Opinion Pieces

It's not just juggling the numbers, Finance in government should be about communities

January 18, 2019

The Logan Entertainment Centre is 1177 kilometres away from the Department of Finance building in Canberra. Late last year, it played host to ChangeFest, an important event that encourages and inspires place-based social change in communities like mine that experience entrenched pockets of disadvantage.
 
It was all about empowering communities to help tackle issues impacting them, whether it be poverty, access to education, or poor diet and lifestyle choices.
 
Communities like mine and the terrific social organisations that work within them might be the drivers for change and provide crucial local leadership, but they need support from governments and from the public service far away in Canberra that recognises and invests in their efforts. This includes the finance portfolio.
 
Budget repair and fiscal sustainability should always be the highest priorities of the finance department, and that won’t change if Labor comes to office. We are determined to make the budget more sustainable, pay down record debt, which has doubled under the Liberals, and build buffers against substantial international uncertainty.
 
But as the shadow minister for finance, I’m concerned a limited, even caricatured view of the department has been allowed to develop which shrinks its role and influence rather than enlarging it.
 
Of course, finance will be called upon to prevent poor spending and to prioritise long-term bang-for-buck over the short-term political demands of the day. But Australians should expect more than a reactive “no” to spending bids pitched up by other ministers. They should expect the custodian of the nation’s purse strings to create good; not just stop the bad.
 
In its most basic form, Labor’s economic framework is about advancing the “fair go”, with inclusive economic growth, genuine reward for effort, and a decent social safety net for those at risk of being left behind. We want to make the tax system fairer so we can pay down record debt and make room for game-changing investment in early education, schools, TAFEs and universities; affordable housing; tax breaks for business investment onshore; better hospitals; and much more.

This relies on a far broader set of tools than just provisioning for billions of dollars in direct investments and grant funding for the states, as crucial as that is.
 
It means co-investment in green jobs and advanced manufacturing, through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, ARENA, the Northern Australian Infrastructure Facility and the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation; or through initiatives like Labor’s proposed Australian Manufacturing Future Fund.
 
It involves creating new markets for superannuation investment in infrastructure so that more of the nation’s $2.8 trillion in retirement savings can be invested in nation building infrastructure.
 
It includes a new National Rental Affordability Scheme, which incentivises institutional investment in rental properties. And it depends on looking for other ways to facilitate impact investing in difficult social challenges, creating win-wins economically and socially in areas like early childhood, aged care, and more.
 
Our new approach for finance includes getting much more out of the tens of billions of dollars that the federal government spends each year on goods and services, better value for money out of information technology, and ensuring big infrastructure projects employ at least one Australian apprentice for every 10 workers on the job.
 
It’s based on making the Australian Public Service more capable of delivering on national goals; first with the necessary triage that would abolish the false economies of an arbitrary and unnecessary staffing cap, and create more Human Services jobs, and then by considering the longer-term recommendations of the Thodey review currently under way.
 
Our approach is about harnessing data for positive social purposes and not just to catch and demonise those caught by the ‘robo-debt’ debacle. We need to care enough about our most disadvantaged communities to empower local leaders and facilitate place-based social change like that discussed at ChangeFest.
 
None of this new approach detracts from the core focus on budget management; if anything, it adds to it. Our refreshed approach will involve finding ways for budgets to better facilitate long-term thinking, including longer 10-year costings of policies and a more informed discussion of the long-term economic and social benefits of specific policies. Just as important will be an understanding of and appreciation for the delayed fiscal gratification of particular types of interventions and investments.
 
We are asking Australians for the responsibility of governing in their interests and making sure the fair go is a part of the country’s future, not just something kids read about in history books. That means a bigger, more impactful and creative role for the finance portfolio in government, which recognises that while budget repair is a primary goal, more can be done at the same time to facilitate inclusive growth in the community.
 
This opinion piece first appeared in The Canberra Times on Friday, 18 January 2019.

WE'LL PUT PEOPLE FIRST