(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

Every year the federal government gives out tens of thousands of contracts to private businesses through a busted process which goes on behind closed doors.

The contracts provide plenty of jobs, but the government doesn’t advertise more than half of them publicly. In 2019-20, $1.5 billion of your cash was splashed around the private sector under the table.

But the government doesn’t seem worried about it.

If your car broke down, you’d take it to a mechanic. If that mechanic quoted you $10,000 to fix a flat tyre, you’d go to a different mechanic. But the government says no worries — it’s more than happy to be ripped off. What’s going on?

Politicians do not generally have much life experience. Beyond turning a sod here and there for the cameras, their well-moisturised hands are accustomed to the pen, not the wrench. This might explain why they are so loose with your money. But that doesn’t just fail the pub test, it disqualifies them from setting it.

The government leaves the business of building our nation to private businesses. And what a gigantic business it is. A lot of money is spent through a public tender process but any project worth less than $80,000 can be awarded to anyone — without scrutiny.

You can see where this is going.

In the past four years there were three times as many contracts between $78,000 and $80,000 — the threshold — than there were between $80,000 and $82,000. Coincidence? Come on. It’s like when something at the supermarket costs $9.99 as if we don’t notice it costs $10.

That’s not the only bit of wool they’re pulling over our eyes either. A contract that goes over budget and requires more taxpayer dollars on top is allowed to raid the public purse with no consequence.

So here we have another classic rort — and this one harms small businesses. They need all the work they can get while the country plays a never-ending game of wheel-of-fortune with the coronavirus.

A government contract could keep a small business going. Missing out might be the difference between staying open or closing their doors. When the government picks who gets the job without advertising it, small businesses don’t get a chance to shoot their shot.

The way the government spends money needs to be held to a standard. It bought the Leppington Triangle lot for the Western Sydney airport for about $30 million, when it was worth only $3 million. It saw no problem with that until the Australian National Audit Office made the rest of us aware. And then the government was as shocked as we were! Give me a break.

The government reckons it has money to fritter away on this rubbish but it will chase people to the ends of the earth over $500 its robodebt algorithm incorrectly guessed they owed.

Here are some solutions for how to stop this crap.

One: lower the tender limit so more businesses can compete and there’s more transparency. Make it so the government can’t rip us off for more than a few bucks at a time. Make it not worth it to even bother.

Two: get a decent cop on the beat to enforce the current standards. No more $79,999 contracts being tendered in the dark.

Three: if the costs blow out, that’s on the company, not the taxpayer.

Small contracts under the tendering threshold come in drips and drabs. They may not be as scandalous as buying a ridiculously overpriced bit of land near an airport, but $30 million is a drop in the ocean compared with the $1.5 billion free-for-all spent on untendered contracts in the last year alone.

Jacqui Lambie is an independent senator for Tasmania.

Crikey accepts submissions from all sides of politics which are in keeping with our editorial standards.

Peter Fray

Follow the team that follows the money

Nobody digs into corruption in this country better than Crikey does.

Now we’re digging even deeper with our new multi-part series, The Dirty Country: Corruption in Australia, where our team lifts the lid on corruption, telling us how it’s done, who wins and what it costs.

Get involved. Follow the team that follows the money. Save 50% on a year of Crikeythat’s just $99 for an annual membership — when you subscribe today with the promo code CORRUPTION.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW