Good deal or bad,
secrecy keeps voters in the dark
November 3, 2006
The Government represents voters in
public-private partnerships but keeps the terms secret. Without
disclosure, talk of accountability is empty rhetoric.
IMAGINE you need building work done that's big
and complex and is going to cost you a lot. You want it done
properly and for a fair price, so you appoint an agent to act
for you. You were unhappy with a previous agent, you warn, who
refused to show you how the figures added up, or even how
competing bids compared — "commercial in confidence," he said,
as if somehow you weren't involved at all in the deal. The new
agent comes back and tells you he has done all the calculations
and clinched a wonderful deal with some mates, "the best value
you could get". Just to be sure, you ask to see the promised
paperwork: how do the figures add up, and how do they compare
with the alternatives? Sorry, that's not how the deal works,
comes the answer, but it's in your best interest — trust me, I'm
from the Government. That is basically what the Bracks
Government has said about public-private partnerships.
Seven years after Victorians' concern about
arrogant, unaccountable government tipped the balance against
Jeff Kennett, Steve Bracks and his Government are also prepared
to treat the public as mugs while doing billion-dollar deals on
their behalf. Since 1999, the Government has entered into 16
PPPs to develop and in some cases operate infrastructure. These
include the Southern Cross Station, EastLink freeway, Melbourne
Convention Centre, the County Court, Melbourne Showgrounds and
the Royal Women's and Royal Children's hospitals. While long
advocating the need for such infrastructure, The Age has
felt bound to condemn the withholding of details needed to
assess whether these are good deals or not.
The secrecy goes far beyond the ambit of patents
and trade secrets that Labor promised in 1999 would be the
limits of "commercial in confidence" provisions. The
Labor-dominated Public Accounts and Estimates Committee last
month reported to Parliament that, as a result, Victorians could
have no idea whether these deals represented value for money.
More than 30 pages cut from the report have come to light, and
these raise awkward points about showpiece projects. The report,
even minus these pages, concluded that secrecy about PPPs had
"diminished the accountability of government … for substantial
state expenditure". Lack of transparency and reliance on a
"limited pool" of expertise gave rise to potential conflicts of
interest. Long-term contracts could "lock in" future governments
to poor decisions and bad deals.
Embarrassing questions about several PPPs have
been raised without proper responses — is it that the answers
are more embarrassing? One thing we do know is that the state
can borrow more cheaply than anyone else — a triple-A credit
rating is not just a Noddy badge. A private sector project has
to be much more expert and efficient to offset that cost
advantage, plus make a profit. Yet a well-structured PPP may
still, in some cases, be able to deliver better results sooner
than publicly funded infrastructure, where shortfalls have
resulted from competing political priorities and public
resistance to fund-raising through state taxes and debt.
Although ideology is a factor in this debate, critics on both
the left and right agree that the public should not have to rely
purely on a government's say-so that a PPP is a good deal. In
today's Age, the executive director of the Institute for
Public Affairs, John Roskam, puts the free-market case for
transparency to ensure PPPs do benefit the public.
Less than a month before the election, Treasurer
John Brumby has belatedly promised more information about future
deals. Yet the proposed release of full "value-for-money
statements" and "public interest statements" within three months
of a PPP deal being closed still falls short of the Labor
Party's own platform, which calls for value-for-money statements
within a week of project disclosure. In projects of such
importance and cost, the Government needs to win the community's
confidence and support for them. If details are kept secret,
then their public benefit will remain open to doubt. PPP
contracts must be good enough to withstand public scrutiny. The
public pays regardless — whether through taxes, tolls or other
business charges. All parties seeking a four-year contract with
voters on November 25 must offer a better deal on PPPs.
China must face more pressure on executions
EACH year thousands of people, from corrupt
petty officials to violent murderers, are executed in China. As
the Chinese justice system is shrouded in secrecy, the exact
number is unknown but it is estimated at 10,000. Sixty-eight
crimes attract the death penalty, including offences such as
embezzlement that result in comparatively light prison sentences
For the Chinese Government, capital punishment
too often serves a purpose that has little to do with justice.
It is a tool for maintaining political control and discouraging
corruption among Communist Party officials. Capital punishment
is always barbaric; in China, it is routinely swift as well.
Unsurprisingly, miscarriages of justice are common — such as the
case, documented by Amnesty International, of a man executed for
murdering his wife, who reappeared some time after his death.
According to Human Rights Watch, China has more
documented executions than the total for the rest of the world.
In the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese Government has
faced intense international pressure to improve its human rights
record. It was heartening to learn this week of a small but
significant change. From next year, all verdicts imposed by
provincial courts pronouncing the death penalty will be reviewed
by the Supreme People's Court. The expectation is a substantial
reduction in the number of executions.
This is a welcome development but it is just the
beginning. China's recognition of the need to amend its policy
is evidence that a concerted effort by the international
community can effect significant change. As a signatory to
covenants on civil and political rights that call for the
abolition of the death penalty in all nations, Australia must
continue to take a strong stand against capital punishment,
wherever it is practised.