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Auditor-General set to probe Queensland’s ballooning public debt

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As Treasurer Cameron Dick pushes through financial reforms, ahead of the State Budget, the government faces ongoing scrutiny of its borrowings.

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Dick was in parliament yesterday defending Labor’s management of state finances and warning the budget would have been worse under the Liberal National Party. He insisted Queensland had a better plan than the Commonwealth, despite having to borrow billions of dollars more than anticipated.

“We are not going to project never-ending deficits with no plan to address them,” Dick said, addressing a bill to implement previously announced reforms.

“Unlike the Morrison government, we are not going to borrow money simply to give it to high income earners. We are going to ensure that the budget is responsible and sustainable, and focuses on the front-line services on which Queenslanders rely.”

Today in parliament, Dick and other Cabinet ministers faced questions from the LNP over a requirement that hospital and health services, like other public sector agencies, pay an efficiency dividend. The Opposition argued that would require hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts at a time when emergency departments and ambulance services are under pressure due to a lack of staffed and resourced hospital beds.

The government also faced questions over the dividends it took from state-owned corporations including CS Energy, which owns the Callide power station that erupted into flames on Tuesday.

On both issues, Cabinet members insisted Labor’s financial management was prudent and intended to keep delivering quality services, unlike the cuts of the one-time LNP government. Yet the issues demonstrate the political challenge of making changes to the budget to reduce the state’s heavy reliance on debt without undermining frontline services.

Now, Auditor-General Brendan Worrall has revealed debt will be the focus of upcoming audits that will also take into account the impact of lower taxation and royalty revenues during the pandemic.

In a three-year work plan released today, the Queensland Audit Office highlighted the need to examine government efforts to manage debt, including through the creation of the Queensland Future Fund and a plan to achieve $3 billion in savings over four years.

“The Queensland Audit Office is an essential part of Queensland’s integrity system,” Worrall said.

“At the heart of our work is driving positive change in the way public services are delivered to help improve the lives of Queenslanders.”

Worrall and his team will also audit infrastructure spending, public services, and COVID-19 stimulus and support. Combined, this will help paint a picture of how the Labor government managed the finances through the pandemic, taking into account the budget trajectory beforehand.

Next financial year, the QAO intends to hand down reports on the Future Fund, missed opportunities for savings in government spending, the early impact of COVID-19 stimulus, and whether the government has responded to previous recommendations for reform. It will also report on emergency department waiting times and the transition to renewable energy.

Dick will hand down the budget on June 15.

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