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Thursday, January 07, 2010

"The principle is simple: if you're paying for it, you should know about it"

Getting the balance right between transparency and acccountability for the use of public funds, and the efficient and effective conduct of government functions in pursuing the interests of the state is a vexed and complicated question. The Age is on the warpath about lack of public information about Victorian taxpayer contributions to major events. Makes sense to me.I don't know whether Victoria is better or worse than other states in this area, but it is two years since the Government showed an interest in broad Freedom of Information reform. The legislative proposal that didn't get through Parliament then falls far short of current best practice ideas.

 Here's the gist of the editorial

Some countries have had revolutions because taxpayers resented having no control over the revenue they contributed to the public purse. That is unlikely to happen in Victoria, but the refusal, over many years and by governments of both political persuasions, to reveal the amount spent on major projects touches the same raw nerve.

The principle is simple: if you're paying for it, you should know about it. But the successive Labor governments of Steve Bracks and John Brumby, like the Jeff Kennett-led Coalition government before them, apparently believe that an informed citizenry would place the state at a disadvantage. Revealing the precise amount spent on each sporting or cultural occasion, they say, would make it easier for other states to make counter bids for such prominent events as the Grand Prix. Even if Victoria did not lose the right to host a particular event, according to Major Events Minister Tim Holding, publication of the state's contribution would drive the price up...

Mr Holding and Premier John Brumby may be correct in saying that revealing the public subsidy for major events amounts to giving away "trade secrets", with consequences for the final price of those events. The problem, however, is that concealing the subsidy makes it difficult for Victorians to know whether they are getting value for money. And, as The Age has had cause to note before, the Grand Prix is a classic instance of that state of ignorance.

Hosting the formula one race certainly draws the world's attention to Melbourne, and the usual justification for the amount of public money spent on the race is that the indirect flows into the local economy from visitors, whether at the time or subsequently due to publicity, will offset the state's contribution. Perhaps it does, but how can Victorians be confident of this if they do not even know what the contribution is?

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