Small Government Does Not Mean Cheap

If you ever want to feel generous, have a flick through the recent press releases of the Commonwealth’s Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

You may not realise it but you recently purchased a low thermal mass kiln and waste heat dryer, and you kindly gave it to a company called Lincoln Brickworks in Wingham. It cost just over $300,000.

You also purchased an anaerobic digester, a new distillation column, a reverse osmosis plant and heat pump heating system, and a transcritical refrigeration system. These were wrapped up and shipped off to a few more lucky companies. You also helped a firm called Norvic Food automate its meat-processing line, which is probably much more violent than it sounds.

That’s how the Commonwealth Government handed out $3 million for the fourth round of a program called Re-tooling for Climate Change. Sounds like a worthy cause? Maybe. But there are 100,000 manufacturing companies in Australia. And less than 0.04 per cent of those will get any benefit from these grants. The Re-tooling for Climate Change program is not going to make much of a dent in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

One might even say the program is an extraordinary waste of money.

We all like to imagine the tax we pay only goes towards nice things. You know, things like teachers, judges, doctors and the maintenance of public parks. But let’s face the harsh truth. The Commonwealth Government spends one quarter of our total gross domestic product. And it fritters away a hell of a lot of it.

Take the $20 million we’re handing to a public relations firm to rebrand the entire country. Launching Building Brand Australia, the Trade Minister, Simon Crean, said: “We must find a better way to define our identity.”

No doubt the specifics will be nutted out over a series of long lunches, with many scoping documents and research papers exchanged. And if we’re lucky, it’ll end up being another government ad campaign. Sometimes it seems as if politicians only spend taxpayers’ money to see what colour it makes when it burns.

Both sides of politics are to blame for our massively bloated government. In his first few years as prime minister, John Howard made a valiant attempt to cut back some of the excessive spending of the Keating years.

But by the early 2000s, his government was accumulating policies, initiatives, programs, and, of course, public servants, with the gleeful enthusiasm you expect from conservatives who have made their peace with taxing and spending. In his speech launching his 2004 election campaign, Howard reportedly made spending promises at a rate of $94 million a minute.

But Kevin Rudd was elected vowing to reverse the extravagance of the Howard years, and, endearingly, to “take a meat axe” to the public sector.

Since 2007, the Rudd Government has hired another 7000 bureaucrats.

Kevin Rudd wants his 19 cabinet ministers to fix obesity, deliver broadband, halt climate change, spark innovation, hide internet porn, end cigarette smoking, abolish nuclear weapons and make petrol cheaper.

In October, it even released a Proposed National Strategy on Body Image. Such national strategies don’t write themselves of course, so the government instituted a National Advisory Group on Body Image.

We have government-funded industry innovation councils because politicians presume that industry wouldn’t be able to innovate without their help. We have the politicians handing out “community leadership awards” because, as we all know, people won’t help their communities if there aren’t prizes.

The report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, released this week, wondered why “none of the major public goods of Web 2.0 have been built by governments”. The founders of Twitter and Facebook didn’t rely on government funding. The task force’s confusion is apparent: don’t all good things require tax dollars?

But when you try to do everything, it’s hard to do anything well. In October, we gave $40 million to Australia’s space program. Did you even know Australia had a space program?

In a speech in late November, the Secretary of the Treasury, Ken Henry, argued that Australia will probably never have a smaller government than it does now.

It’s important to realise that a small government doesn’t necessarily mean a cheap government.

We want to pay top dollar for the best public school teachers, the best doctors and nurses, the best courts, and the best law enforcement.

We’re failing this basic test. Our governments do a lot of things and do them as cheaply as they can get away with.

Still, Henry is right. Maybe Australia’s government will never be smaller. But could we at least try to make a little more focused?