Labor unveils pitch to shake up the Finance Department

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Shadow Finance Minister Jim Chalmers address the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 13 September 2016. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Shadow Finance Minister Jim Chalmers address the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 13 September 2016. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

A Bill Shorten-led Labor government will shake up the Finance Department in an attempt to create a renewed entrepreneurial portfolio and provide better value for taxpayers' money.

Shadow Finance spokesman Jim Chalmers will outline the plan in a speech on Thursday, promising to give voters a better understanding of federal government budget decisions and the creation of a new dual-ministerial governance for the controversial $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

He will tell an audience at Australian National University that far too much taxpayers' cash is being wasted by the Coalition on contractors, consultants and labour hire firms, for work that public servants could do at a lower cost.

Questioning arbitrary public service hiring caps, Dr Chalmers will argue billions of dollars of waste on duplicate IT systems and growing travel costs should be better spent elsewhere.

"The Australian public service needs to be refocused," he will tell the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, the Crawford School of Public Policy and College of Asia and the Pacific.

"We need to reprioritise what's important - quality services and sound advice, investing taxpayers' money in a careful and considered way."

The government's Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility would be overseen cooperatively by the ministers for Finance and Northern Australia and better value would be sought from the more than $50 billion spent annually on government procurement.

"Crucial to any good government is a supportive bureaucracy that delivers the services Australians expect and the policy advice government needs," Dr Chalmers says.

"I'm concerned that public servants aren't always able to meet those objectives. Service levels in regional areas have dropped and phones at Centrelink go unanswered.

"Arbitrary caps on the number of bureaucrats have left the public service hollowed out and unable to provide strategic advice.

"That's led to far too much taxpayers' money being wasted on contractors, consultants and labour hire firms to do work that public servants could do at a lower cost."

He will argue the role of the department and the Finance minister should be broadened, becoming central to an agenda of "inclusive economic growth".

Labor would seek to offer enhanced scrutiny of the 10-year impact of policy decisions and to increase the use of data in decision-making and assessment.

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser and treasurer Phillip Lynch split the Department of Finance from the existing Treasury in 1976, seeking new approaches to budget advice for government and creating a new two-headed economic policy apparatus.

Dr Chalmers, the MP for the Queensland seat of Rankin and former chief-of-staff to Labor treasurer Wayne Swan, says the federal government should be a more effective co-investor and service provider, and an engaged owner of significant government enterprises.

"This needs specialist expertise and a coherent policy narrative - it needs a Finance function to ensure the micro and the macro talk to each other.

"Finance has its origins in a dispute about who sets the nation's policy. Its future is about realising the huge agenda for a progressive and determined national government," he will tell the event.

Follow Tom McIlroy on Facebook and Twitter

This story Labor unveils pitch to shake up the Finance Department first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.