Politics Opinion

Vic Government's Registry sell-off plan inflates debt hysteria

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Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Victorian Government's plan to privatise the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registry has given the mainstream media ammo against the state's ballooning debt, writes Rosemary Sorensen.

WHEN LABOR VICTORIA’S Treasurer, Tim Pallas, announced in July 2022 that VicRoads was to be partly privatised, amusingly, the Coalition was against the move, calling it a fire sale.

Shadow Minister David Davis was quoted by The Financial Review as saying:

“No one would buy VicRoads in this way unless they planned to make money from it.”

Well, yes. It's hard to argue with the logic there. While it must have made the Victorian Liberals feel queasy to attack any plan that reduced government agency and increased private wealth, Mr Davis nailed it.

In response, what Mr Pallas said at the time had gaps in its logic through which you could drive a bus:

“We’re always looking to see how we can drive better services, better performance, but we will never divest the ownership of assets.”

We won’t divest. We’ll just find new terms for describing it, such as “joint venture partnership”.

If anyone can point to an example of where selling off a service has actually resulted in better performance for the public, please do tell.

As The Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss writes in response to reports this week about the Victorian Labor Government’s plans for another asset sell-off:

‘...privatisation, deregulation and outsourcing of public services has failed to provide economic or social returns.’

The key findings of the Australia Institute research basically add up to what logic shouts at us — private businesses do not buy into public services unless there are big profits to be made. Duh.

Pallas’s Treasury office was forced to defend what appears to be a plan to privatise the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages when negotiations were leaked by an ‘industry source who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardise commercial interests’, The Age reported.

An obliging “senior MP” provided the cotton-wool padding for this industry-sourced apparent leakage, by musing out loud that “It can probably be done better” and that ‘ideally’ the Registry would be ‘brought back into the government fold entirely once it had proven its value to the taxpayer’.

What? They’re dreaming! And asking us, the gullible public, to dream along with them.

I’ll leave you to read the excellent analysis at the Australia Institute about how privatising has reaped huge rewards for no one but the businesses gifted the opportunity to do things “better” by neoliberal-minded governments.

But in this case, even a doofus without any interest in arcane economic lingo can catch the spin on this ball of nonsense. It’s a registry of births, deaths and marriages for goodness sake. It registers when people are born, when they die and when they marry. It’s an archive that aims to be a comprehensive record of history.

Digital advances have made both compiling and accessing these records simpler. But, as with all historical records, it takes human beings who understand what information can tell us about social complexities to manage, with delicacy when required, an enormous and constantly evolving database.

Would a business consortium, whose goal is to maximise the speed with which a return on the money paid to government for the right to manage and exploit these databases, value that social complexity? If you believe that, you also reckon our postal service has improved.

Of course, for starters, it will cost more to get a copy of your birth certificate if the service is privatised. But there’s something more alarming – but intangible – about such a prospect.

It’s been hinted at in the responses on social media, where people are concerned information they’ve supplied to the Registry becomes vulnerable.

The MP who says they want the Registry to prove its value for the taxpayer has reduced this fabulous archive, which aims to record at least the basics of every life in our community, to a profit function. They’ll fix it, says this politician. They’ll cut off any of the bits that cost too much, decrease the service and charge more — job done.

Then, you’d imagine, the unsentimental business consortium, having well and truly gained financially from the reduced service, will sell it back, possibly, to the Government at a further profit.

This does not seem good.

What I’d like to hear from Tim Pallas and the Victorian State Government is, what do you mean by “better service”?

If it’s fixing the post-COVID inefficiencies of the Registry offices, maybe, just possibly, throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not ideal. Maybe, just possibly, you could hire more staff. And, if you could just possibly do this without first hiring a consultancy firm to write you a report that says the opposite, that the Registry requires fewer staff, so might as well sell it off, that would be excellent.

It's time to re-evaluate and revalue the public service. And as for saying you can’t talk about these plans for your proposed ridiculously labelled “joint venture partnership” because it’s commercial-in-confidence or whatever term protects you from sensible scrutiny beyond economics — yeah, nah.

Unfortunately, the bogeyman of budget deficit will, in all likelihood, drown out the arguments against selling off the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Debt! Blowout! Financial hole! Burden! Very few writers can cut through the blinding dazzle of the big numbers ($187.8 billion! — the precision of .8 is very impressive) to bring to ground such hysterical predictions.

Apparently, according to ‘exclusive findings’ supporting an article in The Age about Victorian Labor’s popularity decline, voters are ‘punishing the Government for its ballooning debt and broken promises’.

The headline of this article says voters demand the Government tackle debt. Really? Is that what you hear friends and family say? “I’m really cross about that big debt number.” “They need to cut back on services to rein in that big debt.” “I’m afraid the sun will stop shining on account of that big debt.” “I can’t talk about the footy, I’m too worried about the big debt.”

There’s good work being done on challenging the myths that shore up neoliberal economic theory, but none of it appears to be read by the journalists who write such predictable junk.

Steven Hail and the Modern Money Lab researchers are good to read about why deficits are not the bogeyman we’re led to believe, just for starters. Even if they disagree, what would be good to see is proof that our politicians and, yes, our journalists are reading books such as The Deficit Myth and reports like that one just released by The Australia Institute, and can explain to us with clarity why they disagree. It doesn’t seem to be too much to ask.

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper, books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria, where she founded the Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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