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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1215

Mr PYNE (5:47 PM) —It is a pleasure to speak on the Auditor-General Amendment Bill 2008 [2009], particularly as I represent, in the House of Representatives, the shadow special minister of state, who resides in the Senate. The bill gives practical effect to recommendations by the 2001 Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit in its review of the Auditor-General Act. These recommendations were largely accepted by the coalition, and the extremely minor caveats of the government of the day are reflected in the current text of the bill. The proposed amendments are technical and in the view of the opposition are non-controversial. They will serve to clarify performance audit reports and broaden their distribution to interested parties.

The amendments will provide for the inclusion of comments on proposed reports in final reports and clarify the circumstances in which audit information made available to entities and other parties in the course of a performance audit may be disclosed. The bill will also update the penalty provisions in the Auditor-General Act to bring them in line with current criminal law policy. Subsection 15(2) of the Auditor-General’s Act currently requires the Auditor-General to table a copy of a performance audit report in each house of the parliament and give a copy to the responsible minister. While it is the Auditor-General’s practice to provide the chief executive of the audited agency with a copy of the report, this is not explicitly authorised by the act. The amendment to subsection 15(2) would provide explicit authority for the Auditor-General to give a copy of the report to the chief executive of the agency that is the subject of the report.

This amendment will ensure that the chief executive receives a copy of the report at the same time as the responsible minister, which is appropriate as the chief executive has direct responsibility for the operations of the audited agency. This will provide the opportunity for the chief executive to consider the content of the report and for briefing to be prepared for the responsible minister prior to tabling. The new subsection 36(2B) would make it an offence for persons who receive information under new section 23A to use or disclose that information except where those persons are also themselves performing an Auditor-General function—for example, staff of the Australian National Audit Office. The maximum penalty for this offence would be two years imprisonment.

This is consistent with other penalties for similar offences set out in section 36 of the Auditor-General Act. The extension of the confidentiality provision in this manner preserves the integrity of the audit process, particularly as information obtained by the Auditor-General in exercise of the Auditor-General’s broad information-gathering powers may be confidential and sensitive. This is particularly important where any information and findings are only of a preliminary nature and have not been presented to the parliament.

The opposition regards this bill as noncontroversial. The financial implications of the legislation are nil, and therefore the opposition can happily lend its support this bill, unlike the other bills that have been debated today.