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Monday, 3 March 1997
Page: 1774


Mr VAILE(10.18 p.m.) —I certainly welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate on these bills. They have had a bit of a chequered career over the last four years. There was an initial introduction of similar bills by the previous government which came through the parliament and were referred by the previous Minister for Finance to the Joint Committee of Public Accounts, of which I have been a member. In the previous parliament we put together report No. 331, an advisory report on the Financial Management and Accountability Bill, the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Bill and the Auditor-General Bill. Those bills subsequently lapsed with the proroguing of the parliament, after going through the House of Representatives and passing through the Senate with an amendment that the House of Representatives was not prepared to accept. So I support these bills before the House tonight and want to congratulate the government and the minister on putting together a fairly wide-reaching package of reform as far as the finances of the Commonwealth are concerned.

These bills replace the Audit Act of 1901, bring the financial management of the Commonwealth into the 1990s and prepare for the Commonwealth to go into the next century. Probably most important of all, and the area on which there has been the most public attention with regard to these bills, has been the role of the Auditor-General. The JCPA presented two reports on the Auditor-General, No. 296 and No. 346, the establishment of the position of Auditor-General as an independent officer of the parliament being a recommendation in the latter.

It was fairly widely held that, after the activities of the previous government, the then Auditor-General did not have any control over the financial management of his office. I think the previous speaker, the member for Wannon (Mr Hawker), alluded to the establishment of the Auditor-General in Centenary House and the exorbitant rent that was being paid. The Auditor-General of the day, Mr Taylor, had no control over that. The JCPA of the day recommended that the Auditor-General have more autonomy over the budget of his department. But I note in this bill the recommendation has been picked up to give the Auditor-General more independence, not only in name but more explicitly by being an independent officer of the parliament.

I also note that in both reports on both pieces of legislation, in the previous parliament and this one, the JCPA recommended that the Auditor-General Bill should provide that the Auditor-General be appointed as the auditor of all Commonwealth entities and the Auditor-General has a general mandate to initiate the full range of audits in relation to all Commonwealth entities, including performance audits of GBEs, a recommendation that, as a member of the Joint Public Accounts Committee in both the 37th Parliament and the 38th Parliament, I supported. I note that the previous government was reluctant to pick up that recommendation, but in this bill it has been picked up to the extent that it provides for GBEs, both authorities and companies.

The Auditor-General may only conduct a performance audit where the Minister for Finance or the responsible minister, or the JCPAA, requests such an audit. So that has been broadened from where it used to be and that is welcome.

I also welcome the move by the government to establish an audit committee of the parliament as one of the functions of the JCPA. It will now be known as the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit.

The measures that we are supporting this evening are very important for the ongoing responsible financial management of the Commonwealth accounts and reflect the way that the Commonwealth conducts its business with Commonwealth corporations and entities, as well as authorities. These bills reflect that. There is also the perception in the community that we need to see more autonomy and independence as far as the Auditor-General is concerned, and his closer connection with the parliament rather than with the executive and that there be less control over the Auditor-General by the executive than there is by the parliament.

I commend the bills to the House. I certainly am not prepared to support the amendment that has been put forward by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Gareth Evans). The amendment is a pious one. The opposition, then the government, had the opportunity to negotiate these bills through the House in the previous parliament. They did not succeed in doing that. The current Minister for Finance has done a good job in putting this package together to take the Commonwealth's operations in this area through to the next century. I commend the bills to the House.