It’s less a phoney war than a phoney peace. The country is in a political twilight zone rarely experienced: the Government ensured it was prepared for an election weeks ago, but when the Prime Minister declined to fire the starting gun, it stayed in the blocks, unsure what to do with itself. It’s certainly not governing.
In Canberra, a weird calm has settled across the Public Service – all the work has been done to cost the Government’s election commitments, and few major new priorities are proceeding, even if Parliament returns later this month. Public servants are doing their tax returns and tidying their desks, tasks usually reserved for the caretaker period when, beyond incoming Government briefing, only run-of-the-mill administrative work can be done.
The public servants who will be busy once the campaign starts are in the Department of Finance. For all their unpopularity with spending departments, DOFA bureaucrats are amongst the hardest-working in the country. Because of its specialist skills needs, DOFA has suffered more, and earlier, from the tight labour market than any other department, and has been understaffed for years.
But there’ll be no respite once the election is called, because the Charter of Budget Honesty requires DOFA, together with Treasury, to prepare a “Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook”. The Government’s shift to more frequent financial reporting has taken some of the work out of the fiscal side, but it will still be ten long days and nights while the PEFO is prepared.
The Charter of Budget Honesty also allows for the Government and Opposition to submit their proposals for costing to DOFA during the caretaker period. But this purportedly independent assessment of the parties’ fiscal proposals is a political scam, and any Opposition with half a brain will avoid it like the plague.
The problem is that Governments have access to it throughout the political cycle, and will have its commitments already costed via DOFA through the normal course of business. The Opposition can’t access DOFA until the election is called.
But more importantly, Oppositions don’t have the bureaucratic tools to properly cost proposals. Proposing a new program? It will cost far more than what you plan to hand out. You need bureaucrats to administer it, and plenty of them. And under DOFA’s costing formulas, each public servant, regardless of level, costs on average more than $140,000 per annum in salary, training and other on-costs. And that’s before accommodation and fit-out costs, or travel. Virtually any expenditure proposal is likely to come back from DOFA with a huge mark-up. Headlines about “budget black holes” and “funding shortfalls” are a short step away.
The ALP wisely avoided this trap in 2004 and had one of the big accounting firms check their maths instead. The move infuriated do-nothing Finance Minister Nick Minchin, who put a counter on his website ticking down the days Labor had to submit their proposals. The Australian suggests today that Labor will again go private for the costing of their commitments. This is one piece of outsourcing the Government will definitely object to.