Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant

The Executive Director of the Australian Taxpayers Alliance, Tim Andrews, looks at improving governance in the wake of Healthway.

"The recent Western Australia Public Sector Commission report detailing improper use of sponsorship tickets by Healthway board members and senior staff should be the catalyst for all Australian Governments to re-examine their approach to public health governance.

The scandal, which led to the resignations of the executive director and all board members and an ongoing investigation by the Crime and Corruption Commission, is symptomatic of underlying issues with the way independent government agencies in the public health sphere are operated.

The move to independent government agencies was initially lauded as a way to remove political interference from the decision making process. Instead, it has resulted in a situation where agencies operate without oversight or transparency, leading to the potential for significant abuse of taxpayer funds.

Our democratic model relies on public officials being accountable and subject to the scrutiny of the electorate. By removing agencies from the sphere of oversight, protections to ensure the appropriate conduct are substantially weakened.

Heathway, which has an annual budget of over $20 million annually, has given taxpayer money to assist organisations that actively lobby government. Would West Australians consider this prudent use of their funds?

Such practices are the inevitable result of the the appointment of 'stakeholders' - a more accurate term might be 'vested interests' - to the Healthway Board. They can be affiliated with organisations that are the recipients of Healthway funding.

It is almost inevitable that decisions made at a board level can be influenced by personal and professional associations between members. Even if this is done unintentionally, with all the conflicts of interests declared and abstentions from all relevant votes (as no doubt occurs), the fact that activists and industry, rather than impartial public servants, comprise the Healthway decision-making process, makes the issue impossible to avoid.

While exacerbated in Quasi and Non Government Organisations (QANGOS) like Healthway, lack of transparency continues to be an issue for all government spending. There is no reason that governments and agencies cannot, at a minimum, publish expenditure easily searchable online databases, as occurs in dozens of international jurisdictions.

Taxpayer transparency portals have been proven to streamline effectiveness, reduce waste and empower taxpayers, and modern technologies make this possible at minimum cost. It is simply unacceptable that in the 21st century such information can only be found through laborious FOI requests or trawling through lengthy reports.

Instead, all funding decisions should be published in an easily accessed and searchable portal engine.

The WA government should take this opportunity to introduce appropriate safeguards and fundamentally reform the management of Healthway, integrating its functions into the public sector (with Treasury being the obvious choice due to Healthway's main role as a distributor of funds.)

Simultaneously, a transparency portal empowering West Australia's to easily access and search funding decisions would be crucial to restoring accountability. When it comes to taxpayer dollars, sunlight really is the best disinfectant."

Originally published in the May edition of Medical Forum


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