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Budget transparency to improve our politics

By Rosie Williams - posted Friday, 4 October 2013

Unless you've been living under a rock, you will have noticed that budget transparency was a major issue in the recent election.

Budget transparency is about how well the government accounts to the public regarding allocated funding and this includes proactive engagement of the community with government spending decisions.

This extends from reporting spending to the public to involving the public in spending decisions such as the ACT's current budget consultation or the participatory budgeting initiatives being piloted in the US.


Measuring budget transparency

There is an organisation called the International Budget Partnership whose mission is to "collaborates with civil society around the world to analyze and influence public budgets in order to reduce poverty and improve the quality of governance."

Few Australians know it but this project supports organisations to run surveys of how well each country performs in budget transparency. The Open Budget Survey gives every participating country a score on budget transparency. Currently NZ is in the top position. Australia, on the other hand, has no score as we do not participate.

Budget Transparency for everyday Australians

In early 2008, Australia's lack of budget transparency made headlines when Greg Combet and Nicola Roxon sought a High Court injunction against the Howard government's use of funding appropriated under the Outcome 'Higher Pay, Higher Productivity' to pay for the WorkChoices media campaign. One of only two Outcomes set out under the Liberals for the Department of Workplace Relations, the Outcome accounted for half the departmental budget.

When Combet challenged the right of the Howard government to use funds for WorkChoices campaigning, the High Court observed that such phrasing was so imprecise as to allow almost anything to be funded and so it could find no fault with the use of allocated funds despite the Australian public and parliament never having assented specifically to that use.

What was found to be unacceptable by Labor in opposition was that such a situation is not an appropriate level of accountability for a modern nation state and the ALP's Lindsay Tanner made it an election promise to improve transparency standards. Operation Sunlight was born.

Reviewed by Andrew Murray, Operation Sunlight (2008) said some very basic things about how the government should be accounting to the public for the funds appropriated through the parliamentary process- so basic in fact that it is stunning to realise so much had got by so many of us for so long.


The accomplishment of Operation Sunlight was that for the first time, rather than to merely provide vague 'Outcomes' for the entire portfolio, agencies are now required to specify each program in the portfolio in the Portfolio Budget Statements. Not only that, agencies are now also required to include in the PBS' evaluations of each Program's success or failure. Imagine that! We must remind ourselves this was a few short years ago. (Example)

More recently, the government has passed a policy to make all of its publications available under Creative Commons 3.0 for commercial or non-commercial use. This also has positive implications for transparency.

The 2011-12 and 2013-14 budget papers have been published under this licence which has allowed me to undertake an independent analysis of government spending based on the data within. This is no small task and it was only after I created my first set of figures and coded searches to total up spending on terms across all agencies and portfolios that I found out what a radical notion such simple functionality is to Australian citizens!

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This article was first published on New Matilda.

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About the Author

Rosie Williams is the founder of which tracks government grants.

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