harder on journalists by pressures on them from managers of media organisations. Therefore, responsible citizens must engage and encourage independent journalists to break imposed constraints and strengthen their investigations.

In relation to this blowout what questions must the Treasurer and treasury bureaucrats answer?

They know that budget planning was based on … “Employee expenses are forecast on the basis of staffing profiles and current salaries, conditions and on‑costs. For the forecast period, employee expenses are adjusted for the expected financial impact of employing more staff to increase service delivery and approved wage agreements, with allowance made for further adjustments and expected wages growth. Employee expenses forecasts also reflect the estimated impact of expected savings and new initiatives.”

How many more employees had they allowed for in the budget? In what government sectors and Local Government Areas were major services to be delivered? What wage agreements were newly approved to impact on the budget for 2016-2017? What wage agreements are still to be approved in this budget year? What allowances were made for further adjustments, i.e. nature and amount? What were the ‘savings’?

Journalists are important custodians of our democratic process. They must ask the right questions to provoke the right action from the right people in the right places, and they must enter this challenge to help more Victorians to flourish. Without investigative journalism, Victorians will not understand issues like those raised by Alex White and Matthew Johnston, and their impact on their families and communities.

Regrettably, Ministers and their political and media advisors seem captive to spin and post-truth; protecting their government and Party interests! Ahead of the public interest!

In relation to this budget blowout, what is the trigger point that will provoke the right action in the right places? What are the right questions regarding this trigger point? Who are the right people? What are the right places?

I think a trigger point here is whether government ministers can manage huge amounts of money without breaching public trust and diminishing human flourishing of many Victorians.

If the ‘blowout’ and the new police numbers are not in the budget, obviously they were not planned when the budget was presented to the parliament seven months ago. The Treasurer predicted a $2.9 billion surplus for the year. Now, seven months on we are informed it will be slashed by $1.2 billion, down around 40% to $1.7 billion.

How does this represent a government that plans and manages our resources well?

Who must rightly act on this? Is it the Victorian government auditor? What about those Local Government areas whose funding will reduce to keep ‘surplus’ projections on track? How will Parliament protect the public interest and trust?

The journalists reported the Treasurer said the downgrade was due to new spending on housing, Hazelwood power station’s closure assistance package, and infrastructure. Were these also unplanned at the time the budget was presented to the Parliament. And, was the expenditure additional to the wages blowout?

In total, how much was (a) the ‘blowout’ in the wage bill ($3.2 billion in seven months), (b) additional new spending on housing, (c) the assistance package, and (d) unplanned infrastructure spending? $4, 5, 6 billion?

If changes in (a), (b), (c) and (d) are $4 billion, and the budgeted surplus reduced by only $1.2 billion, other changes totalling $2.8 billion have been made in different revenue and expenditure accounts.

These changes would have to come from (i) planned recurring expenditure unspent, (ii) planned infrastructure expenditure unspent, (iii) tax revenues higher than budget, (iv) grant revenues higher than budget, (v) budgeted asset sales yielding more than expected, or (vi) services and other income higher than budget.

And, for each additional billion in (a), (b), (c) and (d) above, the net amounts covered by 1-vi increase by $1 billion. These are billions! Have we lost all social perspective and sense of value when a Treasurer gets away with glib responses for huge amounts.

I think the right people in the right places should be asking the Treasurer for an accurate reconciliation between the budget and actual figures. But who are the right people to bring this important information to the public, thus holding government accountable?

Is it the Auditor-General? The Opposition Leader? Is it the Speakers, acting independently to demonstrate the authority of the people’s Parliament? Who would we trust?

Other questions arise! What programs were affected? What Local Government Areas were affected? On what basis were programs eliminated in 2016/2017? Did these decisions accord with the public trust principle? This is public money! All decisions must be made in the common public interest. Ahead of any other agenda!

According to the Auditor-General The Integrity and Accountability Legislation Amendment (A Stronger System) Bill 2015 is currently before the Parliament and covers ‘follow-the-dollar’ powers. But will this protect the public interest, which requires the right action to be taken by the right people at the right time. Politicians do not have a great record on this!

Journalists are protectors of our public interest; for the human flourishing of Victorians. Yet, White and Johnston only seem to talk about the numbers, with some quotes from the Treasurer and shadow Treasurer. There is nothing to shine a light on flaws in budget planning. No substantive answers to the question, ‘why’ has all this happened?

Government exists to manage our State’s economy, so Victorians will flourish! For 2016/2017 are efforts of our politicians and their explanations credible? Superficially, you’d have to wonder.

Here’s an action all leaders can take. Engage and encourage independent journalists in your sphere of influence. Personally! Relationally! To fulfill their vital traditional roles as protectors of the people; properly informed through your spheres of influence. That could be really good news! Or, sign up with AMEP to do so.

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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