The verdict on the Australian government from Melbourne’s policy think tank, the Grattan Institute, is that it’s good but could do better and has ignored too many problems for too long.
The Commonwealth Orange Book 2019 report, released on Tuesday night, focuses on 11 policy areas and looks at reforms that could be easy wins, high priorities, or which should be reviewed or delegated to state governments or ministers.
The report comes as both sides of politics gear up for an election on May 18, in what Grattan’s CEO John Daley said will be an election shaped by policy “way more” than the last few elections.
“The parties are a mile apart on tax, capital gain, negative gearing, family trusts, thin capitalisation of overseas companies,” he said. “It’s about a $20 billion a year difference, that’s big enough to care about.”
The problem, John Daley told Business Insider Australia, is that the one time you expect to not see any movement on policy is “during an election campaign”.
“This report is for a government when they’re elected,” he said. “They should pick it up the day after they’re elected.”
International scorecard: Australia needs to up its game
Grattan’s report finds on many social issues, Australia is not doing especially well compared to its peers. The areas in which we lag behind include schools, dwellings per adults, housing costs, homelessness, high electricity prices and pollution, low reliability.
It also notes that “trust in government is falling” and that many Australians now believe the government is corrupt. In the 2018 Corruption Perception Index Australia ranked in 13th place. We were noted as a decliner in the international rankings in that year.
The index is a ranking of 180 countries and territories by experts and businesspeople based on perceived levels of corruption within the public sector.
In 2008, Australia tied at 9th place with Canada, who continues to occupy those lofty heights. “Our perception is that Australia is a clean country – but we’ve been slipping through the rankings,” Daley said. “[But] none of the parties are talking about integrity reform.”
He said the fixes were simple: limit campaign spending, create and enforce a register of lobbyists, create and enforce a conflict of interest code, create an integrity commission with teeth, and make ministerial diaries and events transparent.
The Coalition used its recent budget to give $104.5m in funding over the forward estimates for an integrity commission – though additional money will also be given to existing integrity bodies to enhance their functions.
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The shadow treasurer Chris Bowen has previously said Labor would legislate within 12 months of taking office and begin with “an extensive process of consultation and expert advice”.
“We note that the Government funded a National Integrity Commission with $104.5 million over four years in the 2019 Budget,” Bowen told Guardian Australia. “We will at least be matching that commitment, and if additional resources are required after the design is finalised we will ensure those resources are provided.”
Daley said the Commonwealth government was a long way behind the states, who should be looked to for how to improve. Some of the states have watchdogs with big teeth, NSW’s ICAC brought down Barry O’Farrell over a bottle of Grange. Victoria’s IBAC is about to get more powers, while Queensland’s ICAC provides oversight of their system. However, he also said the Commonwealth needed to prod the states into fixing festering issues around housing and planning.
“If you had a big bucket of money to spend [the Commonwealth] should provide incentives to states and local councils to change planning rules to allow more medium density and use that money to benefit existing residents,” Daley said.
“Spend it on local facilities and spend it on making it a nice neighbourhood. If you want your children to have a nice home you will need to have more density in your suburb.”
He said previous efforts from the government to improve affordability, like the National Rental Affordability Scheme had been a bad use of public money. He said these schemes had subsidised private landlords and had acted as a random lottery for who would receive cheap rent, often not going to those who needed it most.
The report calls for the Commonwealth to “establish a National Housing Research Council as an independent statutory body with a mandate to collect nationally consistent data on issues related to housing supply and demand, including data on the operation of state and local government land-use planning systems, infrastructure charges and migration.“
What we do well
However, in some areas, we do well. These include longer life expectancies from our health system, retirement incomes being sufficient – except for renters – and value for money from the government in health, education, and retirement.
“We’ve seen a commonwealth government tighten up how much it pays for drugs relative to the rest of the world,” Daley said. “We have made material progress on school funding, we still need to finish the job but it’s a lot better than it was.”
He said reforms on consolidating inactive super accounts were good, but more needed to be done to fix retirement.
Past governments much more reform focused, Grattan hopeful future governments can finish the job
Daley said the Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison government, which followed the Rudd, Gillard, Rudd government had failed in getting through any serious reform and walked back what reform had been made under the previous government.
“If you look at the reforms under Hawke-Keating, if you look under Howard, there were a lot of reforms done,” Daley said. “But a lot less has happened, and a lot that happened has been wound back.”
Daley said the key to making reform stick was three-term governments and elections which demonstrated the electorates commitment to reforms from government.
“Oppositions are prepared to die twice, but not a third time,” he said.
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