The NDIS levy – a new era for tax, trust and open government?

| May 6, 2013

After the government announcement to increase the Medicare levy to help fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), Craig Wallace, President of People with Disability Australia, focusses on what this means for broader debates around taxation and accountability.

Last year I wrote in Open Forum that the NDIS was the sound of a new Australian settlement and we have now seen evidence of the consensus that it is no longer decent to let people with disability, families and carers linger in intolerable circumstances without basic care and support.

Interestingly the loudest example of the new drumbeat was seen in the massive viral backlash after the PR fail by Bernie Brooks which caused Myers share price to plummet by 2% in one day.

Yet the nature of last week’s announcement on the levy might also be the start of an intriguing new national conversation about taxation, accountability and open data.

Almost lost in the frenzy of brinkmanship sparked by my article calling for a levy in the Australian Financial Review on 24 April 2013, was the detail of the fund announced by the Prime Minister who said revenue from the levy will be paid into a legislated DisabilityCare Australia Fund, which will only be drawn down to meet expenditure directly related to DisabilityCare.

In coming years, this may offer a way forward for campaigners frustrated by the lack of popular support for decent social policies, which some claim is brought on by modern Government accounting which means that taxpayers find it difficult to see where their money is going as it slides across programs, gets packaged multiple times or even isn’t spent and gets ‘’rolled’’ across financial years. Look hard enough and there is a body of critical literature on the susceptibility of accrual accounting and financial reporting to obfuscation and diminished transparency (Carlin, Financial Accountability & Management, 21(3), August 2005, 0267-4424).

The NDIS imagines people with disabilities as purchasers, but maybe it paves the way for us to see every taxpayer as a purchaser of social and public goods.

While some NGOs voiced concerns last week about the risk of a levy increasing ‘’donor fatigue’’, fundraisers might instead be focussing on the opportunity to craft a new narrative with Australians who have  expressed a growing fatigue with both broad based taxation and old style charity fundraising.

Switched on NGOs have already shifted to new models. For instance, some international development organisations offer gift catalogues which allow donors to ‘’buy’’ a toilet or a specific piece of agricultural equipment which might be pivotal in a developing community.

Moving to government, imagine every taxpayer getting an itemised acquittal at the end of every year saying exactly how much of their taxes went to buying safer roads, providing essential health care, supporting people with disabilities or finally addressing the vast gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. In years to come it might reinvigorate an enthusiasm for investments in great national projects like high speed rail or fixing the planning nightmare faced by commuters in Western Sydney. In time people might even be able to choose between priorities.

Still not excited? Well, imagine if we could test this for ourselves and ‘’call’’ governments out that didn’t use our funding to deliver.

At the cutting edge of an accountability nexus could be the reform vision for open government started by Kevin Rudd which included  ”government 2.0”, a movement which encompassed ideas about the value of making public data accessible more easily – the so-called ”open data” movement – as well as engaging with citizens better, especially through new technology and deliberative democracy.

They might also breathe new life into Operation Sunlight, a Government reform agenda to improve the openness and transparency of public sector budgetary and financial management and to promote good governance practices.

While we haven’t heard much about Operation Sunlight lately, there are signs this accountability may be coming whether government likes it or not due to a perfect storm involving open data activists, clever programmers and an international movement towards a Global Open Government Partnership which now has 46 commitments to action including from key Australian allies like the United States.

Recently I met with an information freedom activist and programmer who has founded a new tool called BudgetAus. While the detail is complex, BudgetAus looks set to be the first time the complete Federal budget has been put online in a database for use by the public.

A database allows user-driven queries and calculations. For example, you can find all the programs relating to housing or the environment and tally them up across the Portfolio Budget Statements without manually going through the byzantine mass of Budget papers.

It is not hard to imagine such a tool also rolling across the Portfolio Additional Estimates Statements (which contain updates to funding announced throughout the year) so taxpayers can see how their investments are tracking.

Our public accounts could go from being opaque to crystal clear at the click of a mouse. Taxpayers, journalists and lobbyists might easily point the finger at future Governments which zig-zag or fund self-marketing, inefficient industry subsidies or causes with which they disagree.

The NDIS is a win for all Australians who care about disability, but the levy may also herald a new era of taxpayer trust and accountability in public policy.