How the ANAO ended up costing taxpayers billions in lost revenue

The fuel fight facing Joe Hockey today was born from a political solution in 2001. One bureaucrat remembers how staffers frantically fed the Howard government.

It was a normal morning in March 2001. I received a phone call from my former department, Transport, from my replacement. Where, he wanted to know, had I put the 1998 incoming government briefs? He wanted to know urgently. As in, extremely urgently. As in, NOW.

I’d co-ordinated the incoming government briefs for the 1998 election at Transport. I had no idea what had happened to them. I’d deleted the Labor ones from the system, as per protocol, after the Coalition won. I think. Maybe. I’d left paper copies with the secretary’s office. Of course, that was Allan Hawke, and he’d long since moved to Defence. I think I heard Hawke’s successor, Ken Matthews, pacing furiously in the background of the phone call. “Try the cupboards outside the secretary’s office,” I lamely offered.

Consternation. I was suddenly very relieved I’d left Transport.

I knew what the urgency was about. All hell had broken loose over fuel excise. The Howard government, badly trailing Labor in the polls, was being hammered over petrol prices, and was looking desperately for a solution. The immediate cause wasn’t so much petrol prices per se, which were indeed high, or the introduction of the GST, which had been offset by a reduction in excise, but a report by the Australian National Audit Office about the administration of the government’s roads spending. It would turn out to be the costliest ANAO report in history.

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