Not for publication: Secret spending in the Budget

by Mahendra Chitrarasu

Secret spending in the Budget has fallen from a Morrison-era peak, but the long-term trend towards concealment should concern Australians who care about transparency.

A count of the Commonwealth Government’s Budget Paper No. 2 for 2022–23 reveals that the acronym “nfp”—that is, not for publication—appears 197 times. This represents a reduction from the peak, recorded in 2020–21, where “nfp” appeared 348 times—but as Figure 1 below demonstrates, there has been a long-term trend toward secrecy. The number of “not for publication” listings has more than doubled since 2007, when current Treasurer Jim Chalmers was advising then Treasurer Wayne Swan on his first Budget.

Appearances of the term “nfp”—not for publication—in Budget Paper No. 2, by year

The “nfp” acronym is used in cases where the government does not publicly disclose how much money it will spend on a given area of the Budget. There are various reasons for this, including contractual constraints, commercial confidentiality, and national security.

These justifications, however, should not be abused. After all, transparency is the normative and legislative ideal of the Budget. The Commonwealth Government’s Charter of Budget Honesty Act 1998, which establishes the requirements of the Budget process, emphasises that the aim of the Budget is to “facilitate public scrutiny of fiscal policy and performance”.

The use of “nfp” undermines this ideal, and while the relative reduction in hidden costings is welcome, the fact remains that the public’s ability to scrutinise the Budget is being stymied by a long-term trend towards concealment.

Note: The count for each year includes a small number of cases where the “nfp” is being defined or justified. In the 2022–23 October budget, 183 costings were listed as “nfp”.

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