Wondering what the hell happened to all of those promises of “lifting the veil of secrecy” in victoria ? Well don’t look at the latest audit report its a bit toothless according to our man on the ground.

The Review, they assert, is balanced and positive. There is no trace of a Kennett witch hunt. Rather, the reviewers hold that the contracts entered into by the Kennett administration delivered substantial economic benefits to Victoria. They add the rider that the Coalition should have cast an eye over the social, environmental and regional aspects of these myriad agreements.

So, at this very early stage of a reading of the Audit we know that the reviewers have very large bottoms. One of the most important pre-requisites for sitting on the fence is a big fat bum. Messrs. Russell, Waterman and Seddon should perhaps contemplate a diet.

To give them their due, the Review is a shining light of clarity of exposition. One may actually read long tracts concerning the contractual adventures of the Kennett regime and fully understand the nature of the process. For that the reader must be grateful.

Ken Davidson in the Age (8/6) immediately pointed to a pre-existing problem with the constitution of the membership. Ewan Waterman is Executive Director of Access Economics. This is the so called think-tank which provided the economic input for the 1993 Victorian Audit Report which endorsed the Government’s rush to privatise.

Moreover Access Economics is responsible for the economic evaluation in the Report. As Davidson writes, it is hardly surprising that the privatisation process receives an endorsement. The Review members point to the $11 billion that the Victorian Government has to pay to private sector contractors over the next twenty years but does not regard this as an unreasonable financial obligation. The Victorian public may demur.

The Review’s terms of reference are sufficiently narrow to allow a conclusion that it is a waste of time and resources. For instance, while it may examine contracts, it “has not attempted to investigate or review in depth the tendering processes which led to the award of those contracts.” (Volume 1, page 6) Thus, the vexed issue of the Casino tenders is neatly by-passed.

So, while the panel has selected seven Case Studies concerning particular contracts, and while one of these is the Crown Casino contract, the tendering for that contract which is at the very heart of public consternation, is missing. Premier Bracks has nicely provided the fence upon which the panel may sit.

The general comments regarding four case studies – CityLink, prisons, public transport and public transport ticketing – are motherhood statements. They point to a need for open and transparent dealings; the public has the right to know and to be consulted. They suggest that the previous government made contracts in haste and secrecy. No one would argue with any of this.

The Review expresses satisfaction with the sale of Victoria’s electricity industry. It accepts the input from Access Economics that the retirement of state debt and the correspondingly lower debt interest payments offer a better economic benefit than has the Victorian public retained control of this massive infrastructure.

The case study of the Grand Prix makes for startling reading. The terms of reference, as with the Casino contract, exemplify the shortcomings of the Review. While a long list of secret contracts have been examined and have been recommended for either public release or, at the very least, negotiation for release, the Grand Prix contract is, under no circumstances, to be exposed.

Why? This is outlined in Volume 1, page 202. While the panel has joined that select group to have seen the contract, it “has not been authorised to disclose its terms as to do so would conflict with the Government’s wish to continue to stage the event.”

Why bother to spend time and energies on the GP contract when one cannot get to the nub of the matter? Both the Casino and GP contracts have been the sources of great public angst. There have been consistent allegations that go to the core of government probity. There has been plenty of bad air surrounding these documents yet the Government has firmly kept the door shut.

An Audit Review ought be allowed to do its job. To narrow the scope of its power is to belittle the members of the panel and, more seriously, to reinforce the view that the present administration differs only in degree from the previous regime. Anyone who regards open, consultative and fair governance in Victoria still has plenty of cause for concern.

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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