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History shows there's no good excuse for broken promises

By Scott Prasser - posted Friday, 29 May 2009


Eight weeks after the state election Premier Anna Bligh has announced that many of her campaign promises may have to be broken because of the global financial crisis.

Her declaration would seem to include not only promises covering new initiatives, but also assurances to retain existing arrangements such as the Queensland fuel tax subsidy.

While we might expect recently elected governments to be surprised by the extent of the collapse of revenue because of the impending recession, and to renege on promises, we should be suspicious that a government that has essentially been in power since 1998 is so conveniently surprised about the turnaround in the state's fiscal fortunes.

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Indeed, given that the state Budget is about to be brought down, then data and information about revenue and spending issues would long have been known by Treasury in the preparation stages before the election.

During the election the Premier campaigned heavily on the premise that only her government had the experience and competence to manage the impending financial crisis. Now we are told that the Budget black hole is a big surprise - some experience, some competence! How many other promises are now going to be broken because of the financial crisis?

Is the financial crisis an excuse being used too easily by governments in Queensland and elsewhere to renege on promises which they knew when they were being proclaimed on the election hustings were too extravagant and never able to be implemented?

Please let us not hear the excuse from the government that we heard too often from the Beattie administration about the overseas doctors, infrastructure and water crises -- that the government did not know and was not told about these issues. The Davies Royal Commission into the overseas doctors' scandal exposed just how much the Beattie administration and its ministers did know about this particular issue.

Bligh went to the electorate knowing that the economy was in decline; she wanted to avoid blame for a rise in unemployment, which is a perfectly defensible position. What is not defensible is that she did not know about the budgetary position that the decline in the economy would create. If the Premier did not know, why did she not ask the Treasury?

Whatever the motivations, we should not be blinded to the potential value of abolishing the fuel tax levy. A report commissioned by Commerce Queensland in 2006 suggested a review of this tax. Certainly, Treasury would probably have agreed. Such subsidies distort the market and the efficient allocation of resources leading to less-than-ideal policies.

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That the Bligh Government is considering the possible abolition of the fuel tax levy to meet the exigencies caused by its own lack of attention might be a case of politics delivering good policy for a change. Indeed, the present financial crisis offers Treasury opportunities to push for the ending of these sorts of expensive subsidy schemes. Expect more cuts to be announced.

Lastly, if the state Budget is as bad as is being suggested, then the Bligh Government, while seeking to blame the financial crisis for its predicament, needs to be held largely responsible for the cuts and for reneging on election promises. The Bligh Government does not have the luxury of being a new government that can easily blame its predecessor for lack of financial prudence. It either has to take full responsibility for the present situation, to admit it was not on top of the situation, or worse, that it knew but did not take the Queensland electorate into confidence during the election.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on May 22, 2009.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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