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Friday, 7 May 1920

Mr HIGGS (Capricornia) .- I, too, would have preferred that the Acting Treasurer should have postponed the consideration of this Bill until next week.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - I will take the second reading if I can get it to-day, but before it again comes on for considera- tion in Committee, I will undertake to have the sections in the principal Act which we propose to amend placed side by side with the amendments themselves in order to show honorable members their effect.

Mr HIGGS - The Acting Treasurer does not wish the debate upon the Bill to be adjourned at once?

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - No.

Mr HIGGS - I think that the right honorable gentleman might very well agree to the insertion of one or two new clauses in this Bill with the object of improving the status of the AuditorGeneral. In my opinion, that officer's salary should be raised.

Mr Bamford - What does he get now?

Mr HIGGS - He receives a salary of £1,000.

Dr MALONEY (MELBOURNE, VICTORIA) - We ought to make that sum the limit of any salary.

Mr HIGGS - The honorable member has another profession besides that of member of Parliament.

Dr MALONEY (MELBOURNE, VICTORIA) - The honorable member knows that I gave it up seven years ago.

Mr HIGGS - I did not know it, but I know that the honorable member prescribes for quite a lot of people gratis and with entire good will. In this country we ought to have a better idea than we have of the financial value of a man's work, and we ought to follow the example of the Americans. It is quite true that for the average man £1,000 a year would be a very high salary. But we should remember that the Auditor-General has the care of many millions of pounds of expenditure by this Commonwealth. During the war that expenditure amounted to £120,000,000 per annum. An Auditor-General," if inefficient, might thus lose the Commonwealth millions of pounds. We ought, therefore, by paying him an adequate salary, to encourage him to take the best interest in his work.

Mr Bamford - The honorable member ought not to say that, because it implies that the Auditor-General does not take sufficient interest in his work.

Mr HIGGS - I do not wish to convey the impression to which the honorable member for Herbert (Mr. Bamford) has given utterance. As a matter of fact, I know that the Auditor-General exhibits an absorbing interest in his work, and I doubt whether he has much time for anything else. There is nothing in this Bill to improve that officer's status beyond the technical amendments referred to by the Acting Treasurer, which will have the effect of doing away with a certain amount of unnecessary work. But there is nothing in the measure empowering the Auditor-General to select his own staff, and that, I take it, is the -object which the honorable member for Wakefield (Mr. Foster) has in view. The AuditorGeneral is responsible for the audit of the accounts of the Commonwealth, and ought, therefore, to be allowed to select the men whom he shall employ. But that is not his position at the present time. I invite honorable members to read the correspondence which took place upon this matter between the AuditorGeneral and the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) and which appears in the records of last year. They will then see that the Auditor-General asked for some assistance - for the appointment of a considerable number of clerks-

Mr Richard Foster - He has done that on several occasions.

Mr HIGGS - The Royal Commission which inquired into the administration of the Navy and Defence Departments pointed out that the work of the AuditorGeneral was two years in arrears, and that it was practically impossible for an auditor to cover the whole of the ground which he had to traverse, and to keep up to date. The Auditor-General applied to the Prime Minister for an increase in his staff, and the Prime Minister, who is very anxious to keep his hand on the pulse of everything, and to do a great deal more than it is possible for any human being to do, referred the matter to Mr. Shepherd, the Secretary of the Department. Mr. Shepherd - against whom. I wish to say nothing derogatory excepting that, as an intelligent man he ought to have known that it was not his duty to direct the Auditor-General - actually told that officer that he ought to get not the number of clerks for which he asked, but some other number. I think Mr. Shepherd said either that that was not the first time he had had a disagreement with the Auditor-General, or that the Auditor-General' had had a disagreement with him. However, the

Prime Minister read his secretary's reply, which set out that it would be very difficult to make the alterations required. After getting Mr. Shepherd's reply, the Prime Minister referred the matter to Mr. Collins. One can readily understand what a wrong action that was to take. To his credit be it said, Mr. Collins at once recognised the invidious position in which he would be placed if he commented upon the work of the Auditor-General - the very officer who has to audit the Treasury accounts. Prom what I have said it will be seen that there is something wanting.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - The honorable member is conveying the impression that the Treasury make these appointments. He must know that the Public Service Commissioner makes them.

Mr HIGGS - I do not think that the House obtained, from my remarks, any such impression as is suggested by the Acting Treasurer. I have not stated that the Treasury makes the appointments.

Mr Hector Lamond - Why ' did the Auditor-General's request go to the Prime Minister's Department instead of to the Public Service Commissioner?

Mr HIGGS - May I read to the House the Auditor-General's remarks concerning this very important matter.

Mr Hector Lamond - Does not the Prime Minister's Department make the appointments - not the Public Service Commissioner ?

Mr HIGGS - The Auditor-General, in a memorandum to the Prime Minister, dated 9th May, 1918 - and the date shows the delay in the introduction of an amending measure - refers to certain recommendations, and says -

My own views are that effect should he given to those recommendations-

That is the recommendations of the Commissioners, some of which, as the Acting Treasurer (Sir Joseph Cook) states, are embodied in the amending Bill;

In the United Kingdom, the Comptroller and Auditor-General controls the "Exchequer and Audit Department"; in New South Wales the published Public Accounts describe the office as the "Auditor-General's Department": and in Tasmania the Department is named "Audit Department."

The Commissioners refer, however, to a " separate Department," and, in my opinion, this is most desirable. The Auditor-General should certainly be the " Head " of his own Department, and have his own "chief officer" therein, instead of being subject to the approval of a Ministerial Secretary (no matter how highly placed) to all proposals and recommendations for appointment, promotion, transfers, overtime work, employment of temporary assistance, and other operations in connexion with the Audit staffs.

And it is most desirable that the Audit Department should be a separate one. The Auditor-General further says - and this, to some extent, has reference to the inquiry of the honorable member for Illawarra (Mr. Hector Lamond) -

The operations of the Commonwealth Public Service Act have resulted in numerous delays before appointments have been made, or vacancies filled, with the result that the examination of public accounts has been seriously retarded, and the employment of relatively inferior services of temporary officers necessitated, which would otherwise have not been required. Months have elapsed before the appointments were made or vacancies filled.

Just imagine! If the Auditor-General requires special officers to audit the accounts of any Department, or of any activity controlled by the Government, he may have to wait months.

If the Auditor-General were allowed to select his own staff, subject to any necessary restrictions, there can be no question as to the resulting advantage and improvement, as delays would be avoided, and the most suitable officers for audit duties would be selected, the AuditorGeneral being the best judge of his own requirements.

I submit that the Acting Treasurer should have a clause drafted to provide that the Auditor-General shall have a separate Department, and that he may select his own officers. I respectfully ask the Minister to give this matter close consideration, because it is one on which the House ought to be given an opportunity to express an opinion. I agree with the honorable member who said that, in his opinion, the AuditorGeneral ought to be responsible to this Parliament; and, indeed, the AuditorGeneral is so responsible now. When the Auditor-General makes an interim report to the Treasurer, complaining of irregularities or difficulties he may have with any officer of the Public Service, Mr. Speaker ought to get a copy of that report.

Mr Richard Foster -There, I think, you go too far, though there are certain conditions under which Mr. Speaker should have a copy.

Mr Gregory - There' is the AuditorGeneral's Annual Report, which goes to the Speaker.

Mr HIGGS - But something more is required. It may be that those who receive the correspondence at the Treasury do not bring under the notice of the Treasurer of the day the complaints that the Auditor-General makes. That, however, is a matter of administration which can easily be remedied.

Mr Gregory - Complaints may be made which the Auditor-General afterwards finds are unfounded.

Mr HIGGS - That is true. What I have in my mind is that the AuditorGeneral complained of irregularities of an employee in. the Defence Department, but, although he had been complaining for months, that officer was retained, and, for all I know, may still be in the Public Service.

Mr Richard Foster - The honorable member makes it clear that the present conditions are not fair to the AuditorGeneral, who .ought to be absolute master of the situation.

Mr HIGGS - He is not. so at the present time. The Auditor-General urges that his Department should be a separate one, and that he ought not to be responsible to a Ministerial secretary, no matter how highly the latter may be placed.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - The case the honorable member is putting now would suggest that the Auditor-General desires to interfere in other Departments as well as his own.

Mr HIGGS - With every desire to assist the* Acting Treasurer in his endeavour to frame a proper Audit Bill, may I suggest that he ought not to make that insinuation?

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - But the honorable member said that tha Auditor-General had been complaining about an officer in the Defence Department, and added that, so far as he knew, the officer might still be in the Public Service. The AuditorGeneral is right in criticising an officer's work, but that is the limit of his interference.

Mr HIGGS - The Auditor-General pointed out irregularities on the part of this officer, but the latter had sufficient social, political, or other influence to retain his place in the service of the Commonwealth. Those irregularities referred to by the Auditor-General were smothered up as they should not have been.

Mr Richard Foster - It was the duty of the Auditor-General to report him.

Mr HIGGS - The House and the Treasurer ought to have known of these irregularities at an earlier date. Perhaps, if the Auditor-General had a separate Department, we should have known of the case earlier, and then, perhaps, we might have saved - I am not saying in this particular case - hundreds of thousands of pounds lost through the defalcation referred to by the Commissioners who inquired into the Naval and Military administration.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - *When the AuditorGeneral made his report concerning that officer his responsibility ceased, and the responsibility of the Minister began.

Mr HIGGS - The Auditor-General reported to the Treasurer, his Ministerial head--

Mr Hector LAMOND - I thought from the memorandum you read that the Prime Minister is the Ministerial head.

Mr HIGGS - For the reason .that the Treasurer did not make the appointment, he applied to the' Prime Minister, because the Public Service Commissioner is in the Prime Minister's Department.

Mr Richard Foster - The case ought to have been mentioned in his annual report.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - The AuditorGeneral now has the power to mention such matters in his report.

Mr HIGGS - May I suggest that die Acting Treasurer is not now in Opposition - a fact he seems unable, in his combativeness, to forget. Ib is not fair to the Auditor-General to suggest that he wishes to interfere in. other Departments because he asks that he be given a better status.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - I do not suggest that.

Mr HIGGS - I take it then, that the Minister withdraws his remark to that, effect.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - No; I agree that the Auditor-General should be absolutely independent in his office.

Mr.HIGGS.- The Auditor-General, who is responsible for the audit of millions of pounds 'of public money, should have the staff -which he desires within reason. I hope that consideration will be given to the point, and that before the Bill is passed an amendment will be introduced to make the necessary provision.

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