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Taxing matters: Spending my tax matters to me

I HAVE been paying income tax for the best part of 35 years, always as a salaried employee who dutifully did their annual tax return and kept within the ‘rules’. I always felt paying tax was part of the societal contract we agree to when being part of an educated, healthy and peaceful society.

But here we are at tax return time and I’m suddenly agreeing with the late Kerry Packer, who in 1991 declared to the print media parliamentary enquiry, “If anybody in this country doesn’t minimise their tax, they want their head read. As a government I can tell you you’re not spending it that well that we should be paying extra.”

Pre-pandemic, the federal Coalition government had been going about its business whilst increasing the gross government debt from $175 billion when elected in September 2013 to $573 billion in March 2020.

Viewed in context of what the Coalition labelled a ‘budget emergency’ prior to their election, this is a staggering increase in debt – with little to show for it.

The NBN roll-out turned into a fiasco, and the use of the big 4 consultancy companies (who favour the Coalition with party donations) to do the work of the public service costs billions of dollars.

Private school funding has increased in a lopsided formula that sees nearly one in three private schools receive more funding than a similarly sized public school.

Under the justification of National Security, defence spending has blown out to 150 per cent of spending of all other departments combined.

An elected government obviously believes it has permission to spend money along ideological lines, and the Coalition has certainly done so. But given that Scott Morrison campaigned on the “if you can’t manage money you can’t run the country” line at the last election, we taxpayers should be concerned about two issues when the government spends our money – transparency and value for money.

Two recent reviews by the Auditor-General found the government’s spending to be poor value for money and open to conflicts of interest and brought into question the Government’s reliance on ‘limited tenders’.

Payments totalling $532 million were paid to a company called Paladin for security and housing of asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea. Paladin, who had no track record in this field and no experience with traumatised people, was chosen in a limited tender, and commenced operations with no formal contract or performance reviews in place for eight months.

Paladin went on to request a 40 per cent profit margin for their services (citing pricing risks due to short time frames – which was denied by the Home Affairs Department) and a $14 million ‘mobilisation fee’ (which was approved due to concerns over Paladin’s access to working capital).

The Auditor-General judged key spending benchmarks and financial probity had not been applied properly. No comment was made on the registered address of Paladin being a beach shack on Kangaroo Island, as this would be outside the remit of the Attorney-General.

Closer to home, the examination of the Government’s Murray-Darling water buyback scheme came under scrutiny by the Auditor-General, and the results were just as damning.

The water buyback scheme was found to not be “fully effective” and bureaucrats “did not consistently apply approved policy, planning and guidance” when assessing limited tenders.

Water entitlements were purchased directly from the entitlement holder rather than an open tender. Water Minister Barnaby Joyce was found to have directly intervened in the $70 million purchase of overland flow water (during a drought) from Kia-Ora and Clyde cotton farms in Queensland – part of the Cayman Islands-based Eastern Australian Agriculture company, of which Energy Minister Angus Taylor was a founding director.

The Senate is now examining the details of the sports rorts scandal, and initial findings confirmed the government was using taxpayer’s money for targeted vote buying (pork barrelling is too soft a description here) in the lead up to the last federal election. Marginal or Coalition electorates were deliberately targeted with largesse at the direction of Sport Minister Bridget McKenzie, with input from the Prime Minister’s office. Eligibility guidelines were being overridden, and more revelations of party political use of taxpayer money are expected when the Senate enquiry resumes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic the government has been quietly spending big on outsourcing its response.

Pollster Jim Reed was recently gifted $541,000 for three months work for COVID-19 ‘social research and expenses’ through a Morrison Government limited tender. Reed used to work for long time Liberal Party consultant Crosby Textor (who’s ex-CEO just happens to be Morrison’s Principal Private Secretary). Whether this ‘social research’ will be released to the public is unknown.

Aspen Medical also has Liberal Party links, boasting former Health Minister Michael Wooldridge on its board. Aspen Medical was contracted for ‘medical services’ following the COVID-19 outbreak at the Newmarch House aged care home in Sydney, and during the quarantine of the Ruby Princess at Port Kembla. In a sign the pandemic is far from over, Aspen Medical is $1.2 billion richer this month, thanks to a limited tender for ‘disease prevention and control’.

If I could stop my taxes paying for this crony capitalism and blatant enrichment off the public purse, I would. The imperative for a federal ICAC has never been greater.

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.