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Thursday, 1 December 1960

Mr THOMPSON (Port Adelaide) . - I do not intend to speak on this bill at length. The honorable member for Swan (Mr. Cleaver) has read from the report of the Public Accounts Committee, showing what the committee considered could happen, namely, that amounts owing at the end of the year could be hidden from the Parliament. But we must face the facts and consider not merely what could happen but also the interest that has been taken in this matter. As the AuditorGeneral pointed out, and as the Treasurer (Mr. Harold Holt) mentioned in his speech, when the accounts are sent in by departments the Auditor-General has to mention them in his report. We, as members of Parliament, want to receive the AuditorGeneral's report as quickly as we can for the discussion of the Budget.

So many departments have not fulfilled their obligations under the act to provide their list, that if the Auditor-General had waited for the lists to prepare his reports we would not have had his report in order to enlighten us in our discussion of the Budget. Throughout, we have not been able to find anybody who has been interested in bringing up any matter in connexion with the lists that should have been prepared. So, after evidence was taken, we recommended the deletion of the two provisions concerned.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Whitlam) said that the Government had authorized the Treasury to dispense with the statements required under section 36 (2.) of the Audit Act pending formal repeal of that provision by the Parliament as recommended by the Public Accounts Committee. I think that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition was pointing out that the Government had taken action which the Parliament might not endorse. However, I think it is only fair to state that the Public Accounts Committee had no objection at all to the Government acting in the way that it did. We felt that section 36 (2.) of the act required the departments to do something which was really not worth much and that the practice should not continue. I do not want to refer to that further because I think that the correct action has been taken and I support the bill as it is.

I want to refer to one or two other matters to which the honorable member for Swan referred at length in reply to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. When the Public Accounts Committee was reconstituted in 1952 the then Auditor-General, Mr. Brophy, gave us a lot of useful information. I thought that he was a very valuable man. The Auditor-General is one of the most important officers that we have, but he has power only to report to Parliament. He has no power to enforce his recommendations. The Public Accounts Committee is in much the same position. It can hear evidence in connexion with any matter and make a report to the Parliament, but it has no power to take any specific action. Unless Parliament decides to take action, the work done by the Public Accounts Committee may not produce any great results. But, as a general rule, the impact of that committee's reports on public opinion is so great that the departments concerned endeavour to remedy any fault that the committee may find. I remind the House that Mr. Brophy's term of office as Auditor-General was extended for one year to enable him to complete the preparation of what were considered to be desirable amendments to the Audit Act, but so far they have not been brought before this Parliament. When the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee presented the last report of the committee he said that some departments had not done certain things as quickly as they should have been done. The committee's report also criticizes the Treasury for not doing certain things which would enable the various departments to carry out their obligations in a satisfactory manner.

My experience as a member of the Public Accounts Committee since 1952 has been that departments have failed to do what they should have done on many occasions. Only recently the Auditor-General referred to payments that were being made without legal authority, yet, when the committee recommends that regulations be prepared to rectify faults such as this, it is told that the drafting work will have to wait its turn and that it might be months before anything can be done. My experience all through has been either that the departments have not enough qualified men to make decisions or one department is being delayed in carrying out its functions because of delay occurring in another department.

I am wondering why so .many years have been allowed to elapse without any important amendment being made to the Audit Act. I agree with the honorable member for Swan (Mr. Cleaver) that the Public Accounts Committee should scrutinize the suggested, proposals, but I repeat that if this Government considered six years ago that it was so important that the Audit Act be brought up to date as to warrant the extension of Mr. Brophy's appointment for one year to supervize the preparation of amendments, I am at a loss to understand why nothing has been done as yet. Let me emphasize here that I speak now as an individual not as spokesman for the Public Accounts Committee.

I think this bill is a good one and that it should be approved by this Parliament. I realize, as I said earlier, that if at the end of a financial year certain accounts have not been finalized, it will not be possible for honorable members to know the true budgetary position. I appreciate, too, that a government could delay payment of accounts until after the end of the financial year in order to show a balanced Budget instead of a deficit, but I do not think that is likely to happen, especially when we remember that the Auditor-General controls these matters very carefully.

I support the bill, but I do hope the Government will consider the suggestions made by the Auditor-General. I emphasize again that the Auditor-General can only report upon matters and make recommendations. He has no power to compel departments to do certain things. That is entirely the prerogative of the Government. But when either the Auditor-General or the Public Accounts Committee submits reports to the Parliament suggesting certain alterations, the Government should take definite action. It should see to it that the defects reported upon are corrected.

We have been asked why the Treasury does not see to it that defects reported upon by the Auditor-General are rectified. I point out that the Treasury can argue that so many important matters are coming to it all the time for consideration by its senior officers that it has not time to police these irregularities. The position at the moment is that either the Auditor-General or the committee recommends that certain things be done but no one has authority to require them to be done. The Auditor-General does his part, and I believe that it is high time the Audit Act was brought up to date to ensure that these defects are remedied.

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