Australia: What inquiries, reviews and white papers we can expect

How the change in government could affect you
Last Updated: 4 October 2013
Article by Ashley Tsacalos

When in Opposition and in the lead up to the election, the Coalition announced a series of inquiries, reviews and white papers that it will instigate if it were elected. The Abbott Government will now need to deliver on this commitment. The announcement of these various inquiries, reviews and white papers which covers a broad array of policy areas will dominate the early political landscape following the election of the Abbott government.

Considerable thought and consideration needs to be given to the form that such inquiries, reviews and white papers will take, including the terms of reference, the timing in relation to reporting back and the personnel who will be involved (amongst other issues). The manner in which these issues are addressed will go a long way to the Abbott Government achieving its policy objectives in relation to each inquiry, review and white paper and in defining its ultimate success in each policy area.

The following is a summary of each proposed inquiry, review and white paper.

Inquiries and Reviews

The Coalition will conduct the following inquiries and reviews:

  1. Commission of Audit
  2. A full audit of Commonwealth government expenditure will be undertaken to review the range and effectiveness of all existing government programs, to identify further costs-savings measures and how government agencies can be more efficient as well as issues of duplication in services between the different levels of government. It will report to the Treasurer and Minister for Finance, Deregulation and Debt Reduction within four months.

  1. Inquiry into the Financial Sector
  2. The Coalition will engage an executive from the private sector to lead a "root and branch" inquiry into Australia's financial services sector as part of its commitment to ensuring a competitive financial and banking industry. The Coalition plans to lift competition by doubling the growth rate of small businesses and broadening Australia's economic relationship with Asia. The inquiry will likely cover:

    • banking competition and regulation
    • superannuation and fund management
    • the impact of technology on the financial sector, and
    • the impact of globalisation.
  1. Review of Competition Policy
  2. A panel of independent experts will undertake a "root and branch" review of the competition framework, the available policy and legal tools and their administration. It will consider how current competition policy can be improved to manage the emerging pressures impacting on economic growth, vitality and durable consumer interests. The inquiry will focus on the following key areas:

    • growing market concentration in certain industries
    • the impact of dominant players on supply chains
    • the responsiveness of the current regulatory framework to abuses of market power
    • the effectiveness of mandatory Codes
    • the accessibility and effectiveness of current sanctions and remedies, and
    • the suitability of infrastructure access regimes, particularly for export-orientated industries.
  1. Judicial Inquiry - Home Insulation Programme
  2. The Coalition has committed to a judicial inquiry of the Home Insulation Programme within one month of its election. There will be an effort to make available all information relevant to the programme so that the Australian public and, in particular, the families of the victims, are provided with a full explanation for the Programme's failure and to ensure it never happens again.

    The judicial inquiry will:

    1. summon public servants and examine them on oath and have similar powers to call witnesses as a royal commission
    2. investigate all of the deaths (not just the three Queensland deaths)
    3. examine the damage done to longstanding legitimate businesses.

    In addition, Mr Abbott has indicated that the resources of the AGS will be available to assist the families of the four who lost their lives. The AGS are also likely to be appointed as the solicitor assisting the Inquiry. The Commonwealth will require representation before this judicial inquiry.

  1. Review of the Department of Defence
  2. A "high profile" team will be appointed to conduct a review of the structure and the processes of the Department of Defence. The review will focus on streamlining decision-making processes, reducing bureaucracy, bolstering ministerial control and restoring the authority of military commanders. The Coalition will also consider proposals for greater independence of the DMO but it is uncertain whether this will form part of the broader review.

  1. Coal Seam Gas Management and Wind Farms
  2. The Coalition will establish an independent expert scientific panel to investigate the impacts of coal seam gas industry on water reserves.

    In relation to wind farms, the Coalition will either launch a programme with the Independent National Health and Medical Research Council or appoint an Independent Expert Panel to investigate the actual or potential health impact of wind farms.

  1. Inquiries into the National Broadband Network
  2. The Coalition will conduct three inquiries as part of its "Plan for a Better NBN".

    • A strategic review of NBN Co. – including costs, structure, capability, progress and the viability of proposals to restructure NBN Co.
    • An independent audit into how the NBN was designed in terms of there being no cost-benefit analysis or consideration of any other options.
    • An independent review into the long-term structure and regulation of telecommunications.
  1. Inquiry into the Australian Tax Office
  2. The Coalition will undertake an inquiry into the organisational structure of the Australian Tax Office and review its lawmaking, assessment and enforcement functions. The inquiry will inform the Coalition on whether a more independent handling and resolution of tax disputes needs to be adopted. The Coalition will also establish a parliamentary committee that will conduct regular public hearings with the Tax Commissioner with a similar format to existing hearings with the Governor of the Reserve Bank.

Productivity Commission Inquiries and Reviews

The Coalition will engage the Productivity Commission to conduct the following reviews:

  1. Inquiry into Child Care Funding
  2. The review will identify how the Coalition can improve the current child care system to make it more responsive to the needs of parents, particularly those who work in regional and remote areas or undertake shift work. The Coalition aims to increase access to child care by providing more options that are more affordable, in turn increasing workforce participation and lifting overall productivity.

  1. Review of Industrial Relations
  2. The Productivity Commission will be engaged to report on the impact of the current workplace relations system on employers, employees, the community and government across regions, industries and occupations. It will also review the Coalition's Policy to Improve the Fair Work Laws by creating more jobs, higher wages, more competitive businesses and better services for all Australians.

  1. Review of the Automotive Industry
  2. The inquiry will proceed with the abandoned 2008 Productivity Commission review of the industry and will identify programs, funding standards and recommend a suitable level of taxpayer-funded subsidies to ensure the sustainability of the automotive industry.

White Papers

The Coalition will produce White Papers on the following:

  1. Tax Reform
  2. The Coalition will produce a comprehensive White Paper on tax reform within the first two years of government. This will be conducted by a respected member of the business community and will involve community consultation. This White Paper is part of the Coalition's commitment to deliver lower taxes and ensure Australia's tax system provides economic stability.

  1. Direct Action Plan
  2. The Coalition will invite submissions from all stakeholders within the first 30 days of its election for the purposes of producing a White Paper on the introduction of its Direct Action Plan to ensure its smooth introduction. Expected topics for discussion include the timing of the carbon abatement auctions and the setting of baselines.

  1. Federal-State Relations
  2. The Coalition will produce a White Paper within the first two years on COAG reform that will clarify the responsibilities of each level of government to ensure that, as far as possible, states are sovereign in their own sphere. This will also form a vital part of the Coalition's pledge to reduce inefficiencies created by duplication and miscommunication between the different levels of government.

  1. Defence
  2. The Coalition will order a new White Paper within the next 18 months to address the key shortcomings of the current 2013 Defence White Paper. The White Paper will focus on providing a detailed funding time line and align military strategy with government policy. It will form the basis for investment and procurement decisions into the future.

  1. Development of Northern Australia
  2. The Coalition will engage the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to prepare a White Paper within the year outlining its plans and policies for the development of Northern Australia by 2030. This will cover (amongst others):

    • establishing a high-level Northern Australia Strategic Partnership
    • completing an audit and removing any unnecessary red tape in cooperation with Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory
    • looking to build on existing key urban zones such as Darwin, Cairns, Townsville and Karratha
    • tasking Infrastructure Australia to conduct a comprehensive audit of Northern Australia's infrastructure
    • investigating the development of a Water Project Development Fund to support the advancement of meritorious proposals for water infrastructure across Northern Australia
    • relocating relevant parts of Federal departments and agencies such as CSIRO and AQIS to key urban zones in Northern Australia.
  1. Resources and Energy
  2. The Coalition will commence a White Paper process in relation to resources and energy. This White Paper will address what the Coalition believes were shortcomings of the Labor government's 2012 Energy White Paper including consideration of carbon tax impacts, national energy security and energy market transparency.

The challenge for the Abbott Government will be to respond in a timely and effective way once the government receives the reports and recommendations from the various inquiries, reviews and white papers so as to avoid any criticism that they were announced to "buy the government some time" in difficult or challenging policy areas.

The implementation of recommendations following an independent inquiry or review can be a useful tool for justifying policy shifts which may ordinarily be politically sensitive or unpopular whilst at the same time being an effective mechanism for achieving a government's objectives (especially the implementation of selective recommendations) without bearing the entire responsibility for the policy shift. In doing so, the government of the day can offload some of the political risk associated with the policy shift.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Ashley Tsacalos
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