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Enablers of the Neo-Liberal State? Exploring the Role of the International Accounting-Consulting Firms in Australia Since the Mid-1980s

Michael Howard ()
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Michael Howard: The University of Newcastle, School of Humanities and Social Science

No 2019-01, Newcastle Business School Discussion Paper Series: Research on the Frontiers of Knowledge from The University of Newcastle, Australia

Abstract: This Discussion Paper is part of a wider contemporary history project examining the growth and role of the commercial consultancy and contractor market within the public sector in Australia since the neo-liberal turn in the mid-1980s. The paper considers evidence as to whether the role of the big international accounting firms within the public sector was ‘neo-liberal’ in nature, either as a result of ideological and policy advocacy or technical facilitation of pre-set neo-liberal directions. The extent to which these firms (currently PwC, KPMG, EY and Deloitte) are seen as integrated or fragmented organisations has some bearing on this question. Hence, the first quarter of the paper sketches the historical broadening-out of the firms from accounting to a wider range of services, the debate over whether they have functioned as global corporations or networked partnerships, the rationalisation of the leading firms over the past three decades and the relatively sparse commentary from political scientists about the significance of the firms and other commercial consultants for public policy and administration in Australia. The second quarter of the paper points to the role of the firms in regard to two markers of a neo-liberal policy direction: privatisation of government business enterprises and particular tax policies and practices. Drawing on qualitative sources, it argues that while the firms made some contribution to the agenda-setting process in both areas, in tacitly (privatisation) or explicitly (taxation) signalling their broad policy preferences, they played a more fundamental role in detailed policy formulation and implementation – in easing the path of privatisation and corporate tax minimisation. The second half of the paper summarises original research by the author in regard to official public listings of consultancies and contracts at the national government level. This quantitative analysis yields important findings: that overall spending on the firms displayed a long-term, consistent and strong increase, both in absolute terms and relative to other consultancies and contractors; that this spending went far beyond accounting and auditing to many areas of management, though with financial analysis likely to underpin management inputs; and that a good deal of this work appeared to be oriented to program content and policy-relevant tasks. otwithstanding these findings, the paper emphasises that the extent to which this work confirmed to neo-liberal markers – such as support for private modes of provision and greater competition – cannot be readily confirmed, due to limitations in the official summary data. Such confirmation can only be achieved by qualitative case studies.The paper acknowledges that, as the firms have broadened their personnel and services over the three decades, much of the management and technology work of the firms in the public sector is unlikely to be intrinsically neo-liberal but potentially compatible with other philosophies of the public sector. Nonetheless, the growing presence of the firms within the public sector does erode notions of public sector capability and distinctive ethos. The paper concludes with a brief pointer to how the foregoing discussion, and further research, can be related to the academic literature on the differing roles played by commercial consultants in relation to clients, ranging from legitimation and facilitation of client preferences through to independent advice and learning.

Keywords: Auditing; Accounting; Privatisation; Taxation; Consultants; Contracting-out; Policy; Management (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: D73 H20 H26 L33 L84 M40 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Pages: 31 pages
Date: 2019
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-acc and nep-his
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