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Tuesday, 31 May 1994
Page: 954

Senator PARER (5.27 p.m.) —I wish to speak to the government's response to Auditor-General's report No. 9, and to support the motion moved by my colleague Senator Campbell.

  It is interesting to note in the government's response that the Department of Finance sought information from a whole lot of portfolios as to the programs which might be considered to be similar to the community cultural, recreation and sporting facilities program. It came out with a number of categories one of which attracted me. It referred to payments under which grants are paid to individuals, organisations or other governments where the payments are permissive or discretionary. That is a very quaint choice of words in view of the Auditor-General's report on the whole sports rorts affair. It goes on to define them, but I think the words `permissive' and `discretionary' were very apt in these circumstances.

  The government appended a schedule listing those items which were described as permissive or discretionary. I added them up. I found there were 230, plus or minus a few, that were permissive or discretionary—in other words, 230 programs that would fit the bill of being similar to what happened with the sports grants. I submit that this represents very fertile ground for future investigations by the Auditor-General if this government does not take away his funding—as has already been referred to by my colleague Senator Chapman and by Senator Lees—because certainly the Auditor-General has suffered thus.

  Recently I spoke at an educational seminar in this place which was attended by a lot of people from the Auditor-General's office. They were genuinely concerned about the fact that they were being singled out for treatment by this government because of their actions in doing their job. One person actually asked me what they should do in the future. I said, `Be fearless. Continue to be fearless, because you are the guardians of the taxpayers' money—of how government spends its money'. That is the role of the Auditor-General and nothing could enhance that perception of it more than what happened with Auditor-General's report No. 9. I have raised the issues of pork-barrelling of taxpayers' money and sports grants, as have Senator Baume, Senator Campbell and others over a couple of years, but it was not until the Auditor-General's report came down that the media grabbed it and took notice of it. I think that reflects the high credibility of the Auditor-General, and he should maintain it.

  I want to address a concern that was expressed in the media and was raised by me and Senator Crane in the estimates hearings and that is the concern that, because the Auditor-General did his job—in fact, because he carried out his statutory duty—he has been singled out for adverse attention by this government. Articles in the Canberra Times had pointed out that senior public servants and statutory officers were to be given a 20 per cent pay increase if they went on to contracts. The indications in the newspaper were that cabinet had looked at this, decided to penalise the Auditor-General and used a trick to do it.

  That trick was to say that if a person was 60 years of age or over that person could not participate in a contract. That person would therefore not get the benefit of the wage increase which would then reflect on the officer for the rest of his or her life after retirement. But, guess what, cabinet picked up the head of the Department of Defence, Mr Tony Ayers, as well—an unintended consequence. That is the sort of dirty pool that this government is suspected of playing.

  I raised this at Estimates Committee D, asking Senator Cook whether Tony Ayers had been picked up in this process. If that were the case it would be a scandal of momentous proportions. Putting to one side what was done to the Auditor-General, the unintended consequence was Mr Tony Ayers suffering disadvantage simply because he was over 60 and the government was really trying to get hold of Mr John Taylor. Senator Cook said that he would view such a thing seriously too, but he went on to say:

The Auditor-General is subject to the Remuneration Tribunal.

I see that Senator Coates, who was chairman of that committee, is in the chamber, and I recall he made a similar remark. I then asked:

But was the decision to make 60 the cut-off a Remuneration Tribunal decision or a cabinet decision?

The officer in attendance did not know. Then the chairman, Senator Coates, said:

I must say I had assumed that the decision, or the proposal, applied to heads of executive departments and that statutory officers who were already appointed for fixed terms were not relevant to this matter.

Senator Cook went on to say that this was something for the Public Service Commissioner rather than for the Department of Finance. I raised the fact that the Auditor-General was responsible to the Minister for Finance and then asked:

Can I get some answer as to where it sits and who is going to make the final decision?

I wanted to know if the Auditor-General was going to be chopped off. The allegations in various newspapers were that because he had done the job he was being singled out for treatment. Senator Cook responded that this matter was not an appropriate one to raise at this point. He said:

We do not want to set a precedent for doing it in a cacky-handed sort of way just because we happen to be before you.

That is the sort of language we have to come to expect from the Prime Minister (Mr Keating). I have not heard it much from Senator Cook and I was somewhat surprised by it. It seems to me that an answer should have been given. I do not believe that the chairman was in a position to know one way or another, but he offered an opinion.

  It was made pretty clear to me that this was all to do with the Public Service Commissioner. By way of comparison, at the estimates committee hearing into industrial relations, Senator Crane questioned Senator Ray about this same matter. Senator Crane asked whether Mr Tony Ayers from the Department of Defence had got caught up in the contract arrangements that were being put in place which would increase salary by trading off tenure. Senator Ray responded by saying that Mr Brereton was writing to the Remuneration Tribunal to put an alternative, and that he understood that it rested with the Remuneration Tribunal. Bear in mind that I had a different answer from Senator Cook.

  Senator Crane went on to talk about other things and the possibility that Mr Ayers had got caught up in this. Senator Crane asked Senator Ray:

Does this affect senior officers in any other department?

He was referring to the cut-off at 60. Senator Ray said:

It does not affect any departmental secretaries. As I understand—I will get confirmation in a moment—the Remuneration Tribunal has to consider cases of statutory officers.

Senator Coates had said that statutory officers had already been appointed for fixed terms and were not relevant to this matter.

Senator Coates —A reasonable opinion.

Senator PARER —Okay, it was his opinion at the time. Senator Ray said that the Remuneration Tribunal had to consider cases of statutory officers. He said:

I think cabinet originally asked—

another tricky manoeuvre—

for six statutory officers to be considered in this round. The Remuneration Tribunal said, `No, that list is not comprehensive.'

It must have been a wake-up to all this. He continued:

I think it is now looking at about 60 statutory officers and is due to report back on those in a package.

Senator Crane then asked:

Does this also `catch' the Auditor-General, Mr Taylor.

Senator Ray said:

The Auditor-General is a statutory officer beyond the age of 60. Therefore, what alternatives exist for him may well be caught up in the review of all statutory officers. If he is the only one affected, he may well also have the option that I hope Mr Ayers has.

Obviously, Senator Ray was embarrassed. Here we had a senior departmental official—one of the most senior in the country—being penalised as an unintended consequence of what appears to be the government saying to the Auditor-General, `Because you did your statutory job, because you brought out report No. 9, because in the process the whole sports rorts affair was uncovered, we are going to penalise you.' If that is the case—I do not know that it is—it is one of the most disgraceful acts to be perpetrated by any government since Federation.