Published: June 6, 2012 – 3:00AM
As the Peter Slipper expenses saga shows, taxpayers are in the dark as to how their tax dollars are spent.
If not for Slipper’s prominent political position as the Speaker, these expenses would probably have remained undiscovered by the media. What else is occurring that we do not know about?
More than a billion dollars of our taxes are spent daily, yet there is little transparency, accountability or public disclosure of how and where.
It is a foundational principle of good governance that taxpayers should know how their money is being spent, and governments should be as open as possible. Taxpayers who wish to discover how their money is being used must trawl hundreds of pages of budget documents and submit time-consuming and costly freedom-of-information requests. Even then, information is scant. Ask any journalist. And these requests, as a Herald report showed on Monday, could be rejected in future as certain parliamentary departments are rendered exempt to FOI laws.
But it does not have to be this way. A transparency revolution is under way overseas, empowering citizens, opening governments to scrutiny, and transforming governance.
In 2006, in the US, the senators John McCain and Barack Obama co-sponsored the US federal funding accountability act. Its premise was simple: that taxpayer expenditure be placed online in an easily searchable database, so all taxpayers can find out how their money has been spent.
Since then, the City of London, the European Union and 38 US states have enacted similar online portals – many with no thresholds, so every cent of taxpayer expenditure is publicly available. In some cases, literally every expense of government is made public after being entered into a database.
The benefits are obvious: not only are taxpayers empowered, but also savings can be easily identified, waste exposed and unethical behaviour discouraged. Those who want spending to remain hidden might argue that informing people is too costly, that it just cannot be done. But international experience proves this to be false. The website usaspending.gov, which provides the details of all US federal government expenditure of more than $US25,000 ($25,800), cost less than $1 million to set up – and the software is now available free of charge in the public domain.
Texas, with a population greater than that of Australia, was able to create a spending portal for $380,000, and Nebraska did it for only $30,000. Such minor costs are nothing compared with the benefits such portals bring.
It is time Australia joined this revolution. Everywhere that transparency portals have been tried, the results to date have been breathtaking. Citizens have been searching these websites in record numbers. In Missouri, with a population smaller than NSW, 15 million hits were reported in the first year. Millions in savings have been identified. To use just one example, Texas reported $8.7 million in savings directly attributable to their transparency website in just the first year of operation.
Opening the government books to an army of online citizen investigators has uncovered waste and duplication, and made junkets or pork-barrel spending near impossible. Corruption and rorting cannot occur when the records are freely available – sunlight truly is the best disinfectant.
Such portals should be a ”no-brainer” for policymakers. This is not a partisan issue – people on all sides of politics should agree that empowering citizens through transparency can only lead to higher outcomes. There is no logical argument to oppose their creation, unless you have something to hide.
Once the cost argument crumbles, the only opposition to transparency portals can come from vested interests seeking to preserve their misuse of taxpayer funds.
It is time our politicians stood up for the average taxpayer against these special interest groups and rent-seekers, and called for the establishment of transparency portals at all levels of government.
The Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance is calling for all politicians and political candidates to publicly pledge their commitment to taxpayers by supporting this initiative. If they truly represent their electors, and are not beholden to other influences, if they truly have nothing to hide, they should support it without hesitation.
Timothy Andrews is executive director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance (taxpayers.org.au).
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/nothing-to-hide-then-show-us-the-money-20120605-1zu6n.html