Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
More than $5.9 billion in government and not-for-profit funding for Indigenous programs is disappearing into a black hole because no one is really tracking what is happening to that money and whether it is delivering results.
Although there is much goodwill in Australia to improve Indigenous outcomes, too many programs are implemented because of their perceived benefit rather than a rigorous assessment of what works.
Of 1082 Indigenous-specific programs identified in a review of government and non-government programs, only 88 (8%) have been evaluated. And of those programs that were evaluated, few used methods that actually provided evidence of the program’s effectiveness. On the whole, Indigenous evaluations are characterised by a lack of data and an overreliance on anecdotal evidence.
But calling for more evidence does not mean adding to the voluminous collection of meaningless data that already exists. Currently there are seven federal government reports reporting on Indigenous outcomes and disadvantage. Together, these reports and the data that accompany them come to more than 7000 pages, with much of the data duplicated across the reports.
Instead of endless data monitoring the lack of progress in ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes, the government should focus on making organisations and agencies formally account for how they are spending money. This can only be done by providing credible evidence of the program’s impact and whether it is meeting its intended objectives — and making this evidence publicly available.
Because of the lack of accountability there have been cases of outright fraud, such as the 44 organisations being investigated by compliance officers at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Indigenous Affairs Group for misuse of funds. One organisation had not filed any annual reports for eight years.
If Indigenous people are to ever benefit from the considerable investment by government and the not-for-profit sector, the lack of accountability that has plagued the Indigenous sector must end.
The Turnbull government is correct to put budget repair centre stage for next week’s opening of parliament and put the heat on their opponents over this issue. The focus on a package of hitherto unlegislated budget savings totalling $6.5 billion serves these purposes, but nobody should pretend it is anything more than a flea-bite to the budget deficit.
The headline quantum of savings is a four-year sum, which in annual terms comes to less than $2 billion against a budget deficit running at $37 billion this year. The government insists it has a plan to shrink that to almost nothing within four years, of which the $6.5 billion package has already been counted as part.
For a host of reasons, however, the credibility of four-year estimates diminishes rapidly after year one. For example, the economic basis for the estimates becomes increasingly uncertain — and the basic technical assumption that spending and tax policies will not change becomes less meaningful — the further ahead one looks. The government’s ‘plan’ relies to a disturbing degree on income tax bracket creep to super-charge revenue growth, while expenditure continues to grow quite strongly and largely maintain its share of GDP.
The best measure of the budget problem is what the deficit has been in recent times, which is a range of $30-$40 billion, or a little over 2% of GDP. Australian governments have managed to close budget deficits of that magnitude or larger three times in the past 40 years, so it should be possible again, even if the international economic climate is less favourable now than in the previous episodes. The bigger concern is the reluctance within domestic politics to curb government spending.
The truth is we will need to see many more and larger budget savings than the package being lobbed before parliament next week.
Plebiscites and referendums are supposed to get citizens more involved and make politicians more responsive. But exercises in direct democracy are always risky. Ask the people to express their opinion and you might not get the result you wanted. Just ask former British PM David Cameron.
Although our Constitution requires a referendum to make changes to our foundational document, direct democracy is not a regular feature of Australian politics — and former High Court judge Michael Kirby has explained cogently why it should not become one.
Kirby is right. For one thing, Australians rarely vote to approve referendum and the two World War I plebiscites failed. But Kirby is also right because in our system of parliamentary democracy politicians are voted in at elections by the people and expected to work on our behalf.
Leave the politicians — rewarded with their good pay and generous superannuation — to do their job. Every few years we can review their performance and sack them if we wish.
There are many reasons why a plebiscite on same-sex marriage is not a good idea. But like it or not, this is the plebiscite we’ve got to have. Tony Abbott promised it, and Malcolm Turnbull picked up that pledge and took it to the election in July. Turnbull has promised faithfully to honour the result.
None of this has stopped plebiscite opponents from trying to block it. They tell us it is too expensive, the start of a slippery slope, or will unleash hatred and bigotry. These are all specious arguments which threaten harm to the very cause the opponents claim to support: marriage equality.
Turnbull can’t afford to waver on the plebiscite promise he made to the Australian people. Nor can he afford to grant a conscience vote on the floor of the House of Reps. Parliament should pass the plebiscite bill and proceed to put the matter to the country at the earliest opportunity.
Failure to do so will undermine Turnbull’s fragile authority and set back the cause of marriage equality — something to which the PM is committed — until well beyond the next election.