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Thursday, 14 June 2007
Page: 51

Senator MARK BISHOP (12:47 PM) —The Governance Review Implementation (Science Research Agencies) Bill 2007 is part of a procession of legislation coming before parliament implementing the recommendations of the report of Mr John Uhrig. As we know from similar legislation considered recently, the Uhrig report recommended new governance arrangements for many government agencies. The simple purpose was to streamline accountability—that is a pretty straightforward management practice. It is also about efficiency and better defining roles, responsibilities and relationships. It is about gaining greater clarity and clearer lines of communication in organisations. Most importantly, it is about improving the relationship between government ministers and the bureaucracy. We support this legislation because all this is good governance. But it is more than just the relationship between government ministers and chief executives; it is also about relationships, lines of communication within organisations and lines of communication between organisations.

As we know, the Commonwealth has an incredible maze of organisations. First, there are the line departments, which are the principal sources of policy and program management. In most portfolios there is a swag of smaller agencies, and some of these are established by specific statute. The list is long and there is a huge variety under each source of authority. The summary developed by the Department of Finance and Administration is very informative. Roughly, there is a division between those covered by the Public Service Act and the Financial Management and Accountability Act and those which are not; however, most are covered by the respective acts. There is an inclination to bring as many agencies as possible into that framework for consistent governance and accountability. There are other agencies which are not dependent on budgets and which are more commercially orientated, and they are accountable under the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act. They must be set up by legislation for a public purpose and they must be a body corporate and hold money on their own account. Slowly but surely we are now seeing a convergence of governance into these models.

There are, of course, a few anomalies. Parliamentary departments are a case in point, and there are some with historic origins which are politically difficult to tinker with. For example I refer to the Repatriation Commission, set up under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. When considered against the principles of the Uhrig report and the government’s program, this does still remain an anachronism. The bill today addresses governance changes for the above reasons in CSIRO, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. The principal change is in the appointment of the CEO, except for ANSTO. Instead of the Governor-General being the appointing power, there has been a shift to the board of each agency. These agencies therefore retain boards with executive power. That is distinct and different to other agencies where boards have been abolished or have lost executive power in favour of a more advisory role. The distinguishing factor is the degree of dependence on the budget and the independence considered appropriate by government. CSIRO, for example, while partly budget funded, also has a growing commercial interest. This for many has been a serious bone of contention, because its governance structure should reflect the nature of its business. Likewise, the role of the minister might need to be circumscribed. In this case, the minister’s responsibilities, for example, for contracts and funding limits have been reduced. For a quasi-commercial organisation such as CSIRO, that is also appropriate.

I do not need to go further into the specifics here but say that this rationalisation does make sense. But, as I have noted before on similar legislation, accountability is more than organisational structures and lines of reporting. It is more than improving communication and having better role clarity. It is also more than performance contracts and agreements, such as ministerial statements or letters of expectation. More than anything, it is about behaviour. And governance in the private sector is no different.

Look at the great catastrophes of recent times—for example, HIH. No amount of corporate legislation can prevent that sort of corruption. It is true that sanctions are available and that they do have some teeth. But that is not much solace for all of those investors who lost so much. Seeing some of the crooks behind bars might offer some comfort, but not enough. It is likewise with government agencies. Good governance does not guarantee good performance. In almost every case, good performance comes from good people.

Government agencies need worthwhile managers. Sometimes, as we know, that creates a dilemma, especially for those agencies with high specialisation. That might be specialisation in the law, medicine, science and many areas of research and policy development. Finding a CEO who has that status as well as the experience and the technical skill and reputation is sometimes, indeed often, difficult. This is particularly the case for the three agencies which are the subject of this bill.

The most critical element of each organisation is the quality of the chief executive officer. It is about far more than managing an internal budget. It is about being a leader in science and research and having a high personal reputation in the research community. Budgets are not difficult to manage; building commerciality and winning revenue are. Acting and managing organisations such as these in the public interest is also a most critical element. These organisations have few, if any, real competitors except, perhaps, within the research area, which as we know is rich in highly specialised niche sectors.

ANSTO is essentially regulatory and AIMS is uniquely concerned with the protection of our marine environment. So there is considerable diversity in these organisations, for which good governance measures must be applied. Let us hope that the refinements of the different models being made in this bill work to their advantage.

Let me conclude by repeating the remark I made about accountability the last time I spoke on a similar bill, and let me repeat the point I have made about behaviour being the fundamental ingredient of governance. The irony should not be lost on us. Despite this wonderful emphasis on accountability, it is being introduced by a government whose behaviour is the antithesis of good governance. The Howard government is probably the least accountable government this country has seen for a long time. The contradiction is absolutely breathtaking. We could go on for hours about the litany of failed accountability, but it would take much too long. We see it here at question time every day. We see it in nonanswers to questions on notice. We see the parliament being treated with contempt by ministers who prefer to say that it is too hard to answer a question—or, alternatively and increasingly, questions are deliberately misconstrued. I could go on.

The great disappointment in this behaviour is that others see their leadership’s values at work and in an open manner. Monkeys do as monkeys see. The example being set for the values and future behaviour of government is a matter of ongoing concern. The behaviour of spin, cover up, deceit and misrepresentation is now becoming universal. No matter how good our governance structures appear to be on paper and in black and white, it matters little if the current decline in government standards continues unabated.