Here’s an idea. In order to improve the confidence of the public in democracy, the federal government should embed ‘Taxpayer Compliance Officers’ in cabinet and the Expenditure Review Committee. The role of such officers would be three-fold. They would have a general responsibility for ensuring taxpayers’ money was spent efficiently and not wasted, they would ensure compliance with all the processes and procedures appropriate to good government, and finally the officers would be proactive and would be charged with stopping bad policies before they were implemented.
Taxpayer Compliance Officers would sit in on cabinet meetings, pop in to the Prime Minister’s office to ask question the PM and the PM’s staff, and would read and vet all cabinet submissions. Officers would be embedded for up to three months at a time and would be regularly rotated to avoid them getting too close to ministers and public servants. Once a year, Taxpayer Compliance Officers would issue a public report detailing how the government was complying with its responsibilities to taxpayers.
Without doubt such a scheme would be immensely popular. Taxpayer Compliance Officers would help satisfy the public’s demand that government be more accountable and transparent, and the scheme would go a long way to demonstrating to the community that governments were complying with the social licence to operate. The involvement of Taxpayer Compliance Officers in every aspect and at every level of government decision-making would ensure that government acted in the best interests of the community and not simply for the benefit of whichever political party happened to be in power at the time.
If Taxpayer Compliance Officers were already in place, they’d be able to explain to the public the process for the decision of the federal government to give nearly half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ funds to an organisation with six full-time staff, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, without a tender process and without the Foundation even asking for the money.
Such a scheme would overturn most of the principles of representative and parliamentary democracy, but many would argue that the public’s trust in politicians is now so low that drastic times call for drastic measures.
Taxpayer Compliance Officers sounds like a radical idea – but it isn’t. On Tuesday, the Turnbull government announced such a scheme to apply to the private sector, whereby staff from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission will be embedded in banks. At his press conference when the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, was questioned about the scheme – “Treasurer, can I ask, if it will work, can it be extended to other sectors, like mining companies, insurance companies, super funds you heard are problematic too?” – the Treasurer replied: “We have an open mind on all of these things. Take the Banking Executive Accountability Regime. I’ve flagged very clearly that we’re keen to extend that into other sectors once we’ve stood up the model and it’s working … “
The Banking Executive Accountability Regime gives the government the power to decide who financial institutions can employ in executive positions and how much those executives can be paid.
What will be left of the free enterprise system in Australia after the Coalition government is finished with it is anyone’s guess.
If the Coalition is going to start embedding government officials to monitor and control non-government organisations, there’s no reason why the Coalition should stop at the banks. Before Labor rushes to embrace the government’s plan for the banks, it might stop to consider its reaction to the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner embedding its staff in the headquarters of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union or the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority embedding its staff in the offices of industry superannuation funds.
Treasurer Scott Morrison said he was open to the idea of extended the embedded ASIC staff to other sectors if it worked. Luis Ascui
In these pages yesterday, Professor Rodney Maddock of the Monash Business School outlined in convincing and persuasive detail why the federal government is so bad. As he wrote in relation to the government’s regulation of the finance sector – “There are fundamental issues of privacy, of private ownership, of the freedom to run a business, and of responsibility for the outcomes, which need to be discussed.”
Unfortunately that’s a discussion the Turnbull government at the moment either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to have – or both.