Opinion: Thirza White takes on Budget Estimates

State Budget Estimates effectively took over Tasmanian Parliament last week. It’s a huge deal, or ordeal, depending on how you look at it. 

Ministers are supposedly accountable to the people for the public services within their portfolios. It should be a straightforward process.  Ministers are asked questions and they either provide the answers or take the question on notice (to be answered formally later). It’s supposed to be as simple as that. 

But this isn’t the case.  Instead of openness and transparency our budget estimates process is bogged down in political game playing, avoiding the question, reading long irrelevant statements – basically abusing the system and treating the Tasmanian people as mugs. 

Some Ministers are easier than others to cough up the truth. The truth, namely what’s the state of public services, their funding and resourcing.  

Sometimes Ministers put up hurdles to yielding answers. These obstacles can be a lengthy statement on anything loosely related to the question. These are pretty much akin to media releases, but they’ve already been released – the public knows, the journalists in estimates know, they’re just a tactic to delay and whittle down the available time for questions. 

Other times Ministers just blatantly refuse to answer, leading to a lengthy argument with the questioner, which again serves to shave down the time available.   

If the Minister manages to answer a question, it generally ends up so watered down that the answer does not contain the spirit of the question, or the ends up so obscure and complex, that it must be taken on notice because of the sheer mathematics of working out an answer. 

We did uncover some information. We heard about backlogs in courts, safety incident numbers at the Magistrates Court, schools staffing numbers and vacancies. It’s good to know this detail but why should the public have to wait until estimates to find out information like vacancy numbers, waitlists, and staffing figures on services they rely on? 

Regarding the so-called public sector efficiency dividend, apart from a commitment to deliver these cuts, there was no light shed as to what, where and how these cuts would be made. But the difficulty in recruiting and retaining workers came up again and again, across estimates committees. We know an efficiency dividend will just make this worse. It seems that these cuts are making room for stadium funding, when Premier Rockliff promised he could deliver both.  

Public sector workers pour countless hours of work to ensure answers are at the fingertips of Ministers if certain questions come up in estimates. 

This information has taken time to collect, check, and put together. It’s valuable knowledge about what’s happening to our public services. But most of it doesn’t see the light of day, when it really should. 

These briefs shouldn’t be hidden away but put into the public domain. It allows interested parties and Tasmanians to access what should be public information. It means that the time and effort wasn’t for nothing or hidden between Ministerial statements and dodged questions. 

All in all, we can’t rely on the government to take a pulse on services and find out what’s happening. 

Workers, particularly members like yourselves, are key to keeping informed about what’s happening in services Tasmanians rely on. 

If you know something you think the public should be aware of or should’ve come out during the estimates process – you can let us know anonymously on Public Services Watch, and we can put the information out there. 

Public Services Watch is a new tool developed by the CPSU for workers to raise their concerns around service disruptions and failures disadvantaging or putting our communities at risk. Whether it’s vacancies left unfilled, program cuts, outsourcing to labour hire, political overreach, impact of unmet demand, or anything else. 
You can find it at https://www.cpsu.com.au/pswatch/ You can submit evidence confidentially. We’ll use it to show the Tasmanian community how widespread the problem is and to advocate for change. 

Thirza White

General Secretary
Community & Public Sector Union (SPSFT)

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