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Tuesday, 13 October 1931

Mr COLEMAN - The honorable member is dogmatizing as usual. The Public Accounts Committee and the Public Works Committee have power to make reports to Parliament, to direct attention to improper public expenditure, and to propose reforms. I give credit to 95 per cent. of honorable members for possessing a sincere desire to do their best to see that public money is properly expended; but 1 feel disgusted when I hear some honorable members sneer and jibe at other honorable members, and charge them with ulterior motives when they are honestly endeavouring to do their duty. It makes one feel disposed to retire from parliamentary life altogether. Those who make such remarks usually receive their deserts in the long run. An examination of the cost of making inquiries into various subjects by means of parliamentary committees shows that this is an effective and economical way of conducting investigations. Such inquiries also have the result of informing honorable members on many important public questions. To show the comparative cost of inquiries by royal commissions and by the Public Accounts Committee, I quote the following figures : -


Yet some honorable members evidently desire to revert to the old practice of appointing boards, tribunals and commissions which arc beyond the control of Parliament, to make inquiries which parliamentary committees could make with more effect and at less cost. It is surely bettor foi- this Parliament to cause inquiries to be made by bodies which are under its direct control. Such statements as have been made this afternoon in regard to public committees anger me, and force me to speak warmly. An honorable member has said that 1 am speaking in defence of the Public Accounts Committee from fear that I might lose my position as chairman of it. It would not matter to me personally if the committee were abolished. But I assert, without hesitation, that it would be a sorry mistake for Parliament to destroy a body of such proved usefulness. Only the other day 1 read a recently published book entitled Bureaucracy Triumphant by Professor Allen, in which he pointed out that under modern parliamentary democracy there has been a tendency towards indifference, ignorance or apathy in respect to the rights of Parliament, and that this has gradually had the result of causing executive governments to assume wider and wider authority over finance, administration and legislation. In my opinion the committee system provides a salutary check upon the growth of this tendency. Committee members arc imbued with a sense of personal responsibility. The\ are given a task to do and they do it. In these circumstances it is surely worth the while of this Parliament to maintain this nucleus of members to make inquiries and submit reports on subjects of primary importance.

I have pointed out that the Public Accounts Committee has power to initiate inquiries. Out of the 37 inquiries it has made, 19 have been initiated by itself, including those on such important subjects as the sale of the Commonwealth Government line of steamers and the Pacific Islands mail services. These two inquiries were of great national importance. They resulted in the effecting of widespread economies and notable if controversial reforms. People who criticize the work of the Public Accounts Committee do not understand what it is doing. While the Public Accounts Committee was making its recent inquiry into the finances of South Australia it discovered that between the years 1906-07 and 1929-30 the State deficit was £6,682,000 greater than was revealed by the annual statements of accounts presented to the State Parliament over that period. This coupled with other information, impelled the committee to enter upon its present inquiry into the need for uniformity in government accounts. The committee having due regard for economy has avoided unnecessary travelling between State capitals, and has received many statements by post in preference to incurring the expense of calling witnesses to give sworn testimony. It is following that practice in connexion with its current inquiry into the necessity for uniformity in the presentation of government accounts, the manner in which the reports of the Auditors-General, the budget papers, Estimates and Treasurer's financial statements are submitted to Parliament. This is a most important inquiry, which has been commended by many people - not by cynics who are prepared to charge the members of the committee with the paltry desire to draw fees, but by such men as Professors Giblin, Copland, Bland, Melville, and Hytten. These men have said that this examination is highly desirable. So have the Auditors-General of NewSou th Wales and Victoria., and such citizens as Mr. Westhoven, the Public Service Arbitrator, and Dr. Earle Page. Many others have also testified to the necessity for adopting some uniform system of preparing public accounts, in order that Parliaments may have a more effective control over, and understanding of, public expenditure. Instead of talking about lowering the prestige and authority of such a body as the Public Accounts Committee, this House should insist upon the committee being given freedom to carry out its most responsible functions. There should be a similar system of accounts committees in operation in every State, as there is in South Africa, in the United States of America, and in Great Britain. One of the objects of this committee is to operate as a check upon executive governments. Consequently, I am surprised that there should be any hostility to it.

Honorable members should hesitate before they pronounce adversely upon the work of the committee.. In a few week's time, the Public Accounts Committee will submit proposals for the securing of a greater measure of uniformity, and a greater degree of clarity, in tlie presentation of public accounts to the Commonwealth Parliament and the Parliaments of the various States. Over a period of years we have paid away millions of pounds in State gi a Jits, and now, in conformity with the financial agreement, we have certain statutory obligations in regard to payments in lieu of the per capita payments, and it is highly desirable that Parliament should know exactly what it is doing in connexion with these matters. It is impossible for a parliament, in the aggregate, to make a detailed investigation into subjects of this description. The work should be entrusted to small committees.

At the recent Premiers Conference, a desire was expressed for a clear statement of the comparative financial position of the various States; but the experts who were asked to compile this information reported that it was impossible for them to do so, because there was no basis upon which the various accounts could be properly compared owing to the absence of uniformity in government accounting. The Accounts Committee, in looking into this subject, has found that this was the case. There was no uniformity in the accounting methods of the Governments, and it is consequently impossible to make any reliable comparison. Appreciating these facts, the members of the committee, with a high conception of their public duty, set about trying to devise some means of introducing uniformity into the various government accounting systems. The committee is also now dealing with the important subject of the form in which the Estimates are submitted to Parliament. Hitherto, as I have pointed out, it has been impossible for the committee to undertake such work, because various Governments have requested it to make investigations into other specific matters of great importance. As honorable members have objected in the past to the adoption of the policy of referring matters to expensive royal commissions which are beyond effective criticism by Parliament, and as the Accounts Committee has been given ihe statutory power to make such in- quiries, it should be left free to make them. Dr. Earle Page has admitted the importance of this work, and numbers of people who have appeared before the committee have agreed that what is everybody's business is nobody's business. Another matter to which the committee is directing attention is the practice of aggregating expenditure in one large amount, and submitting it to Parliament without any details. The committee thinks that, in some cases, many unnecessary details are given. But it is also acknowledged that Parliament is entitled to be presented with accounts properly arranged and clearly presented. When such men as Professor Bland, Professor Giblin, and others commend work of this kind, honorable members should surely bo willing to admit- its value. We certainly should not revert to the old system of drift. It is essential, particularly in these times, that parliamentary accounts and all financial statements issued by public authorities, should be published in such a way that they may be clearly examined and understood. Take, for example, a document like the annual report of the Commonwealth Auditor-General and the Treasurer's financial statement. If such a statement were presented to a private company it would be closely examined by the shareholders, and they would insist upon satisfying themselves that all the figures it contained were reliable and unchallengeable, and they would deal with the auditor's criticism. We all know that there have been differences of opinion between the Auditor-General and the Commonwealth Treasury in regard to various matters. A haphazard and unsatisfactory procedure has developed which, personally, I am anxious to see checked. There should be some proper system for the presentation of the Estimates, so that they may be discussed in an intelligent manner in this House, instead of as so often happens, being rushed through without consideration. Very few honorable members concern themselves with the details of governmental expenditure. On more than one occasion the. Treasurer (Mr. Theodore), when in Opposition, urged that our Standing Orders should be amended in order that a definite time could be set aside for the consideration of the various items in the Estimates. 1 agree that this should be done, but it is not enough. A group of members, such as the Public Accounts Committee, should be delegated to examine the Estimates and report to this House. In this way it should be possible to prevent leakages and extravagances in expenditure.I repeat that, personally, I should not be much concerned if the Public Accounts Committee were abolished, but I feel sure that such action would mean a great deal to this Parliament. I, therefore, appeal to the superficial critic to defer his judgment. By examining the position carefully, he will realize that the abolition of the Public Accounts Committee would be a retrograde step, out of keeping with modern parliamentary procedure, and in direct opposition to the expressed views of every expert financial and economic authority who has given consideration to this subject.

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