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Using Coase’s 1937 theory to explain Hutchies doing its own concrete formwork – EP181

Why do firms do some activities “in house” and contract out others? British-American economist Ronald Coase gave a cogent explanation in a classic 1937 paper on the nature of the firm. Show host Gene Tunny explains to his colleague Tim Hughes how Coase’s insights (e.g. the concept of transaction costs) can be applied to understand the actions of an Australian construction firm Hutchinson’s deciding to employ people to do concrete formwork rather than relying on subcontractors. 

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What’s covered in EP181

  • Episode topic: What determines what activities a business does in house? [0:06]
  • What is formwork and why does it matter? [3:29]
  • Hutchinson’s moves to bring formwork in house [8:54]
  • When is it important to have an in-house workforce in your firm [14:42]
  • Why you don’t always contract out [20:00]
  • What’s done in house and what’s outsourced? [25:03]
  • Gig economy platforms (e.g. UpWork) [33:02]
  • A closer look at The nature of the firm by Ronald Coase [40:56]

Links relevant to the conversation

Courier-Mail article on Hutchinson’s decision to do its own formwork:

https://www.couriermail.com.au/business/citybeat/hard-labour-hutchies-plan-to-survive-building-crisis/news-story/e3b8acc34728e49cc04d0c4b88bafc8d

Ronald Coase’s classic article on the nature of the firm:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1468-0335.1937.tb00002.x

American Express article on pros and cons of hiring versus outsourcing:

https://www.americanexpress.com/en-us/business/trends-and-insights/articles/pros-cons-hiring-house-vs-outsourcing/

Transcript:
Using Coase’s 1937 theory to explain Hutchies doing its own concrete formwork – EP181

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:06

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist and former Australian Treasury official. The aim of this show is to help you better understand the big economic issues affecting all our lives. We do this by considering the theory evidence and by hearing a wide range of views. I’m delighted that you can join me for this episode, please check out the show notes for relevant information. Now on to the show. Hello, thanks for tuning into the show. This is episode 181 on the boundaries of the firm, what determines how many activities a business does in house rather than relying on suppliers? In this episode, my colleague Tim Hughes and I begin with a real example in the Australian construction industry. And I’ll talk about how it illustrates the principles from a very important paper from 1937. That paper is the nature of the firm written by Ronald Coase, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1991. Okay, let’s get into the episode. Tim, here is good to be chatting with you again, Gene Tunny, good to be here. Excellent. Tim. Tim, I thought today we could chat about the theory of the firm. And this conversation was prompted by some news about one of the major construction companies in Queensland, which is the state of Australia that we’re in. And indeed, I just walked past one of their building sites on Brunswick Street forward to valley a bit earlier before we call it up. And I think they’re 100. I think they’ve had their 100 and 10th anniversary or something like that recently. It’s a big company. Yeah. Huge company that’s passed down through the generations. So yes. But it’s experiencing challenging times as a number of building companies are in the current environment due to rising cost of materials. And also, I think, probably challenges getting the skilled labour that they need. So this is Hutchinson’s? Yeah. Yes. Yeah, that’s right. Didn’t know I’m done. I should have mentioned that upfront, but I didn’t think so. But there we go. Excellent. So it’s definitely Hutchinson’s and I saw this report in the Courier Mail. So that’s the paper here in Brisbane a few days ago. So we’re recording this on Friday, the 10th of March 2023. And there was a report Hutchinson builders reveals plan to hire trainees in house. So if you’re listening internationally, tradies is our word for tradespersons for carpenters, and bricklayers and plumbers, etc. Construction giant Hutchinson builders is taking drastic measures to survive in an increasingly cutthroat industry, forming his own in house team of tradies to keep its high rise projects on schedule. Hutchinson builders, Chairman Scott Hutchinson said a team of 106 concrete form workers had been established from former employees of subcontractors who had gone into liquidation.

Tim Hughes  03:29

Tim, you’ve worked in construction and you have at different times. Yeah, yeah. Are you able to explain what formwork is? Yeah, formwork is basically putting up wooden surrounds, I guess, to then be the boundary for a concrete pour. If you’re doing if, say, for instance, a floor is gonna have formwork around for the edges of where the concrete is. And then you’d have reinforcing etc, throughout. But yeah, basically, it’s, it’s whatever is there to contain the concrete. So that once it’s set, the formwork gets taken away, and you’re left with the structure.

Gene Tunny  04:04

Okay, and so you need this in place. Do you before you pour the concrete? Yeah. Yeah. So this is, so what’s going on here, it appears is that Hutchinson’s is bringing that in house. So rather than sub contracting that out there, making sure they’ve got the people on hand, that they’re employing them permanently, as you know, in their workforce to make sure that they’ve got the skilled labour that they need, when they need it. So that I guess, so they don’t delay a job. So because that’s on the critical path of the job, isn’t it getting there? Getting the formwork done, so then you can get the concrete poured?

Tim Hughes  04:42

Yeah. And one of the typical issues with any building project is that, you know, all the subbies have their different schedules that they’re trying to keep in they always have more than one job. And so, it becomes this issue of, then servicing different jobs at the same time, in general. And so it becomes this catalogue of finger pointing quite often, where somebody doesn’t do something because somebody else hasn’t done something. And so there’s a chain of events or a sequence of events, you know, for instance, you can’t pull the concrete, for example, unless the form where it’s been done, you know, yeah, if you know that has to follow, everything’s sequential, or largely sequential. Certainly, once you’ve got the roof on and everything like that, then there are different things that can happen at the same time. And you might end up with an electrician, Spark is chippies, carpenters, etc, they can work in the at the same time because the roofs on the site is watertight or secure. But there’s always that sequence of events. And it’s a strong like, it’s a confident move. And a smart move from Hutchinson’s from what I can see because they’re secure in the workforce. Because one of the problems at the moment is now trying to make sure that you can line somebody up and be certain that they’re going to be there when you need them. So it’s a confident move, but obviously, with having permanent workforce, then you’re taking that point that you can keep them working, you know, obviously, nobody wants to have somebody on the books and not enough work coming in.

Gene Tunny  06:15

I guess if you’re a big company like that, yeah, then well, I mean, they’re expecting they’re gonna have plenty of work for him and for them, and if they don’t, then they’re willing to bear the cost of that under utilisation, to an extent because there’s such a benefit from having them on hand, because the cost of the alternative is just so high for them, not having the people they’re not having the formwork done, and then the delays to the project, the costs associated with that, and not being able to get the work done and then be able to invoice for it.

Tim Hughes  06:49

Yeah. And it’s obviously been a well thought out move. But it’s good to see I mean, because there are, you know, they’ve done a lot of great work around Brisbane, for instance, certainly in the entertainment industry. And now Scott Hutchinson has been played a big part in keeping, for instance, the Tivoli, which was a den danger of being lost to development knocked down. And the same with the princess Theatre in Berlin, GABA, you know, to beautiful music venues, which historically, there have been some great venues lost in Brisbane, you know, in the 80s. Just being knocked down in the middle of the night, like Cloud lands, for instance. Yeah. You know, so it’s great to see a building company, Scott Hutchinson, I know, he’s led a lot of that with the music venues, it’s great to see them having this confidence. So yeah, yeah. Because well for them.

Gene Tunny  07:37

Yeah. I mean, they’re having to do it because of the conditions in the industry. And I think, I mean, they probably would rather not have to do it, then historically, they haven’t. So we might just go over their justifications for other reasons. And then I want to go on to the micro economics of it. So how would economists think about it? Yeah, sure. Because when I read that article, it made me think of a famous theory put forward by a British American economist, Ronald Coase, who was a Nobel Laureate. So Coase was at University of Chicago, toward the end of his career. 1910 to 2013. He had an incredible life. Yeah, that’s a good clip. 103 year. I think he got 202 102. Yeah, pretty good. Yeah. Yeah. Pretty impressive. He obviously managed stress well, and lived well or lived moderately. Differently, give into temptation.

Tim Hughes  08:39

I know, there’s another story that for sure, it’d be interesting to know. The secrets were

Gene Tunny  08:44

Yeah, I may learn that today. When I was preparing for the podcast. He lives so long. I’ll have to try and find out what it is. There’s got to be a story there. Yeah, absolutely. Okay. So we’ll get on to his theory in a moment. The moves so they’re talking about the Hutchinson’s moves to bring this formwork in house. Yeah. So rather than subcontracting, bring it into the business bringing it into the firm. And the article continues. The moves come as major national building company PBS building group collapsed, leaving at projects unfinished and owing $25 million. Due to the instability of the market, through insolvencies, we have had to sell sorry, we have had to self perform a number of the tradies we would otherwise subcontract out like formwork ceilings and partitions Mr. Hutchinson revealed in the company’s in house newsletter, hutches truth. We have to get subscribed to that, Tim Yeah, for sure. A looming threat to our business was a shortage of formwork contractors to build slabs and columns, which are vital to keep high rise projects on schedule. Okay, so that’s pretty much what we were talking about before.

Tim Hughes  09:57

Yeah, some that’s a good sign, you know? Like, because the last few years have been so interrupted with the whole pandemic and the supply chain being disrupted. The knock on effect is still going on and will do for some time. Now, there’s been a lot of a lot of companies and subbies subcontractors who have gone under, it’s been very, very challenging times.

Gene Tunny  10:21

Yeah, yeah. Now, as I mentioned, this story made me think about this important theory in economics, this very important paper from the 1930s, the nature of the firm in 1937 paper published in economics, which is one of the well, it was a major economic journal, I think, I think it comes out of LSE. I’ll have to check though. So this article, the nature of the firm, and what Coase was trying to do there was to think about, well, how do you define the firm the business? What are the boundaries of the business, because economics tells us that the market is efficient, the market competition brings benefits, there can be benefits from participating in the market and taking advantage of the competition amongst potential suppliers. But we know that their businesses exist. And in businesses, there’ll be some control there’ll be Well, I mean, they’re almost like a command economy inside a business. They’re not run. It’s not as if they’re bidding. In my business, I don’t have to bid all the time for the people working for me to do a particular job. I don’t have to put out a request for for quiet and get them to the bid for the work. Or I’m not having them compete against each other I’ll I will be determining who does what jobs. So there’s a there’s a socialist or a command element within a firm itself rather than a competitive market element. Right. And so the question is, how do you determine the boundaries of a firm? Why do firms exist? What determines what size they are? So? So for example, for a consultancy business? I mean, we talked about hutches before and we talked about the formwork and what they brought in, but they were bringing that in house well, for a consultancy business. consultancy businesses will typically they’ll have employees who do the jobs. But one option is just a subcontract every time so you could just hang out a shingle and you may not even need a physical office and there are some consultancy businesses that will do this. And they will subcontract, you know, a particular expert to help them out on a job as it comes in.

Tim Hughes  12:48

hang out a shingle.

Gene Tunny  12:50

Isn’t that what you say? Don’t know. Actually, if you don’t have an office, you probably don’t hang out a shingle?

Tim Hughes  12:55

I haven’t heard that term before. Okay. I’m not sure if it’s legal. But um, yeah, I get the gist of it. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  13:08

I think you do put out a hang out a shingle. I think that’s what the term is. Do I get the gist of it, though? Yeah. Okay. Very good. It was not the right term. I’ll cut this out. So there’s this issue about what determines the size of the firm, what activities should be done in house where there’s not a reliance on the market mechanism within the within the business, there’s somebody directing things, what should be done in house in a particular business versus what should be done through the market? So it could just be I mean, there could just be one entrepreneur, and then for every job that their business needs to do they just contract out every time they just get someone to supply the services. And then there are things that I’m contracting out in my business. I mean, I’m contracting out the website, design, the website management, or the podcasts. Yeah, the editing. Yeah, podcast editing. Because, I mean, that takes time. And I can’t do it as quickly as someone else. And not as skillfully. So that’s something that I’m happy to contract out. And now because of things like Upwork, and free, what’s the other one? Fiverr it’s so much easier to find people to do stuff to contract out. So the lower cost of contracting now that’s going to mean there should be more of it. So it should mean that yeah, there’s maybe you do have fewer people in your business than otherwise, because you can contract out so much.

Tim Hughes  14:42

Yeah. And I guess because that I mean, it’s part of the gig economy, like Yeah, and it makes a lot of sense. So that’s something we’ve talked about before is, you know, being agile being able to scale up or down quickly, which is something for instance, like there’s a an office at WhatsApp ended just moved to a larger office. So it’s like a, like we share, or we work rather, it’s a workspace. And so it allows you to be agile and sort of move around and go up and down and expand and contract. And I guess that’s we’re not contracting, but not contracting, there’s no going back. But is that thing of like? Obviously, it’s like paying casual rates, etc. So you pay a little bit more when you when you saw something, you know, occasionally, etc. Whereas, like, using hutches, for instance, as an example, that will be paying the guys doing the formwork, a little bit less than they would do for subcontractors, because they’re on the books, you know, and they would have then holidays and all that kind of stuff. I would imagine. I mean, I could be wrong there. But it was suggested in a normal traditional situation, that’s what would be happening.

Gene Tunny  15:50

Yeah. And I think that’s because when you’ve got people on in your firm, to some degree, they will be. I’m just trying to think through this. If they’re a subcontractor, yep, they’ve got all of their overhead costs as well. Yeah, if they’re in your firm, you’re paying the overhead costs yourself. But when you subcontract out, you have to pay for the overhead costs of the subcontractors. And as well as their you know, what they need to do the job. And then there’s also the fact that they’re possibly more specialised, and they’re going to get the job done. Now, they’re really motivated to get the job done if they’re a subcontractor.

Tim Hughes  16:36

Yeah, I mean, I guess that would be a question for Hutchinson’s really like it would be, it’d be great one day too. If I, Scott, I shouldn’t listen to the podcast, and pick his brains. Because, yeah, I wouldn’t know about that. But you can imagine that that would be the case, for sure.

Gene Tunny  16:52

Well, I think that might be one of the motivations for contracting things out. Because you can specify the job, you can have the the scope of work, and you can say, I need this by this demand, and you’re paying more, and there’s an expectation it gets done by that day. And

Tim Hughes  17:11

the responsibility lies with the subcontractor to say that on one of the things, though, as well to consider is having your in house workforce, if you like, would give a lot of confidence, I would imagine to people who are giving up projects, you know, if you’ve if you’ve got a project someone is bidding for, and they’ve got a large in house workforce, that gives a lot of confidence that, you know, that aren’t maybe the issues that may be around with other developers and builders that have to rely on the subcontractors to be available for when they need them. So there’s a level of confidence so that that would, you know, maybe attract or give them a better chance of winning different, different contracts?

Gene Tunny  17:50

Yeah, so certainly in the current market environment where it’s been hard to get those skills, because there’s been a lot of work on and there’s a lot of competition for skilled labour. Yeah, that could make sense. Yeah. Okay, so I should get back to COEs did my explanation of the problem the intellectual issue, the what Coase was trying to address the the question he was trying to answer. Did that make sense about the nature of the firm? Why should you have a business at all? Why should you have a business that employs people rather than just say, a single entrepreneur? No, it didn’t make sense.

Tim Hughes  18:30

Not to me, but I mean, it’s funny, because I did quickly read it beforehand. And for that, for me, it didn’t jump out at me as being one of the things that, for instance, myself, can take on straightaway, I think I’d have to absorb that over a period of time and really take a bit more time. Because I understand the premise of a business, but I don’t fully understand what the nature of the firm is addressing or talking to. But that might have just been me. And my,

Gene Tunny  19:01

I guess it’s a it’s a rather subtle thing, isn’t it? So he’s asking the question, Why did firms exist at all? Okay, let me see if I can find,

Tim Hughes  19:15

I mean, by firms, it’s business, yeah, business, any business or company. And I guess they exist to make money. I mean, that they’re set out to be profitable, and to serve a purpose and solve problems, you know, builders, build places, you know, everybody has a job to do kind of thing. And if you’re going to build a business, the idea would be to be a profitable one, I would imagine.

Gene Tunny  19:39

Yeah, I mean, this is an article that has been very influential, and it was identified as having solved that problem of how do we justify the existence of a business that employs people and has this long term relationship with employees rather than just sub contracting? All the time to get the services that it needs. So to me it, it’s an important article because it it highlights the relevant considerations and it’s all about minimising the transaction costs. So the reason why you don’t just always contract out so why Hutchinson’s for example, why did it actually employ some people? And it’s not just contracting now for everything so Hutchinson’s would have its own project managers, I suppose, or, you know, people in the head office. And so it’s not going to contract out every time to get someone to come in to, I’ll have to be careful here, because I can’t say I’m totally familiar with their business. But say their accounting, I mean, they, they will have a dedicated, Chief Financial Officer. Yep. I’m pretty sure that have that. So each time they they need some financial analysis, or they need the someone to sign off on their books, they won’t just they won’t contract out that every time they won’t go to the market to try and get that done, they’ll probably have someone who does that, that they’ve employed. And they’ve worked out that that’s the least cost way of getting that thing done. Over the longer term, is if they contracted it out, then they’d have to pay a bit more, presumably. And there’s always a cost in trying to engage with the market. So trying to find out who the people are, who could supply the services, what the cost of the services are selecting the best person?

Tim Hughes  21:38

I mean, I guess like for me, I don’t truly understand the question behind it, because I just thought it would be clear that a business grows or bills, deer to be profitable. And so the decisions that you make along that way would be, well, if it’s more profitable to have in house people for this department, it was something rather than something that out, then that would be an economic or financial decision to be more efficient and save money. And so it’s all about, you know, making money at the end of the day. And then obviously, there are there are quantum leaps taken at different times, which might be a bit of a pun, and they either work or they don’t, but they’re the best guess at the time. But it’s all about growing safely to increase profits. I mean, that isn’t at the foundation of any any business in terms of supply and demand. And, you know, the market in that regard. Yeah, exactly. Competition, etc.

Gene Tunny  22:33

Yeah. So I guess what Carlos was trying to do was to provide a solid intellectual foundation for what you were saying there, which is rough, you know, roughly what he’s driving at. It’s about finding the way for the business to be profitable to be most profitable as as it grows. And so yeah, I think, yeah, maybe it’s a case of over analysis. But it has been an important paper in economics. And I mean, yeah, I guess I might have explained it very well. Why it’s an important paper.

Tim Hughes  23:07

That’s the thing. I’m sure there’s more to it, but like, it seems like a clear question, as to I mean, there’s there’s obviously more.

Gene Tunny  23:14

Yeah. So we’re, I guess where it comes from, is that economists talk a lot about supply and demand and the market and the virtues of the, what they call the price mechanism, which is the fact that, well, we don’t need someone who’s responsible for the control of the supply of bread to the City of London, for example, because the market sort of set out, okay, don’t need someone to allocate that. You’ve got people wanting to supply businesses wanting to supply because there’s, there’s a demand there. And so I might read from coasters papers, because I think this, hopefully, this is illuminating, and it resolves this, an economist thinks that the economic system has been coordinated by the price mechanism and society becomes not an organisation, but an organism, the economic system works itself. This does not mean that there is not planning by individuals. These exercise, foresight and choice between alternatives. This is necessarily stuff there has to be order in the system. But this theory assumes that the direction of resources is dependent directly on the price mechanism. Indeed, it is often considered to be an objection to economic planning that it merely tries to do what has already been done by the price mechanism. Yeah, so what the issue is, is, what’s the limit to a firm? I mean, I clearly there’s reason for many firms to have more than just the the entrepreneur or the the owner manager, they will hire people in rather than just contract out each time to get the services that they need. Where’s the limit to that? I mean, why don’t we just have one big Corporation. Yeah, that does everything or one. So I guess that’s what?

Tim Hughes  25:05

So is it like, for instance, whatever widgets you might be selling, at some point, you have your own delivery drivers or Exactly, yeah, you outsource it to the the post service, etc. So at some point there’s a parameter to what’s in house and what’s outsourced or

Gene Tunny  25:23

exactly. That’s what is driving it. Right. Okay. Yeah,

Tim Hughes  25:26

I get that. Because yeah, there’s so there’s a, there’s a limit, or there’s a wall, if you like to, you know, what you do in house? Exactly. Yeah. And that would be, then back to those things we talked about, like, you know, well, is it efficient? Is it profitable, you know, what risk is involved, etc. And I guess that’s when those decisions, come to the fore and drive where that wall is?

Gene Tunny  25:48

Exactly, yeah,

Tim Hughes 25:49

I get it. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  25:52

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  25:58

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Gene Tunny  26:27

Now back to the show. The fundamental concept that Coast introduced, which is then had been widely applied in economics is this idea of transaction cost of the fact that there’s a cost of transacting in the market, right? There’s a cost of trying to find, you know, issuing a request for quiet and you know, sorting through those and and then contracting them in particularly like if you need a lawyer to, to write a contract for you. I mean, that’s an additional cost.

Tim Hughes  26:59

Well, that’s a good point, actually. Because I guess you get to a critical point or a critical mass where you have your own in house legal department. So I guess there are certain sizes of you know, the need for those different services, professional services, whereby at some point, you then have your own department in the company. You know, that your own legal department, for instance? Yeah. Marketing, yeah, marketing department, etc.

Gene Tunny  27:23

Exactly. If you’ve got enough work for them. Yeah.

Tim Hughes  27:27

So I mean, so going back to Hutchinson, for instance. So that’s, and you would have to say, in every instance, it’s a sign of confidence, of expansion or of growth, to have that in house, because that’s obviously a commitment and a cost. That wouldn’t be easily withdrawn, because it’s expensive to, to let people go, you know, there’s a cost with everything. I guess

Gene Tunny  27:50

there’s positive in in that sense that they expect that we’ll be able to keep these people employed doing formwork? Yeah, they’ve got to, they’re confident they’ve got enough work to do that. But I mean, it looks like it’s a defensive measure to me, they wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for the the challenging conditions in the industry, the difficulties of finding people the the challenges of, you know, what you don’t know whether the subcontractor, you engage with whether they’ll survive, and no, because they could let you down mid job?

Tim Hughes  28:23

Yeah. So I see what you mean. And I think you’re absolutely right. Like, it wouldn’t necessarily have been done if the certain situations weren’t around, and maybe other people will follow suit.

Gene Tunny  28:34

I mean, how cheese can do it? Because it’s a reasonably big company. So it’s got the, the real, I mean, you need some, some cash on hand to be able to finance this. Yep. And they’re able to do it. Yeah, some other businesses may not be able to, but it could give them a as I think you were suggesting this before it could give them a competitive advantage in the market, because the purchases are the people wanting the work done. They’ll see how Jesus got this capability. And that reduces the risk.

Tim Hughes  29:08

Yeah, I can only imagine via that it gives them an advantage. Going for contract. Yeah. You know, and also, depending on Well, if they’re taking skilled workers from the labour force, and who are fewer to go around for the other potential competitors.

Gene Tunny  29:26

Yes. Mm hmm. Yeah, it could be a cunning plan or something suggesting to

Tim Hughes  29:32

plan would be proud, very good.

Gene Tunny  29:35

Guy. So might, I might read Ronald Coase as explanation. I’ll put a link in the show notes to the nature of the firm, which I think is one of those. Just one of those outstanding

Tim Hughes  29:46

sisters 1937 Yeah, so he was 27 years old. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  29:51

Pretty impressive. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And it well, and then he followed it up with another famous paper and economics. So he won the Nobel Got a prize in 1991? For the essentially for this paper and another paper in the early 60s called the Theory of social cost. Both of them were hugely influential. Yeah.

Tim Hughes  30:12

That’d be interesting to do another episode on that paper.

Gene Tunny  30:17

Yeah, we could. Yeah. It’s, it’s about how you manage pollution and things like that. And yeah, so maybe we could talk about that.

Tim Hughes  30:27

Well, that’s topical all the time, but never more so than right now.

Gene Tunny  30:32

It’s a controversial paper, because some critics of it argue that what Carlos was talking about was a very special case. And it’s been interpreted as saying, Well, you don’t have to worry about pollution, because people affected by it will. They’ll do some deal with the people doing the pollution, and it’ll be resolved somehow. So that’s a simplistic way of describing it. But it’s a controversial paper, there’s Coase was, it looks like he was talking about a special case. And it can be interpreted as saying, well, we could just leave things to the market, we don’t necessarily have to have regulation, which wasn’t really what he was saying. So it’s controversial. I think we’ll have to cover that in another episode be interesting to have a look at that. Yeah, it’s another famous paper. Yeah, so 1937 27 years of age. I mean, he might even been 26, when he wrote it. So he did well, he writes, the main reason why it is profitable to establish a firm would seem to be that there is a cost of using the price mechanism. The most obvious cost of organising production through the price mechanism is that of discovering what the relevant prices are, these costs may be reduced, but it will not be eliminated by the emergence of specialists who will sell this information, the cost of negotiating and concluding a separate contract for each exchange transaction, which takes place on a market must also be taken into account. And I think that’s, that’s going to be one of the major ones, isn’t it? And, and also the delays in finding people. So I think about why I would want to have a, well, if you think about the choice between, say, a permanent person, a full time person and a casual person, for example, then it’s good to have a permanent person, because they’re on hand, they can deal with a variety of different issues, which, whereas with the casual person, you’re not always sure if they’re available. And if you want to contract out, if you want to get on up work, then the people that you might have used previously might be busy doing something else. And you don’t always know what the other person on the other end is what they’re telling you is that right? I guess without work, there’s an advantage in that platforms like that as a rating, and there’ll be some feedback. But still, if you haven’t worked with them before, it’s hard to know how they’ll, they’ll go.

Tim Hughes  33:02

I mean, the costs of doing business on those sort of platforms is has gone up from what it started out as, but it’s still relatively inexpensive compared to outsourcing locally, certainly, I mean, because one of the benefits of this is you can get work done from anywhere in the world. And that’s one of the technological advances that we have at our disposal for sure. It’s cheaper than it used to be 1520 years ago.

Gene Tunny  33:28

It is. So there’s that arbitrage, again, that geographical arbitrage you can take advantage of you could employ someone to, to do a job that you’d have to pay more for here in Australia in the US, and you might be able to find someone who can who’s really good who can do it. And they might be living in India, or Pakistan or somewhere like that. But generally, I think what you find is that the more skilled, well, the higher the rate they charge, generally, the more productive they are, and you get what you pay for, ultimately, so that geographical arbitrage isn’t as or that opportunity to get lower cost. Labour in other countries is not as great, I don’t think it’s as great an opportunity is, as some might think, oh, at least that’s my that’s my experience,

Tim Hughes  34:20

I guess, with increasing any workforce within the company. The nightmare for any employer is to have people twiddling their thumbs and not earning money for the company. So you have to keep that source of work coming in, you have to and also to make sure that people are working efficiently, you know, because the bigger everywhere becomes then I mean, you know, I haven’t had huge experience in this, but I’ve worked with so many people at different levels of management and you know, it’s clearly not straightforward in the bigger companies as to how the hierarchy works. And there’s always people unhappy with how things are the in those really big companies, but yeah, It seems to be there. They take on a life of their own these big companies with all the departments and the hierarchy. And it’s an interesting human experiment. I think, having these insights into these big companies that, obviously, some do really well, some do do not so well, but they become their own living, breathing thing that is clearly difficult to manage, you know, but at every level, the bigger it gets, it comes with a whole different problems for Yeah, just managing the sheer size of something.

Gene Tunny  35:32

And that’s why they’re often Outsourcing Things or something, sometimes they asked us and they bring back in because they had sorted didn’t work out too well. But in terms of outsourcing, look, cuantas. And, and that’s, that’s possibly a good example of the one of the trade offs there. So quite as, as you remember, when they outsource their baggage handling. And they did that to save money. And I mean, they just had a record profit didn’t know. So obviously,

Tim Hughes  35:59

it was very controversial. And I do have a friend who has a lot to say about this particular thing, because he used to work at quantas. And, and so he has insights that far, closer than anything I know. Yeah. But it did appear certainly, from what I understand that like, that didn’t seem to be a great thing. And I’m just going from what I’ve read in the news with this. And, you know, clearly it’s a skilled job, you know, that could that kind of thing where there’ll be problems all the time with baggage handling, as an example that always be these issues with that will come up and experience in any job. And using that as an example, experience wasn’t there with a new workforce, to be able to sort out the issues as they came up. And you can imagine that with pretty much anything, you know, if you change the workforce, and you don’t have that experience of what can go wrong, and what you do to fix it, there’s going to be issues, and that clearly seems to be the case with the baggage handlers. And as to how fair it was or unfair. You know, there’s plenty of commentary on that. But just losing that experience base yourself was, you know, that’s, that’s a difficult thing to replace, it takes time to build. And it’s, it’s clearly clearly was an issue anyway, at the time.

Gene Tunny  37:13

And I think the people who worked for cuantas, as baggage handlers were better motivated, they had better morale, they cared about the image of cuantas. And so they weren’t just throwing pegs around. Well, we’re human

Tim Hughes  37:24

at the end of the day, yeah, there’s that thing of like, whatever job you have, if, if there’s pride in it, and if, you know, I think when people talk about culture in a in a company, you know, this is, this is the reality of it, you know, you can’t just do broad sweeps here and there, and expect everything to maintain some level of pride in the work, for instance, you know, and all of you know, there are very human things that we all sort of respond to, and taking pride in your work, for instance, will be one of them, no matter what your job is, you know, and so I think, yeah, I guess I don’t know enough about that particular thing. But I know, there’s a lot of commentary that has gone on, and it didn’t appear to be a very popular outcome.

Gene Tunny  38:04

No, no, exactly. And I think that’s why, you know, occasionally I have to try and find an example of a company which is outsourced and then brought something back into the company is don’t know any off the top of my head, but I’m sure it’s occurred, brought something back into the company. Well, because there’s what I’m driving at is that, I mean, you’re talking about companies and they can serve, you know, they can grow and you know, you can end up with all of these different departments. But then when they get into financial trouble, that they might realise, oh, we have to rationalise or we have to do things better, and they’ll outsource various different parts of their business. Yeah. And, you know, the baggage handling was one example. I’m thinking, where’s an example where there’s something that’s been previously in house has been outsourced, and then it’s been brought back in house? If you’re in the audience, and you if you know, of an example, please let us know. I’ll try and dig one up and put it in the show notes. But you know what I’m driving it.

Tim Hughes  39:05

I think every scenario that you can imagine must happen, some of has happened. But yeah, for sure, that would have happened.

Gene Tunny  39:12

Yeah, yeah, definitely. Okay, so we might get toward the end of coasters, or his summary of his argument. And then I’ll just go over a couple other things. Chris writes, we may sum up this section of the argument by saying that the operation of a market costs something and by forming an organisation and allowing some authority and entrepreneur to direct the resources, certain marketing costs are saved. The entrepreneur has to carry out the function at less cost taking into account the fact that he may get factors of production at a lower price than the market transactions which he supersedes because it is always possible to revert to the open market if he fails to do this. That’s just saying that yeah, I mean, you’re only going to hire someone if it ends up being cheaper than going out to the market each time. Yeah, to subcontracted out the question of uncertainty as one, which is often considered to be very relevant to the study of the equilibrium of the firm, it seems improbable that a firm would emerge without the existence of uncertainty. And I think that’s an important point, what is driving out there is uncertainty is one of the major reasons why you have a business, you know, that the Will you hope that people are going to turn up to work. And you know, they’re going to turn up, it provides some certainty, whereas in this is the situation Hatch’s was facing, or has been facing, it’s concerned about the uncertainty of whether it will get the formwork the people with the form working skills to make sure the form work gets done the so that the concrete can get poured, and the building projects can go ahead on shedule.

Tim Hughes  40:56

It’s interesting, actually, because some it’s just formwork is that they’ve taken on just thinking about it a little bit more. And it’s the big guts of the building, you know, concrete pour. From that point, everything else can sort of happen. I mean, there are still things that happened before a concrete pour. But it’s, you know, it allows everything else to sort of go. So it’s one of the first you know, it’s an ongoing thing, depending on the structure of the place, there’s going to be more than one pour. But yeah, it means all those other things can then happen, you know, so for instance, yeah, it’s different than having a whole team of electricians or a whole team of carpenters, chippies, whatever it may be, and I’m sure they’re building companies that do maybe hajis to have some of those guys on board too. But because it’s the formwork, it’s like, yeah, they need that at that very, you know, the putting the skeleton, the bones of the place together so that all the the rest of it can happen. I think

Gene Tunny  41:53

in project management, you would say it’s on the critical path. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. Okay. So many questions or any thoughts on on that the theory of the firm the the nature of the firm by Ronald Coase,

Tim Hughes  42:08

it’s interesting, I can’t say I fully get it. But that’s what I enjoy about these conversations. I come in as a layman and get exposed to these different things. And it’s always interesting. And I have to add, there was another venue, of course, the first value musical that The Hutchins centre Scott Hutchinson was involved

Gene Tunny  42:27

in service when I saw the Johnny Cash tribute concert. Yeah, it was that textbook and no, that was another one though. It was someone else. It wasn’t textbook, it’s unfortunate textbook.

Tim Hughes  42:37

And yeah, if you get a chance, hello.

Gene Tunny  42:41

Okay, so in the shownotes, so as well as linking to that story about Hutchinson’s and the the nature of the firm by Ronald Coase. I’ll link to a really good article on the American Express website, the pros and cons of hiring in house versus outsourcing. And yeah, I thought it went over a lot of the relevant considerations. Things like one of the best things about having people in house is you get the face to face conversations, you build the relationship, you learn how to work together. So there’s benefits from that. Possibly, you can get a sense of whether people are ethical and honest. I mean, I guess one of the challenges and one of the problems with issues with contracting out is that sometimes you could get ripped off, right? It’s

Tim Hughes  43:29

definitely I mean, it’s an interesting point, like, certainly, I’ve heard from friends in the creative industries like architecture, where a lot of the benefits were lost during the lockdowns and working from home was in the collaboration of different ideas. And that yeah, that sort of thing, where you just sort of organically go and check in with someone and someone else might. I mean, of course, there’s, you know, people can waste time, but with creative industries or creative work, that collaboration is really important to be able to share ideas organically as they come up, and it is different face to face as it would be on the screen, you know, like so. It was it was good seeing the respect and the sort of benefit for those kinds of face to face interactions, you know, which I think people have valued since the pandemic and it’s like yeah, that’s something worth holding on to.

Gene Tunny  44:26

Yeah, for sure. The other pros have in house are in that they talk about intellectual property may be more likely to remain confidential. You don’t have to worry about some supplier coming in and learning about your business and ripping off some of your IP so perhaps that’s an issue. However, there are cons of in house hiring could be well it can be difficult finding the right people. There, there might be others. is no benefits you have to pay them. So medical and dental benefits. So that’s more of an issue in the states where the employers have to cover that. And finding, interviewing and negotiating can take time. And then if someone leaves, you have to find them again. So there can be there’s a cost of onboarding people. Yeah. There’s a cost associated with trying to get people to get suppliers in through the market. There’s also and there’s also a cost of trying to get people to work for you.

Tim Hughes  45:28

I guess it’s building trust as well. I mean, what yeah, of course, isn’t exclusive to it working out if it’s in house, you know, look in the house or outsource to the seller level of trust, that takes time to build up which has value.

Gene Tunny  45:45

Yeah. Pros of outsourcing. Most freelancers are pros at a very targeted discipline. So you can get really good people. Outsourcing can be ideal for short term projects in which talent is only needed for the completion of a one off project. Yeah, so the so I’m going to outsource the design of my website every few years or so there’s no point me having a dedicated web designer. Yeah. In the firm, obviously, not yet. Not yet. Yeah, so cons of outsourcing. Near the IP issue. Fake freelance profiles can exaggerate talent. Yeah, there could be different different styles, you may not be used to how the Freelancer works, or the can the person you outsource to, there may be some cultural differences. For example, there can be communication gaps. And yeah, freelancers can get quite expensive. Yeah. So I think that’s quite a good list of pros and cons of in house hiring and pros and cons of outsourcing. So I’ll put a link in the show notes. Okay, I’ll have to have a another read of the nature of the firm when I get a chance, and maybe I’ll have to come back to it and and try and illuminate it a lot better than that. But I was hoping that, at some, at least some of the core principles are clearer.

Tim Hughes  47:17

Yeah, I certainly have a better understanding of it from my first overview of that, again, but it’s, you know, it’s that thing of like, it’s interesting seeing it put down in a single paper, you know, like, I guess, in many ways, I’ve got to the point where I’ve taken it for granted, that kind of outlining, and, and formed my own opinions as to why it has happened. And so it seems like, you know, I’m sure there’s more to it than what I originally saw, you know, which we wish we got to in the in the conversation, but I’d be very interested in having a chat about the other paper whose it was the theory of social cost. Yeah. And with the pollution and everything, that would be good. Yeah. And also to find out what his health regime is, I mean, he got 102 That’s probably fine. It was a chain smoker and drank lots of whiskey, you know, but if it works, it works.

Gene Tunny  48:10

That’s right. I mean, that’s that’s funny, isn’t it? When they asked the 109 year old woman, what was that? What was the secret fear of longevity? I had a brand new every day.

Tim Hughes  48:20

There’s always some French farmer who lives 114 And he’s a chain smoker with colour wise and he drinks red wine for breakfast. These are outliers in the genetic field. So yeah, all power to them.

Gene Tunny  48:34

Good. Save any any other thoughts or any anything else that’s on your mind?

Tim Hughes  48:38

That probably is gene but I think we should probably leave it at that and I look forward to the next one. Okay, thanks to Jeremy.

Gene Tunny  48:50

Okay, have you found that informative and enjoyable? Ronald Coase, his article on the nature of the firm is one of my favourites in the economics literature. It’s highly readable and incredibly insightful. The paper was probably so good because it was based on extensive fieldwork by coasts is a great 9097 reason interview with coasts in which the story is told about how he wandered around the US Heartland in the 30s talking to business owners about how they organise their firms. Based on that field workers concluded that business people were well aware of the relevant trade offs, trade offs that Tim and I talked about in our conversation. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to get any insights into how COAs lives so long 102 is an impressive run. If you know anything about rollercoasters health regime, then yes, get in touch and let me know and they’ll share it with other listeners. Also, let me know what you thought about my conversation with Tim. As always, feel free to email me at contact at economics explore.com Thanks for listening. rato thanks for listening to this episode of economics explored you Have any questions, comments or suggestions, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email via contact at economics explore.com Or a voicemail via SpeakPipe. You can find the link in the show notes. If you’ve enjoyed the show, I’d be grateful if you could tell anyone you think would be interested about it. Word of mouth is one of the main ways that people learn about the show. Finally, if your podcasting app lets you then please write a review and leave a rating. Thanks for listening. I hope you can join me again next week.

50:42

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Podcast episode

White Elephant Stampede w/ Scott Prasser – EP161

Various projects worldwide have been labeled White Elephants. These projects include the Gold Coast desalination plant and the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, among many others. What exactly is a White Elephant? How can we identify them and how can we stop them from happening in the future? In this episode, Scott Prasser joins show host Gene Tunny to talk about White Elephants. Scott is a former academic and ministerial adviser, and is one of the editors of the new book from Connor Court titled White Elephant Stampede: Case Studies in Policy and Project Management Failures. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

About this episode’s guest: Scott Prasser

Scott has worked in senior policy and advisory roles in Australian state and federal government public service. From 2013 to 2019 he was Senior Adviser to three federal cabinet ministers covering portfolios of education and training, and regional health, sport and decentralisation. In addition, Scott has held academic positions at five universities across four states and territories, the last at professorial level. Scott gained his undergraduate and master’s degrees from University of Queensland, and his doctorate from Griffith University. Scott’s most recent publication with Helen Tracey was Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries: Practice and Potential (2014); and Audit Commissions: Reviewing the Reviewers (2013). 

Substack newsletter: Policy Insights by Scott Prasser

Links relevant to the conversation

The new book from Connor Court White Elephant Stampede: Case Studies in Policy and Project Management Failures

Criteria for identifying White Elephant projects.pdf

Regarding the cost of the Gold Coast desalination plant, see Brisbane Times article:

The Brisbane Times article reports:

“The controversial $1.2 billion Tugun plant was closed in 2009 after a string of complaints including rusting pipelines  and mothballed from fulltime water production in 2010.

Normally it provides only three megalitres per day to Southeast Queensland’s water grid and costs between $12 million and $15 million a year to operate.”

Time Out article on fixing up the acoustics in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House

Transcript: White Elephant Stampede w/ Scott Prasser – EP161

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored,

Scott Prasser  00:04

The whole thing was driven by politics. Right, rather than by policy. Yeah, that’s the problem.

Gene Tunny  00:12

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 161. On white elephant projects. My guest is Scott Prasser, who is a well known commentator on public policy issues here in Australia. Scott is one of the editors of the new book, White Elephant Stampede, published by Connor Court, please check out the show notes relevant links, including a link to the Connor court website so you can get a copy of the book if you’d like to learn more about white elephants. The show notes also include a clarification that I need to make regarding the cost of operating a white elephant not far from me, a Gold Coast desalination plant. I couldn’t remember the actual cost while chatting with Scott. And I overestimated it. That said, it’s still a costly facility and arguably fits the white elephant definition. Finally, the shownotes contain details of how you can get in touch. Please let me know what you think about what either Scott or I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right now for my conversation with Scott Prasser on white elephants. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Scott Prasser, welcome to the programme.

Scott Prasser  01:34

Thank you very much.

Gene Tunny  01:35

It’s good to have you here. Scott, keen to chat with you about white elephants. So you’ve recently been one of the editors of a new book that’s coming out from Connor Court on white elephants, White Elephant Stampede case studies in policy and project management failures. So yes, looking forward to speaking with you about that. To kick off. Could you tell us a bit about your background in public policy, please, you’ve got an extensive background. And I think it’d be good to sort of let people know about that. I think it’s, it’s, it’s a really extensive, interesting experience. So if you could tell us a bit about that, please, that’d be great.

Scott Prasser  02:12

Sure. I’ve worked in federal and state governments, in state governments. I worked in state government, Department of Welfare Services, State Development and Premier and Cabinet in Queensland, under the Bjelke-Petersen government , and also under the Beattie government. Okay. So I’ve worked in those roles. I was basically running different policy units inside government. I also got seconded to minister offices in state government, and also in federal government. So immigration Minister’s office, I was Chief of Staff way back in the Fraser government days. And more recently, after serving, running a Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra. I work for three different federal cabinet ministers, Christopher Pyne, Simon Birmingham, and Bridget McKenzie, across education in regional services. And so, I’ve been in and out of the public service Minister offices and academia over the last 30 years or so, and writing on all sorts of things about Australian politics, public policy, Royal commissions, inquiries, and those sort of bodies. And I did teach project management at one university, which is how I got interested in white elephant projects because you run across a quite a wide a lot of white elephant projects when you’re teaching project management.

Gene Tunny  03:32

This was it was at University of the Sunshine Coast. Right. Okay.

Scott Prasser  03:36

So I’ve worked at RMIT, University of Sunshine Coast, University of Southern Queensland, Australian Catholic University, and also taught at QUT and University of Queensland. So as a sort of tutor, person, so I’ve done all those sort of things. So I’m interested in really what’s happening in the real world, okay, and how we can, how we can learn from mistakes and not so they don’t happen again.

Gene Tunny  04:01

Absolutely. Okay. So, Scott, can you say about this idea of this concept of a white elephant? Where does this why is it called a white elephant? What’s the story behind that?

Scott Prasser  04:13

Well really, the story really comes from Thailand or Siamese, it used to be called that if you were caught by the king, with your hands in the till, or committing fraud, instead of having your head cut off, or your hands cut off, which is one way of punishing people. The idea in Thailand is a very interesting place, which I like a lot. The king would give you a white elephant and a white elephant is sacred. And it means you’ve got to look after it. You can’t. In Thailand, elephants are work animals, you know, they live logs and things like that. You’re not allowed to make a sacred animal work. So this becomes a very expensive issue for you to have to look after. This gift from the king. You can’t sell the gift. You can’t kill the gift and you gotta maintain it and look after it. So basically bankrupts the person you give the gift to, that’s where the whole term comes from really, white elephant.

Gene Tunny  05:08

Right. And so when we’re talking about government projects, or I suppose any sort of project, we’re talking about a project, which is you can draw an analogy, or you can, it’s similar to this white elephant that the King of Siam would would give to you because it it’s not a good thing to invest in, it costs you money on an ongoing basis is that the idea?

Scott Prasser  05:34

Thats right, the white elephant project, or white elephant policy is something that doesn’t work properly, that something that’s too expensive to maintain, that something that often Looks good, looks good, but doesn’t, can’t, can’t do can’t perform. And it becomes very expensive maintain and therefore gives no return back to the owner or to the originator of it. That’s for a white elephant project, is it a very expensive thing, it costs more to maintain, and it doesn’t serve any utility, any particular function to do that, for the amount of investment you got to put in to keep this thing going.

Gene Tunny  06:10

Okay. And we’re typically talking about public sector projects, are we?

Scott Prasser  06:14

That’s right. We’re talking about public sector projects, there are no doubt in the private sector, white elephant projects and things that go astray. But the shareholder puts up the bill for that. And I don’t really care too much about the shareholders in the sense that I do care about the waste of public money. Since public money is finite, like everything. And I am concerned, in these days of sustainability, how we waste money on projects, and we repeatedly waste money on projects, that self Evon were going to become white elephant projects or are white elephant projects.

Gene Tunny  06:49

Okay, so what types of projects are good examples of white elephants? Scott, you’ve you’re looking at some in this new book, you’re editing the case studies in policy and project management failures, the white elephant stampede, what are some of the examples in that book?

Scott Prasser  07:03

Okay, well one of the examples close to home is the Queensland desalination plant. Okay. So this is rusting way down the Gold Coast there, it cost billions of dollars to do. And it was an overreaction to the drought we had a number of years ago right now. Now, from my point of view, all droughts come to an end, basically, as we are seeing right now. So we built a billion dollar desalination plant, but we haven’t built any dams in Queensland for a long time. And this basically, it was really a bad idea from the beginning. But it’s an example of what governments do when they got to be seen to be doing something. So that’s one example. The other one is close to my heart is the hospital payroll system we had in Queensland, which was going to cost you know, a couple of million dollars and ended up costing a billion dollars, we end up having to have a Royal Commission into this. It was such a monumental mess that should have been avoided. Olympic Games also tend to be white elephant projects, they always run at a loss there is one or two haven’t. They build infrastructure that serves only a short term timeframe. And since we’re in the Olympic game, game at the moment in Queensland, we’re suggesting and we’re seeing the issues about the GABA and the immense costs that this is a this will be a white elephant that’s going to grow before our eyes. So it’s we can grow up with it in the next 10 years.

Gene Tunny  08:36

Yeah, because Brisbane is the Olympic city and 2032 and the GABA at the cricket ground, the Woolloongabba at the GABA, which we abbreviate as the GABA here in Brisbane, they’re talking about just increasing the capacity by what, five or 10,000 people, but it’s going to cost $2 billion or something ridiculous, so they have to revisit that just on the desal plant. I think that’s a really good example and it illustrates how these things can be an ongoing burden because if they’re not using it, they can’t mothball it, you have to keep it in this Hot Standby mode or something. There’s some specific term they have for it you have to keep you have to turn it on every now and then. So the membranes keep fresh or something so they don’t dry out.

Scott Prasser  09:24

You can’t just let it sort of rot away. Yeah. So there’s the issue of a white elephant project that even after it become doesn’t serve its original purpose was not working. You they got to maintain them. That’s the problem. It’s a bit like having a Jaguar Car, its good when its going but not when its in the garage.

Gene Tunny  09:43

You have to get a good mechanic.

Scott Prasser  09:45

So it’s no use having these sort of things. You got to keep maintaining them. Yeah, that’s the problem about these things.

Gene Tunny  09:53

Yeah, exactly. And I remember I went to a presentation maybe five or six or seven years ago with our explaining this Hot Standby mode for the desal plant, I mean, it’s hardly making any contribution to our water reliability or water security. But yet, it’s costing, I don’t know, 50 to 100 million a year, I can’t remember the exact figure. But it’s a significant amount of money and for something that we isn’t really adding to our water security, it rained again. But this goes back to that time when in the 2000s, there was a view that, well, it would have, it didn’t we’d never have the rain we had in the past because of climate change. Tim Flannery was saying that and the government here was panicking about water supply and all of that. So that’s where it came from. It came in a time of crisis. So that’s one way we could get projects that aren’t really sensible. What are some other ways, Scott, that what why do we end up with these projects that are, that are white elephants?

Scott Prasser  10:52

I think there’s a number of reasons. One, I think that government is involved in too many areas. Okay, the government tries to do too much. Yeah. And the government is seen as the saviour of so many things. So if government could not be involved in so many things, and it’s focused on on the core business, where it should be, you know, good infrastructure, good roads, and that sort of thing so, government is often called upon to be doing things now politicians reaction to that, is, something’s got to be done. This is something we can do. Right. Okay. And they have no concept of our financial limitations. So governments, often we saw that during the COVID thing, where governments were running around doing all sorts of things, which were completely against the evidence this remember, in Queensland, we were formed by the Chief Health Officer we, and was mandated, we should wear a mask in our car. Think about this, and we should wear a mask walking around a park. Let’s think about this. Now, I didn’t do that, I refuse to follow the law. So that’s an example where governments are going to ratchet up activities to do things. Also, governments love to love to announce iconic projects, you know, I hear the word iconic, I run a mile, okay. This is Danger, danger, or this is going to be a landmark, or they want to have a vision. I don’t want governments to have visions. Thank you very much, especially the wrong ones. And so it’s this thing of meeting the electoral demands to be doing something instead of saying nothing can be done. Okay, that in some cases, is not government’s responsibility to do it. And if we do anything, it doesn’t, doesn’t have any effect. So, you know, it’s like, you know, why does the Commonwealth government spend $5 million on men’s work sheds? I mean, what has that got to do with the Commonwealth Government? There’s like a little mini, a mini white elephant, because they want to be seen to be giving out money for some minority group cause or something. So it’s politics in politics. The other factor is that all the organisational things inside organisations, groupthink happens. Yeah, okay. Now, if you’ve worked in the public bureaucracy like me, it’s sometimes very hard if you if you want to be the lone person who says I think that’s a dumb idea. Yes, right. Yeah, it doesn’t go well with the rest of the team and the hierarchy, which CERN you got to have in the bureaucracy, someone willing to say, No, right. Now, our public services have become politicised, that is people are on short term contracts. They give the government what they want, not what they need. So this sort of Once Upon a Time treasuries would have said, and that’s why under Joh, we had permanent public servants. Okay, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Premier, they were permanent public servants. Queensland didn’t have a zoo. Queensland didn’t own a bank. Okay, Queensland didn’t do all the crazy things that Joh wanted to do because the treasurer, Leo Hilscher and crowd will say, no, Joh, you’re not going to have it right. Now, I don’t think that happens anymore. Because all the senior public servants are on five year contracts. They want to get their contract renewed, they will give into the political will all the time. So that’s one of the issues that helps help throughout why we’re getting more of these things. And why frank and fearless advice is no longer being given. I don’t want to sound too precious, but it is very hard in the bureaucracy, if you’re in the hierarchy, and you want to get a promotion in the future, and you’d write a memo to the premier. This is a really dumb idea. And I have done this myself and I have saved the taxpayer money. I can tell you right here. And that’s because I had a very good director general in the Premier’s department, but it’s hard all those organisational factors, the political factors and government in all the interest group pressures now interest group pressures on wanting to get something from government. Australia has always looked more to government than other countries. You know, we’ve always We founded by government Australia was founded by, you know, sending out convicts here. It was a government thing in America, America was founded by people trying to get away from government, they want to religious freedom. Okay, so there’s a difference. Yeah, sort of context. So all those factors have driving that. Plus, I think, economic theory, modern, modern monetary theory. So it says, oh, spend as much as you want, it doesn’t matter. It All right, you know, there’s no, there’s no limitation on what government can spend. So the idea of balanced budgets being careful, and frugal has sort of gone by the by, if you’d like. So all those factors are contributing to this sort of galloping syndrome.

Gene Tunny  15:45

Well if it was a good infrastructure project, or a good if it was delivering public benefits into the in the long term, then you could make an argument that it may make sense to borrow money to invest in it, it could be good debt. But the problem is, these are such bad projects. They’re, they’re not delivering that return. And they, they’ve got this ongoing cost, for hardly any benefit. And I think this is a point you make, and this criteria for selecting white elephant projects for identifying white elephant projects, which I think is really good. And I’ll put it in the show notes if that’s okay. I think it’s excellent, I think this was something you did for your public policy course at Sunshine Coast, etc. And one of the points you make is that, so while white elephant projects might produce some marginal benefits, the issue is they never cover the project’s real costs, and more often end up costing more, okay, so we’re not saying that these things are completely worth worthless that they don’t deliver some benefits, it’s just that they’re not enough to justify the large costs.

Scott Prasser  16:45

I think you see it in, you know, stadiums or things like that, or opera houses and so on, which you know, do serve a certain public purpose. And there’s a there’s a place for them, but they, they never really will cover their costs. So they’ve got to be subsidised. And the first indication that seems wrong, after things been developed, we need more funding, or we need more to keep it going, right. I’m in the Sydney Opera House, many of you are together as a white elephant, by the way, because A, it was a design that no one knew how to build. Yeah. The technology wasn’t there. It cost phenomenally more than I think 2,000% more than the original costs. Yeah, it costs 150 million bucks a year to keep, to keep going, right cleaning and all that sort of stuff. And acoustically, I’m told, not that I go to opera, everything like that. I’m told that it’s not that all great, you know, the there are better opera houses or sound places around the world and build a lot less cost than the Sydney Opera House. It looks fantastic. No one No one can deny that. It is a landmark. But there’s an example where it still serves some purpose. But okay, it, you’ve got to keep it. You’ve got to keep it up to the mark and only the public taxpayer can keep it up to the mark. No one’s going to buy the Sydney Opera House.

Gene Tunny  18:06

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Amazing building, though. It is. So I’m trying to remember the issues. Yep. There’s an issue with a concert hall. So I think there’s, there’s the different shells of the Opera House. And I think there’s a there’s the Opera Theatre in one shell. And the problem there is that depending on where you sit, your view can be limited. So if you’re sitting on Yeah, so in some seats, you don’t get to, it’s not a full view. And the problem with the concert hall part of it. Yeah, that’s definitely an acoustic issue. And they’ve tried various fixes over the years to improve that I might put a link in the show notes. Remember, I’m trying to remember they had some some donuts hanging from the ceiling? I’m trying to remember correctly.

Scott Prasser  18:50

That’s right, there’s a book that came out in the 70s called great planning disasters. The Sydney Opera House was listed. Yeah. You know, but no, and as an example, it is it is pretty fantastic when you’re on the ferry to look at and so on. But you have to think, what this is costing you, and there’s lots of things like that all around the place where governments and what happens is a project or something which is developed for purpose x, it doesn’t meet purpose x. So gradually the purpose changes to purpose y. Okay, yeah, it’s not really a great opera house, but it’s a fantastic tourist attraction and you see what I mean. So you sort of transfer the goal from what it was originally to be to as a fantastic tourism attraction. Now how you measure the impact of tourism is pretty hard, as you know, the best of times, so they happen a lot, gold is placement happens a lot with with white elephant projects.

Gene Tunny  19:50

Yeah it’s a hard one because it’s hard to think of Sydney Harbour nowadays without the Opera House, but we know that it is one of the the most magnificent harbours in the world. Also it’s still be, you would expected to still get tourists there regardless of what you put there. You could put something up cheaper. That’s an attraction instead of the opera.

Scott Prasser  20:09

Yeah, look years ago when I was in the premiere department, the Roma street Parkland issue. What should we do with the Roma street parkland, and I read the project team to look at that. And we talked about getting the Smithsonian to try and build something there. We went to America, Premiere Beattie winter America, and we had a committee of the great and famous people of Queensland, I can tell you the great and famous of Queensland. And the trouble was, I could never get them to focus on the purpose of the building of a building and want to build some sort of building, everyone focused on the design of the building. And it was quite exasperating with this committee of great and famous people. And I had to get the Director General to go and actually talk to them in the end, because I couldn’t control him because everyone just came with their pictures of iconic buildings from around the world, you know, Bilbao and all that sort of stuff.

Gene Tunny  21:03

Which is a white elephant. Guggenheim.

Scott Prasser  21:08

Yeah, they all went through the design, but what are we going to put in the building, which was, to me, the important issue, what are we going to use the building for? Is it going to be and to build a proper museum type thing is you’re talking about 300 million bucks. $300 million. Okay. Yeah. And what’s it going to do? And it was impossible to get the great and good committee to look at function as distinct from design of the building. Okay. And it was a very interesting experience. To try. We had museum people in and we had all sorts of people discussing this. But fortunately, it wasn’t, it wasn’t tempted and eventually got dropped.

Gene Tunny  21:45

I need to ask you more about this, because I walk through there practically every day or every second day. I live near the park lands it’s this amazing space. They’ve got this beautiful floral garden there, the spectacle garden, there’s a lake, there’s a Well, I mean, it is a rain forest is part of it. There’s not a lot of rain forests, but there’s a little bit there. And there’s this canopy walk, which is great. I think it’s an amazing attraction. I couldn’t imagine anything else been there. But what ended up happening? Did they just think, Oh, this is all to hard redevelop or?

Scott Prasser  22:15

Smithsonian doesn’t do things outside the United States. That is the crux of the issue. Smithsonian is an American only and the money for the Smithsonian came from an Englishman, by the way, called Smithson, whatever comes from he gave money to America in the 1840s. The American government didn’t know what to do, in gold in gold, by the way, they didn’t know what to do with it. And then the idea was to set up the sort of museums, museums were run by governments in the 19th century to largely be places where you brought back your booty from your colonies. Okay, the English Museum, German Berlin museums. And so the Americans decided to build this museum complex, which anyone been there is fantastic. Because it’s multiple museums in Washington, DC, it’s fantastic place. And that’s what they did. And we brought Smithsonian people out to Brisbane, and all sorts of things to try and see if we could get interesting. We develop some sort of agreement and we develop some sort of interchange of scholars and people, I left the Public Service and that probably didn’t happen. Right. 

Gene Tunny  23:29

Okay, that is very interesting. Now, I had to ask because it’s so close to home. So yeah. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  23:42

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Gene Tunny  24:11

Now back to the show. Okay, let’s go over some of these other criteria. Scott, I think this is a really great list. This was for your students, so they could come up with examples of white elephant projects. And this is when you’re teaching project management. And so first, they do not fully achieve their public stated objectives. So second, white elephant projects usually cost more than was promised or estimated and much, much more. So this whole thing about mega projects is this mega project risk. I think you refer that, the Oxford scholar who’s written a lot on mega projects. So you’re in that’s in your oval, overcoming the white elephant syndrome. Yeah, yeah. Good one. And fourth, they often so yeah, third, they might produce some marginal benefits, but they don’t cover their full real costs. Fourth, though, too often maintain past their use by dates. Okay and fifth, they were perceived as counterproductive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. So you’re talking about so your contention is that a lot of these projects, at the time were criticised as being potential white elephants and politicians went ahead anyway. Is that right?

Scott Prasser  25:27

Yeah. Politics like to say we’re doing it. Okay. Yeah, we’re gonna do it. Right. Peter Beattie was very big into we’re doing it sort of syndrome. And they don’t want to have a back down, because that’s a political embarrassment. Right. Okay. So I used to have a superior in the public service. And his slogan used to be let’s do it. And my slogan was, let’s think about it. This cause conflict, okay. I said, Why are we doing this crazy project sort of thing and that was also my view. And so I’ve and I’ve worked in ministerial offices in Canberra, why, Minister are we doing this project? You know, is this a good idea? And so, once this things gets going, it’s really, really hard despite all the contrary evidence that happens. Now, sometimes that evidence could be inaccurate and wrong. And that’s when judgement is required. We know and Prince Albert was building the Crystal Palace in England for the Great Exhibition, everyone said it was going to be a white elephant, and there’s going to be a disaster and people are gonna die. That Her Majesty Queen Victoria stuck by him and it got built in it was an exhibition was a financial success, you know, it built a whole stack of things afterwards, not for the money, the profit went. So, but you know, what is interesting is, is governments do not like to admit they’ve made a mistake. Yes, right. That’s now I think, it’s sometimes we can say sorry for lots of thing. But we don’t want to say sorry for the sort of mistakes. And we I mean, the other who want to see lots of mistakes is Defence projects, phenomenal amount. And helicopters that don’t fly. Tanks that are too heavy for our bridges, and so on, so forth, frigates that we don’t know where they’ve worked or not. Submarines, and we still don’t have, and so on and so forth. It just goes on and on.

Gene Tunny  27:19

So this submarine debacle or whatever you want to call it. This was intensely political, wasn’t it?

Scott Prasser  27:27

It was about saving Liberal Party seats in South Australia. Right. That’s the story. That’s really it. We, we could have bought, the German Germans have had pretty good experience of u-boat type things, okay. And we could have bought the German programme. And if we bought the German product, they were knocked down form, they would have cost $12 billion. The Germans would have come out and train people as they tend to do. Yeah. Okay. And they will now be operational. Right. We then went down, we then retrofitted nuclear French submarines, put diesel engine in because we can’t have nuclear power. Why we would want to build diesel submarine is beyond my comprehension. Yeah. And then to prop up the liberal seats in South Australia. Then we went down this track. And so here we are, in 2022. We still haven’t got a single submarine. And by the way, the Collins submarines have also been a bit of a disaster, too, in terms of their they’ve had to get refitted with lots of problems with them, and so on. So I don’t know it’s a real, it’s a real problem. And there’s an example where we really the whole thing was driven by politics. Right? Rather than by policy. Yeah, that’s the problem.

Gene Tunny  28:45

Yeah. So we were trying to get manufacturing jobs in South Australia for political reasons. So we were either we are, we were building submarines here, or what was it retrofitting French submarines. Yeah. And then we ended up having a change of course, a couple of years ago, because we signed this ORCAS agreement with the US and UK. Fair enough, but that’s upset the French.

Scott Prasser  29:10

Yeah, I think what we should have done is gone and bought a couple of nuclear submarines from America or, I’m sure had a couple lying around somewhere or and gone ahead with the debt. That’s what we could have done. So that’s an issue.

Gene Tunny  29:24

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay, six, there were feasible alternative courses of action available. In short, the project chosen did not have to be adopted or take the particular form it did to tackle a perceived problem. Okay and certainly in that water crisis, when we went ahead and built that expensive desalination plant, a better option was possibly well, if we’d built dams in the past.

Scott Prasser  29:47

Just remember that the Goss government came in and canceled the Wolffdene dam. Dum dum, okay. against the advice of the coordinator General Affairs Department at the time. Um, so you know how during the drought, remember, there was all this incentive of buying, getting tanks in your backyard tanks, I didn’t buy a tank, because I have this very odd view that since I pay rates in water rates, I expect the government to supply me with water. Okay, it’s not my job to go and spend 10,000 bucks on a tank to be in my backyard. And so its the same with solar panels, we could use the same analogy. So the government’s don’t often sit down properly and say, how could we tackle this issue in a different way they jump to the obvious, most visible idea, right. The big project, the big deal, we’re doing this, we’re going to save everyone, if we go ahead of this big problem, when they’re often alternatives. And look, you know, this and I know this, most public policy problems are really caused by people’s behaviour. Okay. Okay. Why are there car accidents? Because a lot of people drink too much. Okay. Right. Okay. Why do people get sick lots? Because they have lousy diets and have bad lifestyle. Okay, hospitals pick up the residual. Now, we can’t change people’s behaviour, except by all sorts of incentives and so on things like that. But governments don’t really sit down. It’s like freeways. I mean, do we have to keep building freeways when maybe you have completely different urban development or you have different timescales for people to work and go home and all sorts of stuff. And you don’t have to go down the big spending alternative and sit down and think about, look, you’re hearing this in education at the moment. Ah, you know, we’ve got to we’ve been spending more money on education, by the way, by quite a large amount and our results are declining in Australia in a big way. Federal government more than the states, the federal government is actually now the biggest single spender on schools. Okay. Right. Okay. And where did that where did the money go? Largely goes in teacher salaries? Yeah. Because we got smaller classrooms. Okay. So is that really the appropriate thing to do? Or should we be thinking about? What are teachers? How are teachers properly trained? And things like that, you know, what’s, what’s the way to do it? Aboriginals have a poor education, but you talk to people, a lot of the problem is that they don’t attend school, right. The people don’t attend school, then there’s the problem. There it is. And they’re very hard things to tackle. But governments just jump to the obvious so often, and don’t end as in because of rushed decision making gotta be seen to be doing something. And the media, piling it on. What are you doing about this? What are you doing about this? This, like, when you see an accident, train accident or something? There’s some poor person, you know, dragging themselves to the train or the poor ambulance service dealing with people. What’s the government going to do about this. You know, give us a give us a bribe. And what I found is government rush too many things. rushed to meet the media agenda. Yes, yeah. Then yeah. The policy agenda.

Gene Tunny  33:30

Yeah. Right. So yeah, and this is where this is how we get white elephants. They want something iconic. I mean, you’re talking about. No, thankfully, that Smithsonian thing never went ahead. But they ended up with this idea of a there has always been this idea of a landmark or an iconic building in Brisbane, I think it probably will come up again with the Olympics. So we wanted something to sort of excite the world or make Brisbane distinctive. To an extent I think that GOMA, that Gallery of Modern Art that was they were trying, I think that one intention of that was that it could serve as a building that

Scott Prasser  34:07

Yeah, well, the art world is very big on that, mainly because so much art shown is so terrible. They’re got to have something good outside to look at.

Gene Tunny  34:15

Yeah, oh, yeah. Some of it’s difficult…

Scott Prasser  34:18

I’m obviously a Philistine. I don’t understand.

Gene Tunny  34:21

Some it is. It’s difficult to comprehend really, but but they’ve had some great exhibitions at GOMA. They had a great David Lynch exhibition many years ago.

Scott Prasser  34:31

I think Southbank which is basically developed by the National Party government, essentially, for the expo 88 is quite a successful sort of precinct in a sense. Yeah, without being too grand. The art gallery is a reasonable size, there’s the Queensland library we’re one of the few places that actually have a State Library, not everyone is very keen on those things. So there’s a lot of good things about the South Bank, I think it was developed and the government would push through and got that done. And there is a bit of style about it without it being over the top, over the top, not that it’s not a Guggenheim by any stretch of the imagination. So it’s, if you go over there, it’s pretty busy in this kid’s swimming and what sort of stuff. It’s got some things going for. But yeah, there’s one example where it’s at a scale that is confit in Brisbane, say where I mean, the, the iconic thing of, of Brisbane is the climate. That’s the iconic thing. And unfortunately, don’t build houses to suit the climate. We build houses of air conditioning systems, designed in Melbourne. Yeah, that’s another story.

Gene Tunny  35:41

Yeah. Yeah, coming back to the white elephant. So the last criterion that you specified, the decision to proceed with a policy or project should be that of a group, not an individual ruler. So all case study selected involves some form of collective decision making process in a democratic environment, not by tyrants, dictators or in authoritarian regimes. That’s because we just assume dictators will do crazy things.

Scott Prasser  36:13

Starling, yeah, you know, Hitler, and those sort of people. North Korea, you can look at lots of those sort of, yeah, sort of buildings, they can make it happen. Sometimes it’s, you know, it’s great. I mean, I suppose you could say Adolf gave us the German highways, which were brilliantly designed and, and still are pretty brilliant to drive on. They’re much better than American highways. But you know, that’s a big cost to pay. But I think all the things we’re talking about, were decided in this democratic system. That is there’s a so called independent public service, there was some sort of parliamentary approval, there’s some sort of accountability, there’s some sort of openness about them. They, I mean, Mr. Beattie, might have been a very powerful Premier, but he still had to get approval from his cabinet. One assumes for the things that went ahead, yeah, so we can’t just blame the premier, you know, the premier was part of a government. Yeah, therefore, we say, and we have a reasonable, you know, free press to comment on things. So that’s what we’re saying that you can’t just blame, you know, one person in our solar system. Our white elephants have been collective fair decisions, if you like, right, we’ve tried to point out.

Gene Tunny  37:29

So we’ve got to look out for them as, as citizens, or if we’re in government, then we should be looking out for these things. And because they’re not really, what’s your view on whether they’re actually politically sensible or not? Like if you’re if you’re just looking at completely politically? Do you think these things? Do politicians get a benefit from them, when they open? When they open the desal plant, or they open a new school that ends up running under capacity or a new hospital?

Scott Prasser  37:58

They think they do. Now, that’s politicians, I often have arguments in with politicians about grants and things, you know, why are we involved in giving out this grant of $5,000 to x project so the local member can hand over this check? Do which gets a tiny article in the local paper. Do you really, really, think, minister, that this is going to get votes for the government? Yes, Scott, you don’t understand politics. I do understand the politics. I’m saying it’s not very good politics.

Gene Tunny  38:33

Yeah. Okay. So as an advisor, you’ve got made a push back. Yeah. Okay.

Scott Prasser  38:40

I’m very proud that on a couple of things. There was one crazy idea going on in one office, about a moving government testing body to somewhere in the country. And the public servants said to me, Scott, this is going to cost $50 million to do . That is what it’s going to cost, what can we do? I said, we’re going to slow it down. And we slowed it down. And got so slow down, it didn’t get to cabinet, and it was too late for the election. Right. We didn’t do it. Okay. How are we all happy.

Gene Tunny  39:18

Right. Okay, so, going back to your book, just before we wrap up the white elephant stampede. We talked about the desal plant. You talking about the payroll system debacle here in Queensland, the state of Australia, we’re in other what other examples are there in this book? Are there international examples too?

Scott Prasser  39:42

Yes, there is one. Paul Hooper talks about airports. He’s basically, a what do you call him a transport economist? Yeah. And PhD has worked in, worked overseas. And he looks at how new airports often become phenomenal, disasters in one in Berlin became a disaster, one in Thailand. And he looks at how airports often develop with little thought about what it really gonna cost and how effective it will be. So, there’s when he looks at those sort of things, I think that’s a really good one to look at. So in his national one, if you like, the Olympic Games and looks in other Olympic Games, as we’ve talked about, so we’ve talked about those, the other one I like is the COVID Safe App, which people may remember in the Commonwealth Government, the COVID Safe App. Okay. And I had come in, I refused to join, join it, by the way, as I did on anything, I never tried to join and link up with government. And that’s been a complete waste of time and effort. Yeah. Right. And, again, the government rushing into it and sometimes technology makes government think, Oh, we can use this new technology for something. And again, that wasn’t wasn’t thought thought through. So there’s a very recent example, which is in the book being discussed by Professor Schwartz, who used to be Vice Chancellor of Macquarie University and so on and is an extremely bright person. There’s an example of that very, it didn’t cost a lot of money, but it still cost some money and took up a lot of time. And and expectations were just never met, it eventually just faded away.

Gene Tunny  41:35

That’s completely useless. So what was it it was an app on the phone at work through Bluetooth and if you passed, every time you pass someone who also had the app on and Bluetooth was enabled, there would be a communication that you you’d register that you were in close proximity one and a half metres within one and a half metres of this person. And therefore if they tested positive for COVID, you would then get notified or you are in close proximity of someone who had COVID and that was supposed to allow us to manage goes better.

Scott Prasser  42:07

Appalling, appalling authoritarian government scenario going on I mean, fact that it was it was a liberal so called Liberal government brought tortures up. Is even m ore repulsive. What’s the next bright idea coming from the powers that be in Canberra land?

Gene Tunny  42:25

Yeah, well.

Scott Prasser  42:26

I mean, Canberra is a white elephant by the way, the whole thing. That’s another story.

Gene Tunny  42:31

I know that it was in the top 10 policy mistakes public policy mistakes for Australia that the Institute of Public Affairs put out. I forget how many years.

Scott Prasser  42:43

Redfern post office or something was the other one where all the mail went through Redfern and Sydney exchange and got stuck if there was a strike. Means all the mail in Australia got stuck on something like that. I think it was Redfern, one of those sort of things. And see the other thing is government often put all their eggs in one basket. Yeah, another issue. And this is why a federal system of government is good because you can have different baskets going on. And if you over over capitalised, you turn over capitalise in your house, you have interpreters in your car, or government going over capitalising in spending money. Yeah, and they put all their eggs in this, this is the solution for the problem. And of course, you ought to have a couple of horses in the race rather than just one horse in the policy race. If you’re lying. There are many ways to policy heaven, I say. Yeah, so we all be careful about adopting just one thing as the magic solution.

Gene Tunny  43:46

I was just thinking, does anyone talk about is there a chapter on public transport projects in there?

Scott Prasser  43:51

No, not Not really. But that might be next book we what we’re wanting to do is, is have a series, another book coming out and have an annual White Elephant award. Yeah, that’s what we want to do. And we’re going to link up with project management institute and Master Builders Association, those sort of bodies, Master Builders, of course, I’ll build anything they sell me. They’ll build anything, downside, people pay, they’ll knock down as long as people pay. They don’t question the value of what they’re doing. If you give me money, we’ll build it. No matter how stupid and how bad the design will be. We’ll build it. That’s not our decision. Okay.

Gene Tunny  44:29

Yeah. Well, I was just thinking public transport because there’s a bit of a question about whether this new subway project we’re building here in Brisbane is economically viable, particularly now as the cost of it’s blowing out. It’s one of these mega projects Cross River Rail.

Scott Prasser  44:45

That’s right, blowing out. The Sydney light rail project is one that’s been very expensive and very disruptive and took longer and so on and so forth. And given that what we’ve learned from COVID. What have we learned about how lot of people can work from home. We don’t really need all these offices and buildings running around the place. And so Heaven has arrived, in a sense, you can work from home. And given that, you know, a lot of our people workforce works in white collar office type jobs, then that’s possible. When I was in the public service, it was very hard to work from home. Okay, it was very hard to let one of your staff work from home, there’s all sorts of forms that had to be filled out. And sometimes some staff could work more effectively at home, you’re not being interrupted by, you know, coffee halls, and I would let staff work from home sort of unofficially. And, okay, you got three days, I want, all I want to see is the paper at the end of the three days, and had that person stayed in the office, it probably would have taken two weeks, because of all the disruptions and meetings and, and rubbish that goes on. So now we can work more from home. So we need to think about, you know, when people travel, why they travel? And do we need a lot of the infrastructure, you know, coming into the city? For what purpose? And for how many?

Gene Tunny  46:13

Yeah, so I’m just thinking, what’s the how do we fix this? I mean, can we actually fix it? Or is it just a feature of our democratic system is, we’re always gonna have politicians being political. Could should our journalists be challenging the politicians to give us the to provide the cost benefit analysis before us bill? Should there should be rigorous scrutiny of that cost benefit analysis? Should we have competing cost benefit analyses? So you’re not just getting the view from Deloitte or the view from whoever that this is a great project and I mean, the government’s paid them a tonne of money tax, right.

Scott Prasser  46:48

That’s right, I certainly wouldn’t trust those people. Well, we’ve done this, haven’t we in other areas of government, I mean, the Productivity Commission. And it’s for run, the industries Assistance Commission, which which came out of the Whitlam government period, are examples where if you set up a process, and you have public reporting, and I’m not totally in favour of everything the Productivity Commission has recommended, but we know, don’t we, that if you want to keep x industry going, it is going to cost you $15,000 per employee to keep x industry going. You didn’t know that before. And now I’m, I’m all in favour of that information being in the public arena. But I’m also in favour of governments making democratic political decisions about keeping in industry costing $15,000. But I think the taxpayer ought to know what it’s costing in the trouble of so many of our projects, and especially state governments, which tend to be more secretive, is that we often are not told the truth about the cost of a project. It’s fuzzy, fuzzy figures. Don’t you worry about answers. Yeah. Okay. So in public policy, we often talk about speaking truth to power, that is, advisors, telling the leader, the King, the minister, the truth about what’s going on, highly admirable, if you don’t want to get shot or deported or whatever. The King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, he was a very hardworking king, he was absolute king. He worked from four in the morning till midnight, he had ministers, and they would have to report to him once a year of annual report. And but he did allow his ministers to tell him the truth, the one he put into jail for six months, he didn’t cut his head off. But he was telling him that the King’s idea was really a bad idea. And he released him because he said he was right. But I think the other problem we’ve gotten our democracy is that governments don’t talk truth to the people. We have so much political pallava going on. And we’re seeing it now, with the Albanese government over the defence projects, I’ll blame the previous government. Well, how about we have a real valuation of projects properly, rather than just jumping into the blame game sort of process all the time. How about telling us what the real alternatives that you came to government? You said that you could decrease energy costs that we need to spend more money on these things? Or how are we going to do it? How are we going to do it? And I think I would like some processes set up in Queensland, I’ve often recommended there should be a state priorities commission. And it should operate a bit like the Productivity Commission, we sort of have one. And anytime a government wants to do saying it should go to this body and it should release a Cost Assessment in the public arena. Yes, right. Yes. Yeah. It’s got to be independent, truly independent, not filled with political hacks or whatever, and then the government, then the government can make a decision, we’re still going to go ahead with the project because we think this is in the wider public interest. Yeah. So that’s what I think should happen. You’ve got to have processes. And you’ve got to insulate some of the advisory systems from the interference in the public. We’ve seen from Royal Commission, the Royal Commission to overseas doctors, in 2005, highlighted how the Premier’s department interfered in the release of quality reports about health. There was fixing of the hospital waiting list. Okay. This is all down to politics by the public. We had all we had all the body we had health Commission’s we had ombudsman, we had all sorts of rules that they weren’t insulated from political interference. I believe the biggest problem Australia’s got is not climate change is the politicisation of our public service, our judiciary, and our universities, where we people are appointed because of their political allegiances, not because of their competence. And because of that people are showing their allegiance to the governor of the day, and they’ll do what the government wants them to do.

Gene Tunny  51:20

Right. And that’s both sides of politics.

Scott Prasser  51:25

Newman missed a great opportunity in not fixing the problem. And his government was marked by just as many bad cases of cronies getting positions.

Gene Tunny  51:37

Right. Okay. Okay. Yep. There’s a lot of politicisation for sure. And that’s behind these white elephants. Absolutely. Okay. So any final points? Scott, what did you think? Were some of the highlights of this book? What are you most happy about with this, this edited volume?

Scott Prasser  51:58

Well, I think it was interesting how easily we got people to find examples. And then there was an as we could have been twice the size, okay. We didn’t think initially we would have a lot of interest. But a lot of people we’ve sent a flyer to, and we’re going to have a launch in November, in Brisbane and one in Canberra that there’s tremendous interest in this. And our job is to try and make people aware, what we want, we want we’re not against public funding. We want public funding spent more effectively. And if you’re talking about sustainability and the environment, surely we shouldn’t be wasting money on projects that are consuming resources and causing pollution in the construction or whatever it may be. When there are alternatives in the way, things could be done. That’s what we’re really on about. And we’re sort of surprised that the universities are letting us down on not being critical commentators on these sorts of things. There’s there’s very few people in universities writing about these sorts of matters.

Gene Tunny  53:12

Okay. Scott Prasser, thanks so much for your time chatting about white elephants has been terrific. Really enjoyed it. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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