Tracking the intersecting NT fear campaigns

One of the more fascinating aspects of the current NT election campaign from an afficionado’s viewpoint is the phenomenon of intersecting and overlapping fear campaigns by the two major parties. Spin doctors take exactly the same set of facts (in this case NT net debt and deficits, which I dealt with in an article a couple of weeks ago) and then reassemble them for their own opposing purposes to scare the pants off voters.

The phenomenon is perfectly exemplified by an article ((To read it in full copy the first sentence or so of the “teaser” into Google and then click on the first search result link. ~KP)) in The Australian on Monday reporting the official commencement of the election campaign. The CLP seizes on debt and deficit and predictably blames Labor for it, studiously ignoring the demonstrable fact that most of the problem (as with all States and Territories) is caused by reduced GST receipts in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.  More interestingly CLP leader Terry Mills proposes a solution involving slashing public service numbers, which seems a courageous move in a Sir Humphrey Appleby sense given that Darwin is a public service town to almost as great an extent as Canberra.  However Mills seeks to sidestep political suicide by claiming that supposedly only senior highly paid public servants, who he characterises as “employed simply to promote the interests of government” will be in the firing line.

Predictably ALP Chief Minister Paul Henderson retaliated with his own fear campaign, pointing to the current wholesale public service-slashing activities of the new Campbell Newman government in Queensland:

“What the Liberals all do, and what Terry Mills will do, is lie to public servants before the election, then sack them after the election,” Mr Henderson said.

Mills is certainly walking a political tightrope on public service cuts. Here is his rationale:

The CLP yesterday took out a local newspaper ad consisting of a letter personally signed by Mr Mills, in which he guaranteed the jobs of all frontline workers and public servants on base salaries of $110,000 or less would be safe. However, he hinted at swinging((I suspect the OZ actually meant “swingeing”. ~KP)) cuts in the upper echelons of government by saying the roles of highly paid executives “employed simply to promote the interests of government” would be reviewed.

The Australian has been told there are about 535 people in the top two pay-brackets of the NT public service, with salaries in the vicinity of $200,000 or above. Axing all of those could save the taxpayer around $100 million, although some would undoubtedly have to be replaced.((Well, er, yes. Most in fact on any sensible analysis. ~KP))

A spokesman for the CLP said there had been a 104 per cent growth in executive appointments to the public service, compared to 17 per cent growth in population, in the NT between 2001 and 2012.

Interestingly, this is exactly the same line the Campbell Newman government is running in Queensland to justify punitive cuts to basic services and public service jobs.  That isn’t really surprising when you realise that the CLP’s election campaign in the Territory is being run by Queensland Liberal National Party campaign director James McGrath. Here’s how Newman’s Treasurer Tim Nicholls justified the need for big cuts:

“The Queensland government coffers are empty. State debt is heading for $100 billion. Unions can thank their Labor ‘mates’ for that.”

In reality, like the NT, the cause of Queensland’s current deficit is reduced GST revenue, exacerbated by the need to spend large amounts of money rebuilding infrastructure in the wake of the disastrous Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi (both of which Nicholls and Newman carefully avoid mentioning).

And here’s how Nicholls justifies slashing Queensland public service numbers:

“The Commission of Audit Interim Report found that in the past decade the size of the Queensland public service was allowed to grow by an unsustainable 41 per cent. It has become too top-heavy. Had the public service grown at the same rate as population, we’d have 18,500 fewer public servants, and expenses would be $1.5 billion lower.”

Sound familiar?

Analytical econo-blogger Scott “Possum” Steel has dissected the actual figures on Queensland public sector growth during the Beattie-Bligh era and shown that, far from flowing from senior public service ranks, the growth was overwhelmingly in police, health and community services staff numbers. As far as I know, no similar analysis has been done in the Territory but I strongly suspect a similar picture would emerge.

As my previous article noted, forward estimates show that, while net debt is currently manageable and indeed small by international standards, the NT budget will remain in deficit to the tune of about $250 million in 2015-16. Clearly, and whichever party wins, the government will need to implement a workable plan to return to surplus.  While it may be possible to make modest savings by reducing senior public servant numbers and moving towards flatter public sector management structures, there’s no way such limited cuts could go anywhere near what’s needed to reduce spending by $250 million.

The major areas of expenditure for any state or territory government are health and education, and there’s no way any government can achieve significant expenditure reductions (and $250 million is significant at around 5% of total expenditure) without equally significant cuts in real health and education programs and the operational staff who deliver them.  Terry Mills is acting in a calculatedly misleading and deceptive manner by pretending otherwise.  However at least he’s talking about the deficit issue, while Paul Henderson is trying to avoid it entirely.

A competent mainstream media would be asking penetrating questions of both leaders as to how they plan to return the NT budget to surplus.

Those penetrating questions would include asking them how they can cut health and education spending in any event, when all objective indicators show that we need to spend more rather than less in these areas ((e.g. poor NAPLAN scores and school attendance in remote communities; the ongoing crisis in Indigenous health; continuing poor mental health, aged and disability facilities and services. ~KP))

Of course, the real problem is that the funding available to the states and territories has long been seriously inadequate to permit them to adequately provide the basic services and facilities expected of them.  Moreover, no Premier or Chief Minister has the power unilaterally to address this long-term problem of Australian federalism.  It requires a level of co-operation between federal, state and territory governments that we are very unlikely to experience in the foreseeable future.

Instead we’ll continue to be the audience to a cycle of spin doctoring and cynical blame-shifting that achieves nothing  except to alienate more and more people from politicians generally and our entire system of public governance. It’s depressing but unsurprising that only 39% of 18 to 29 year olds think that democracy is the best form of government.


About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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11 years ago

“studiously ignoring the demonstrable fact that most of the problem (as with all States and Territories) is caused by reduced GST receipts in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. ”
The problem isnt the blame game, its that Labor have continued to pork barrel on increasingly borrowed funds DESPITE knowing this. I’m no CLP afficiando but Greek style financial overborrowing / mismanagement isnt winning any votes especially against a WELL KNOWN declining GST revenue base. Its just not a good look!

11 years ago

I have no doubt neither is being completely honest about it, I still thinks its not a good look for the ALP to be playing catchup though. It only helps the perception by some that they have been alseep at the wheel and are a bit desperate after so long in government. Too much “wonderful Territory Lifestyle” and not enough spade work!

paul walter
paul walter
11 years ago

What is it with neoliberals, sado economics and this obsession to the exclusion of all else, relentless quest to inflict as much pain on “undeserving” other people (eg, anyone but themselves), as they possibly can?
Did they never grow out of their childhood’s games of pulling the wings of flies, teasing watchdogs and tying fire-crackers to the tails of cats?

11 years ago

Hi Ken,

Nice article that fills the void in the eastern seaboard press about the NT campaign.

But I can’t help nitpicking. Your sentence: “Clearly, and whichever party wins, the government will need to implement a workable plan to return to surplus” is conventional and uninformed wisdom.

All the commonwealth, states or territories ever need to have is a credible claim that they can pay interest, which is not the same as surplus. It is indeed arguable that government should always have a debt. Confusing household economics with that of government does us all a disserve.

Otherwise, thanks for the information.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

What Dave said. State governments, inter alia, build long lived infrastructure. Impeccably orthodox neoclassical economics says you pay for that with debt (it is simple user pays – future taxpayers, not today’s, are the users so let future taxpayers pay for it).

As I’ve noted before, an AAA rating for State governments is not a source of pride but a sure sign that they are underinvesting in infrastructure.

Brian Johnstone
Brian Johnstone
11 years ago

Thanks for this post.
Refreshing to read a considered and informed “hometown” perspective on this issue. The closing stats on the young and democracy are troubling.