Commissions of Audit, then and now
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Commissions of Audit lately. Although the Costello report has not yet been released, I happened to find, on my bookshelf, a document entitled “Report of Queensland Commission of Audit”. It’s not a back-of-the-truck pre-release copy, but the report of the 1996 Commission of Audit, commission by the newly-elected Borbidge (Nat-Lib coalition) government, and led by Vince Fitzgerald (a credible, though conservative economist).
The Report makes interesting reading. Its key conclusions are
(a) Queensland’s balance sheet is strong. The state’s net worth is $51 billion
(b) There is an inbuilt negative trend in the state’s operating position, which if unchecked will reach a deficit of $2.7 billion in 10 years
Point (a) sounds pretty positive given that both the Newman government and the interim Costello report paint a picture of a state on the verge of bankruptcy. So, what’s happened to our net worth over the 16 years from Fitzgeral to (interim) Costello. Readers might expect that it’s fallen a lot, or even become negative. In reality, it’s more than tripled, to $171 billion.
Of course, the Costello report has switched attention from net worth to gross debt. While this makes little economic sense in ordinary terms (if you were buying a company, would you care more about its net value, or its debt level), it might be important if the ratio of debt to net worth had risen a lot. Actually, gross debt was $24 billion in 1996, and is $64 billion now. The ratio of gross debt to net worth has actually fallen.
To sum up, the big difference between Fitzgerald and Costello is that Fitzgerald is a serious look at the state’s finances, while Costello (in common with the majority of Commission of Audit reports) is a propaganda stunt. The state’s underlying position is strong, just as it was in the 1990s.
The second point reported by Fitzgerald is also interesting. Borbidge only had one term and didn’t do much, so the problem of dealing with the adverse trend identified in the report fell to the Beattie Labor government. Beattie kept the budget in surplus, and it remained in good shape until we were hit by the GFC and climate disasters of the last few years.
fn1. Of course, we’ve been treated to a peek at the conclusions. This is not calculated to inspire confidence in the analysis, but it certainly makes criticism more difficult.
fn2. Although the Costello Commission is often presented as if it’s something new, appointing a Commission of Audit has been routine piece of political theatre for incoming conservative governments since the early 1990s. The recommendations almost invariably involve spending cuts, and usually asset sales.