How to Radically Transform Governance in Australia. Seriously.

Sometime I exaggerate in my blog headings. I admit I have somewhat of a propensity towards hyperbole.This is not one of those cases: this has the very real possibility of radically transforming governance in Australia.

What is this you ask? The  concept is simple: create an easily searchable online database which includes all government expenditure. Down to the last cent. Sounds rather innocuous at first glance, yet the implications of such a creation are profound.

Think about it for a minute. No longer can governments hide wasteful spending away from the public eye. Rather, they shall be forced to become accountable. Rather than only a few bureaucrats knowing where taxpayer money is going, an army of citizen journalists will be able to scour the data. Point out waste. Create savings. How many projects do you think would withstand such scrutiny? How many rorts and junkets would have to be cancelled? How much duplication and waste can be found?

Such legislation has been tried and tested. It has bipartisan support. The legislation to create such a site at the US Federal Level was co-authored by Senators Coburn, McCain, and Obama. Half the states in the US have transparency websites. So does London. And the EU. The cost is minimal. The savings are huge.

Josh Armstrong from the Sydney University Liberal Club wrote this great policy paper on applying this to the Australian context. You should all read it. Seriously. Do it now. If you pay attention to just ONE blog post I write, make it be this one. Read it. Please.

The only people who would oppose such a thing are governments who have something to hide. Done properly, this can radically transform governance in Australia.

Update: You actually have to read the policy paper to be able to recognize the true genius of this plan. So far only about 25% of readers are doing so. PLEASE read the paper.

Update 2: The Sunlight Foundation has a list of “insanely useful Web sites for government transparency” that “provide a broad range of information available to track government and legislative information, campaign contributions and the role of money in politics.”

Update 3: Joh Henke at The Next Right has a great blog post on the politics behind transparency and how it can be achieved.

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14 Responses to “How to Radically Transform Governance in Australia. Seriously.”

  1. Ben Raue Says:

    Hmm, I’m skeptical of how much we can improve democracy by providing better information in this form. It’s a good step, as is providing a similar service in relation to donations, but I personally don’t see the way money is spent as the biggest problem in democracy in Australia and the West today.

    I think most people would say it’s more of a problem that very few voters actually are in a position where their vote influences the election result. It’s an important reason why turnout is so low in places like the UK, US and Canada, and why if we abolished compulsory voting you would quickly see turnout fall quickly. Changing the electoral system so that everyone’s vote actually mattered would be a huge advance. It would also likely see most elections result in hung parliaments, which is a massive advance for transparency and public involvement.

  2. Tim Says:

    You do this just to rile me don’t you? :-p
    In response though, I think that providing the public with information as to where their tax dollars are going is a crucial step in establishing participatory democracy, as well as in providing accountability to the government. Public scrutiny of government action is sadly lacking in Australia, and this will really help stop that.
    I also agree that a similar service should be set up re donations (in fact the initial policy paper Josh wrote included this), however I think these are separate issues, and accountability in this say if more feasable in the short term.

  3. James Wilson Says:

    I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction, but I am slightly skeptical myself, albeit for different reasons than Ben. I think that given the way every government for the past 10 years or so, state or federally has treated the Freedom of Information laws, and their dogged determination not to let the people see what’s happening, I find it difficult to see them supporting this.

    And sure, the people might be angry with governments not supporting transparency, but you need only look at the anti-war protests a few years ago, WorkChoices, the NSW Power Sell Off or a number of any other events to tell you that state and federal governments in Australia don’t give a rats about public opinion, unless of course it happens just before an election. Perhaps then, the best time to raise it would be in the lead up to an election, in a private member’s bill. And there’s certainly no way in hell the current NSW govt. would ever propose such a bill for obvious reasons.

    But if I were in parliament, I’d definately support it 🙂

  4. Ben Raue Says:

    Sure. I’m not saying it’s not useful. I just think it’s overblown. The Greens’ democracy4sale website is particularly good. Although it’s limited by the fact that the threshold is quite high and that it takes months for the data to be released.

  5. Tim Says:

    James – yes but with those things there were at least arguments on both sides of the issue (irrespective of what you think of their merit)
    how on earth can you logically oppose transparency/accountability?
    Glad to see we can agree on things still though 🙂

    And yes Ben I agree. Would be interesting to see it linked also to a website like the one i propose to see correlation between awarding of contracts etc and donations.

  6. Ben Raue Says:

    I think the more important point is that there’s only so much you can do to “radically transform governance” without changing the actual politicians in some way. Politicians have spent the last few decades doing their best to hollow out FoI laws, and would undoubtedly do the same to such a database. A little less job security for politicians would probably be the best thing to do.

  7. Tim Says:

    Would you support term limits?
    Although kinda hard in the westminster system.

  8. James Wilson Says:

    change the system! smash the state, burn the church! 😛

  9. God Says:

    Good idea, it just needs a State or Local Government to do it and put the pressure on Labor everywhere else.

  10. Tim Humphries Says:

    Excellent post! Transparency is achievable…

    My only worry is that it may make the public service more political. Measures would have to be included to maintain the independence of the public service.

    As long as the transparency information is kept to departmental level expenditures and not drillable down to individual public servants its worth looking into here 🙂 Bravo!

    When do we start the pressure group to get this one up and debated. It’d be awesome because if the stimulus package goes through a transparency package would aggregate some pretty interesting data.

  11. Natalie Says:

    I agree in principle however the implementation of a database of all spending seems akin to the internet censorship website database that you were so dismissive of, Tim.

    Whilst cost-effective, in terms of manpower and additional measures that politicians will take in an attempt to account for their spending and the entire government’s spending, I only see an increase in red tape, and hence I see this policy as promoting big government initiatives.

  12. Tim Says:

    Um. You are saying that letting people to know how taxpayer money is been spent is akin to censoring the internet. Wow nat, your desire to disagree with me for the sake of it is really, really going a bit too far don’t you think?

    As for your second point, emperical evidence in the US completly disproves that. As the paper demonstrates.

  13. Natalie Says:

    1) Empirical, not emperical

    2) I’m not disagreeing with you for the sake of it, I am simply saying that notwithstanding a visible database of spending being made available to the public, politicians will just resort to other unsavoury tactics of subterfuge and become more discreet and more illicit in how they perform transactions and accept donations in an attempt to avoid accountability.

    Furthermore, I’m suggesting that due to the fact that there are so many levels of government and bureaucracy that all receive money and spend money one way or another, the task of having a register document all of this seems to be endorsing such big government minded spending. On that note, maybe such a system will encourage the government to get rid of some departments to the complexity and sheer size of the task that such objectives for transparency require.

    I agree with you, I do not disagree. I am merely pointing out some forseeable problems with this model. We must bear in mind that not everything that works in America operates in a uniform manner in Australia.

  14. Ben Raue Says:

    Hmm, I probably would support term limits. Say a limit of ten years service as Prime Minister or Premier. It gets much more difficult to impose limits on ministerial service or being an MP. But I wouldn’t consider it a priority issue.

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