Wednesday, May 7, 2014


My take on the Commission of Audit.

a real feral abacus

As in the Canberra Times on Tuesday . . . 


Almost exactly a year ago, I was standing with a glass of sparkling white in my hand chatting to then opposition Treasury spokesman, Joe Hockey. The function was put on by a government instrumentality: in the hope, presumably, of convincing our politicians that it should continue occupying a vital, untouched role in Australia’s future. Then, and quite suddenly, our small talk was rudely interrupted by one of the organisation’s Board Members. He was a prominent person who should have known better, but he abruptly barged in and began talking to Hockey.

What surprised me wasn’t his rudeness – that’s par for the course with many who believe they are, or should be, masters of the universe. Nor was I even particularly shocked by the political stupidity of the proposal he was putting to the putative Treasurer: merging the ABC and SBS. Self evidently this would have meant picking a needless and gratuitous fight with a significant constituency before an election, but the ideologically driven businessman wasn’t worried about that. He was convinced of the need for chance and couldn’t see anyone else’s objection. He wanted it driven through and damn what anyone else thought. And it was this was that bemused me. That someone so (supposedly) clever, acting as the head of a significant, semi-government body, could be so detached from reality as to believe by just clicking your fingers change could be waved in regardless. Oh and, of course, that he was stupid enough to blurt it out in front of me, a journalist he didn’t know.

There never seemed to be any point in relating this incident, let alone identifying anyone – until now. I’d felt certain that even this government would never take crackpot ideas like that seriously. This was, of course, before the reckless blueprint of the Commission of Audit thumped down onto the desk. Although the person referred to above didn’t write it, he might as well have. It’s a document unburdened by current intelligence, let alone any knowledge of history. The Commission has taken every wacky proposal out of cryogenic storage (no idea too stupid!) and sent them out for a spin. It seems that about the only idea that didn’t get a guernsey was, in fact, the proposal put forward by the ‘respected businessman’ referred to above. Or the idea to privatise the ABC itself. But wait a minute. They do! Yes, thanks to the internet we don’t need public broadcasters any more because the private sector will do it all for us! Perhaps even this government will blanch at that particular idiocy although only God knows why – every other lunacy has been put forward.

The document is jam packed with similar ideas. That’s why it takes some time to thread your way through before discerning the intellectual underpinning behind the Audit. That’s when all becomes clear. Imagine wandering, lost in a forest, on a dark night. You discern a light ahead and make for it, hoping to find your way forward. It’s not until you enter the clearing you realise the space is full of baying wolves, excited by the light, yet uncertain what to do now they’ve caught it.

Examine how the Audit would eviscerate the military. The Defence Material Organisation would be abolished. Well, perhaps sending oversight of purchasing back to desk-bound officers in Russell mightn’t be so bad . . . although it was the desire to eliminate exactly this system that led to the creation of DMO in the first place. The Audit hasn’t come up with any answer to the original problem. Like a young child who becomes tired of one bauble, the audit has immediately reaches out to pick up another. The toy they don’t possess always seems more desirable than any they have.

Then there’s ASC, formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation. The Audit would privatise this at once. So would’ve Labor – if it could find a buyer. Face it; nobody’s interested in Australian manufacturing and the taxpayer, that’s you, has a big investment in this ridiculous structure. Privatising today would simply crystallise the loss.

Why not simply follow the Audit’s logic and outsource the armed forces as well? Give colonels the money and let them raise their own battalions. Oh, wait, no, we tried that a couple of hundred years ago before deciding there was a better way. Private interests aren’t the same as public ones and sometimes business isn’t actually designed too or best at producing public goods. By cooperating and acting together we can achieve more than by setting everyone running towards a distant objective of a huge bundle of money. Although that’s obviously not how the dull compilers of the Audit view their monochrome world.

They’ve produced a bible for the benighted, an audit of alienation, reducing everything to numbers and dispensing with the need for society. I urge you to read through it because there are wonders on every page. I first thought the Kangaroo and Emu were on the front because they’re part of our coat of arms, but now I see I got that bit wrong too. The emu is there because it picks up every gaudy bit of tinsel and thinks it’s found something precious, while the ‘roo is there to bound away directionless.

At some point during a party’s first term in government, the public forms a view of how maturely it’s behaving. Is this a government of grown-ups and can it be trusted to run the country, or not? That Hockey could, even if just for a moment, manage to consider some of the wackier ideas here seriously doesn’t auger well for the future. Let’s hope the Budget displays some return to common-sense.


  1. Sir Nic.... my suggestion is that the Australian Government sell Parliament House to Mirvac, Stockland, Westfield (or some such property company or trust) and then lease it back. The PH staff could all be outsourced such that everything is leased or contracted. The MPs and Ministers could 'enjoy' the levels of service that the rest of us experience daily. By the way there is something called Hockeynomics which deserves a critique all of its own.

  2. Dear Sentinel,
    I should have followed up your comment about 'Hockeynomics' before the budget!