Budget reviews and commissions of audit in Australia

9 Apr 2014

Examining the origins, conduct, conclusions of, and reactions to, previous budget reviews provides some indications about how the current National Commission of Audit might unfold.


On 22 October 2013 the Abbott Government announced the appointment of a National Commission of Audit. In announcing the review, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Cormann said ‘[i]t is …essential that the Commonwealth government live within its means and begin to pay down debt’.

The review, headed by the president of the Business Council of Australia, Tony Shepherd AO, has broad terms of reference that are intended to allow it to ‘assess the role and scope of Government, as well as ensuring taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and in an efficient manner.'The other members of the Commission are the current head of the New South Wales Independent Regulatory and Pricing Tribunal, Dr Peter Boxall AO, former public servants Tony Cole AO and Robert Fisher AM, and former politician Amanda Vanstone.

The appointment of the current Commission of Audit has not passed without criticism. For example, the Shadow Finance Minister, Tony Burke has described the review as a ‘Commission of Cuts,’ and declared that it was ‘an extraordinary outsourcing of the responsibilities of Government across to big business’.

The current National Commission of Audit is but one in a long series of budget reviews that have been conducted by Commonwealth, state and territory governments in Australia. Many previous reviews have largely been forgotten by the general public and sometimes even by the governments that have commissioned them. Others provided broad recommendations that have assisted in providing coherence and purpose to what have usually been new administrations.

Examining the origins, conduct and conclusions of, and reactions to previous reviews provides some indications about how the current National Commission of Audit might unfold. While every review is inevitably a product of its time and the political and economic circumstances in which it was commissioned, there are recurring themes that emerge from many of these exercises. Arguably, the general nature of the findings and recommendations of budget reviews can be broadly predicted, but how—and even if—governments respond to them cannot. 

Examining past reviews may also show whether the current review has provided genuinely new approaches to managing and prioritising Commonwealth expenditure and service delivery, or has rehashed well-worn policy prescriptions posed repeatedly by prior reviews.

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