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Monday, October 19, 2009

Ministers not so high on the hog

I like this from Rex Jory in The Advertiser in Adelaide today (no link) following reports based on Freedom of Information disclosures about ministers' spending on entertainment. Although I'd part company with Jory's "so what" about Grange at taxpayers expense. And the best way to avoid "shock-horror' reporting is to make this information available routinely, on the web. The public can distinguish dull from too flash, when it comes to use of our money.

"It was one of those elegant Sydney restaurants set high above the city with views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. The menu was expensive as well as expansive - the sort of place folk like me only go for a special celebration.Nearly every table was occupied but in the prime window position a table set for 12 was empty. Suddenly billionaire businessman Kerry Packer swept in with a group of businessmen and took over the empty table. Mr Packer was obviously the host. Other diners were abandoned as a waiter stood behind every chair at the Packer table. French champagne and Penfolds Grange flowed. When we left, the dinner was still in full swing. It is hard to imagine Mr Packer would have got any change out of $10,000. It's the way the complex world of business works. Spend big to entertain clients and, who knows, perhaps clinch a major business arrangement.

One night at a silver service Adelaide restaurant I happened to sit quite close to the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who was entertaining a local businessman. They were drinking Grange which, at today's prices, would probably cost around $800. I can only presume the Prime Minister was paying. So what! It's part of the necessary cost of running a government, or a business.

These dinners make the disclosure by the State Opposition recently of the entertainment expenses of some State Government ministers look paltry and small town. On this evidence, to accuse ministers of lavish expenditure is narrow thinking. Pay peanuts and get monkeys. I'm not blaming the Opposition for pursuing, through documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws, the Government's entertainment bills. That's what oppositions are about - keeping governments honest and accountable. But let's keep the entertainment spending in perspective.

A random example. The Health Minister, John Hill, ran up a bill for $219 at a lunch for four people at Chesser Cellars. He should be congratulated. I've spent that much at a table for two with the great lunch-time legend, Des Colquhoun. I scanned the fine print in the Opposition's disclosures, reported in the Sunday Mail, to find even the sniff of a scandal, a hint of financial indiscretion. It quickly became evident that Cabinet ministers are a boring lot. I'd be surprised if some of them don't take beef and pickle sandwiches to work to help the Government save money.

The Treasurer, Kevin Foley, spent $29 on a glass of Moet champagne while entertaining the Philippines trade ambassador. On a good night, I've spilled that much. The Premier, Mike Rann, spent $275 on a meal with an undisclosed number of representatives from the Carnegie Mellon University. That's hardly excessive. The blunt truth is governments cannot function effectively without entertaining real or potential investors and other people who can help make the running of government more efficient.

It's not always convenient or productive to talk to potential clients across a business desk. A mutual venue, like a restaurant, with a meal and some fine wine makes guests feel more important and more relaxed. In some cases the investment in a meal and a bottle of wine can reap enormous dividends for the state.

It is like criticising politicians for travelling overseas. Certainly in the case of Cabinet ministers, discussions with world business and political leaders and first-hand experience with emerging technology developments can have huge long-term benefits.

I'm not encouraging governments to abandon spending caution and toss around the credit cards. The figures so far revealed suggest the present Government is prudent, even dull. The Government should do what it has to, without fear of criticism, to attract new investment, new jobs and increased economic security to South Australia.

If that means the Deputy Premier has to spend $29 on Moet, it's a price we all have to pay."

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