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May 1, 2014

Meet the four men -- and one woman -- telling the government where to cut

Now we know what the government is considering. In the meantime, here's our cheat-sheet to the people giving the advice. (Most friends of the government, naturally.)

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If you thought you were being buttered up for government spending cuts before, you’ve seen nothing yet. The Commission of Audit’s report, which looks at the effectiveness of government spending, is released to the public at 2pm today. If the leaks and drops are anything to go on, it won’t be pretty.

So whose hands has this been put in? Here’s our cheat sheet to the four men and one woman telling our government where to cut …

Tony Shepherd

The audit’s chief commissioner Tony Shepherd stepped down in March from his role as head of the Business Council of Australia. The BCA doesn’t represent most Australian businesses — just the largest 100. It’s the ultimate voice of corporate power in Australia. That’s where Shepherd first made his mark — he worked his way up in Transfield Holdings after first joining the company in 1979. By 2005 he was chairman (he stepped down recently). He headed the BCA from late 2011.

His period at the body was, for the most part, a study in impartiality. While the organisation was a fierce critic of everything from the carbon tax to the Fair Work Act, it largely avoided directly attacking the government. That bipartisanship was broken during Shepherd’s parting address to the BCA in March. “The former government should be held to account for the budgetary decisions they made,” he said, adding that politicians had to stop pretending the budget was a “magic pudding”. It was a return to form.

Shepherd has long established ties to the Liberal Party, particularly in New South Wales, and while at Transfield was more than happy to wade into political debates. He warned, for example, of the dangers of Australia leading the world on climate change, stating that “tails do not wag dogs”.

Peter Boxall

Peter Boxall has been described as a “dry economist” by The Australian Financial Review (and by Crikey as a “rolled gold Liberal”). After spending the early part of his career at the Reserve Bank of Australia and the International Monetary Fund, he left the public service to become Peter Costello’s chief of staff in in the 1990s through opposition and into government, including during the Treasurer’s 1996 budget.

By 1997, however, he’d been appointed Department of Finance secretary, a position he held till 2002. He then moved on to the same position in the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, the body charged with implementing WorkChoices. In 2007, when the government changed, he landed on his feet, appointed to head the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. In 2009 he became a commissioner of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission — a plum job that dumbfounded Labor insiders, who wondered what he’d ever done for their side of politics.

He has a reputation as one of the public service’s “economic rationalists”. “I’m proud of it,” he told The Canberra Times when a reporter put the question to him in 2006. “I like to think of myself as a classic liberal. I think that the market has so much to offer and that there are a few areas where the government might intervene, for political reasons, or for other reasons, usually to do with redistribution of income and issues like that. But I think the Australian based market economy has done very well, as have the other market economies.”

Tony Cole

Tony Cole is a former Treasury secretary, and unlike many of the other names on this list, has never held any role with the Liberal Party. He joined the Department of Treasury after graduating, and then spent two years with the World Bank in the 1980s, which he credits with having been pivotal in developing his economic views. He then went on to hold various roles in the public service, culminating in his position at Treasury and his earlier position as head of the Industry Commission, which became the Productivity Commission.

He left the public service in 1994, and since then his views on matters of economic policy haven’t been predictably partisan. His instincts in the GFC were to do more rather than less. In 2008 he, along with seven other economists, wrote to Kevin Rudd suggesting he cut the rate of superannuation given to workers by 6% with the extra cash being passed directly to employees in their wages, to boost demand. Two years ago, he said it was inevitable that future governments would broaden and raise the GST.

Robert Fisher

Of all the commissioners, Robert Fisher is the most unknown. He’s never held a leading role in Canberra, having spent many years as a senior bureaucrat in Western Australia, where he was, among other things, director-general of the Western Australian Department of Industrial and Regional Development. He also worked in London for the WA government as agent-general, too.

He’s kept a low profile. Looking him up is more likely to yield references to the Federal Reserve president with the same name. In 2003, he was awarded an Order of Australia for services to policy development in WA.

Amanda Vanstone

Obscurity isn’t a problem for the last commissioner and only woman, Amanda Vanstone. The former Howard government minister and long-serving senator, who he twice demoted, remains powerful in the South Australian Liberal Party, where she’s hung out since finishing up her ambassadorship to Italy in 2010. A gifted media performer, she continues to have a voice in the media — she’s a regular Fairfax columnist, and also hosts a show on ABC Radio National.

Generally considered a “wet”, or moderate, she’s certainly got plenty of experience in selling unpopular policies and dealing with political controversy, having regularly done so throughout her ministerial career. She was minister of immigration during a tricky period, and minister assisting the PM for reconciliation when John Howard refused to apologise for the stolen generations. She was minister for employment for a year — her only economic posting in the Howard government.

*The embargo on the Commission of Audit is lifted at 2pm AEST — check back to the Crikey website for full analysis

Myriam Robin — Media Reporter

Myriam Robin

Media Reporter

Myriam has been Crikey’s media reporter since 2014. Before that, she was a business journalist with sister site SmartCompany, covering economics and corporate strategy.

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