Coalition's 'laser-like focus' only sees what it wants to see | Lenore Taylor

Lenore Taylor
A report says the $5.3bn spent since 2001 trying to reduce the water extracted from the Murray-Darling basin achieved almost nothing. Photograph: Auscape/UIG via Getty Images

Scott Morrison likes to tells us about the government’s “laser-like focus” on getting spending under control and “repairing” the federal budget.

That’s why he is trying to force the parliament to swallow recooked versions of Tony Abbott’s welfare cuts, three years after they were tabled. It’s apparently the only way we can afford the Coalition’s childcare plans and possibly also decent services for the disabled and their carers under the national disability insurance scheme, although that linkage seems to come and go depending on political tactics.

It’s also why the government deems it necessary to push Centrelink debt recovery to the point where professional debt collectors are pursuing citizens for the tiniest amounts owed due to mistakes in calculating their entitlements, or for sums they don’t even owe.

But when misdirected or excessive spending is due to the government’s own mistakes, or to ill-conceived policy, that searing “laser-like focus” suddenly goes all soft and blurry.

Take the release of a report by the Australian National University Centre for Water Economics this week, with the startling finding that the $5.3bn spent since 2001 on trying to reduce the amount of water extracted from the Murray-Darling basin and environmental flows had achieved almost nothing.

That’s $5.3 BILLION dollars – more than the proposed welfare savings, enough to pay for the NDIS “shortfall” – that, according to the centre’s director, Prof. Quentin Grafton, has been spent with “no discernible impact”.

For a number of complex reasons, including where we drew the starting line for the efforts to return water to the crucial river system, and the way water entitlements operate, we discover that despite all that money and all that effort and all those studies, and all that shouting and burning of expert reports in the streets of country towns, we are in fact not taking less water from the river system. Which was, of course, supposed to be the point of it all.

One would expect that the politicians who oversaw those 10 years of apparently failed policy-making, which included both Labor and Liberal governments, would heed Grafton’s advice to urgently “stop what we’re doing” and conduct a proper review or audit. At the very least one would expect they would want to know how Grafton and his colleagues reached their damning conclusion. Especially since there may be an El Niño on the way, and a likely return to the dry or drought conditions that can devastate river ecosystems and the townships that rely on them.

But on Friday Grafton told me he has had no calls. “No one has responded from any political party, no calls, no emails, no one has got in touch in any way.”

A tiny alleged overpayment from Centrelink and we call in the professional debt collectors, but the possible squandering of $5bn in taxpayers money? Not a peep.

And then there was the recent report from the Australian National Audit Office about $3.5bn in federal government grants and concessional loans to Sydney’s controversial WestConnex road. It found the Abbott government’s $2bn concessional loan to the project (which the audit office says will end up imposing a net cost on taxpayers of at least $640m) did not “fast-track” the road – as the federal and state governments so excitedly promised – and was most likely not even necessary.

The Abbott government also gave the project $500m of its promised $1.5bn in grant funding long before it was actually needed, which imposed an extra $20m in cost on the commonwealth, and both the Coalition and federal Labor made initial commitments to fund the project in 2013 (that was, you may remember, an election year) before any business case for the project was finalised, although Labor insists its promise was contingent on a plan being finalised.

It’s the latest example of the pattern identified in last year’s Grattan Institute report, which found that much of the $28bn in cost overruns on federal and state infrastructure projects over the past 15 years could have been avoided if planning processes had been a little less reckless and politicians had refrained from promising projects before they had been subject to proper cost-benefit analysis, including in the run-up to elections. Imagine the schools and hospitals and disability services that could be paid for with $28bn.

The federal government did respond to the latest WestConnex report – but not in the way one might have anticipated given that “laser focus” on budget repair and getting the most from every taxpayer dollar.

No, the major projects minister, Paul Fletcher, insisted the report had made “no criticism of the project”, a conclusion he reached because the auditor did not criticise the road’s design and construction, being confined as he was to what Fletcher described as the “very specific and limited focus” of “the approval and administration of commonwealth funding”. Specific and limited, and – you might argue – very relevant.

Fletcher was keen to talk about “Labor’s hypocrisy on WestConnex” but not so much about the finding that the way the funding was handled had “not adequately protected the Australian government’s financial interests”.

But it all passed with barely a mention because this week the politicians were choosing to fight about penalty rates – who instigated a review and who did or did not support its fundings. The furore over the competing interests of the environment and Murray Darling farm communities was last year’s news, the controversies over proper process for massive infrastructure spending were not in the headlines and so could be batted away with a few quick lines in a press statement. Nowhere was there evidence of any focus – laser-like or otherwise – on serious suggestions of massive waste of public money.

There was one other Audit Office report this week, which is the perfect final stop for this brief tour of the somewhat selective nature of the government’s efforts on budget repair and efficient spending.

The report on the management of some fraud and compliance procedures did not look at the most recent and controversial system of automated data matching that is causing so much pain and anxiety, but it did find that precursor efforts to glean savings from the welfare budget had been ineffective.

Do we really need to ask why voters are utterly fed up with politics?

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