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Monday, 23 March 1987
Page: 1306

Mr LEO McLEAY —by leave-I wish to say a couple of things on efficiency audits. I commend the honourable member for Deakin (Mr Beale) and the honourable member for Banks (Mr Mountford) for the work they have done on this efficiency audit. One of the difficulties with this report and with other reports that the Expenditure Committee and the Joint Committee of Public Accounts have brought down in this Parliament on the concept of efficiency audits is that we tend to continually hear that they have not worked out the way they should. One would have thought that the Australian Audit Office and those people who are involved in the efficiency audit program would have, by now, got to a position where it would be far better run than it is.

I must say that I was most impressed some years ago when the Government changed the Audit Act to provide for efficiency audits. The Audit Office process is one of the few ways by which the Parliament can bring some accountability into the activities of the executive government. The Audit Office provides a window into the way in which the executive government works. The concept of efficiency audits seemed, at that time, to open the window even wider and to provide parliamentary committees with some insight into how various areas of the executive government were performing their task. All members of parliament, who take the view that there should be, under the Westminster system of government, a sense of accountability to this chamber and to the members of this chamber by the executive government, would have seen the efficiency audit process as being a very important mechanism in that accountability function. But what we have seen in the Auditor-General's Office in the working up of efficiency audits is that they seem to come to a peak at some stage, and now that the Auditor-General has abolished the efficiency audit division within the Audit Office the auditor is now doing comprehensive audits and not so many efficiency audits.

I would have thought that when the Parliament amended the Audit Act to provide for efficiency audits the Auditor-General, who asserts that he is an officer of the Parliament in a sense, would have taken that to mean that the Parliament expected that there would continue to be efficiency audits, or at least the Parliament would have expected that until that piece of legislation was repealed. I would have thought that if the Parliament had not decided to repeal that piece of legislation the Auditor-General would have continued with these efficiency audits, and would have given them high priority in the operations of the Audit Office. It would seem to be that that is not so much the fact now. As members of parliament, as back bench members of parliament and as Opposition members of parliament, all members of parliament other than the Executive should take some concern in that, because if we are to see some of these windows that were opened closed into the activities of the executive government, no matter which side of the House that government is drawn from, we should be doing something about it. If the Audit Office works down the level of people involved in the efficiency audit program it is not in the best interests of the efficient operation of this Parliament.

The fact that the Parliament, through parliamentary committees, is continually saying to the Auditor-General that there is something wrong with his methodology and that it cannot understand why he and the departments that he audits are continually in conflict and that parliamentary committees have to somehow or other make some adjudication on that conflict, also suggests to me that there is probably something not going quite right in the Auditor-General's Office. One might be able to say that the Australian Taxation Office might be rickety and inefficient, but maybe it cannot be as rickety and inefficient as the number of efficiency audits into that Office that have been tabled suggest. The Department of Housing and Construction may not have its act together, but maybe it cannot have its act in dissaray as much as this efficiency audit would suggest. Maybe the problem is that the people that the Auditor-General has doing the job do not understand the concept of what they are doing. Maybe one of the problems in the Audit Office is that the Auditor-General's Office is editing these reports to the extent that by the time they are tabled in the Parliament the editorial process by senior officers in the Audit Office, who have nothing to do with the audit in question, have changed the thrust of it to the extent that it is incomprehensible.

I make a plea for the Audit Office to somehow or other ensure that it continues to operate in the spirit of the amendments to the Audit Act which set up the efficiency audit activities of the Auditor-General, that it continues to provide through efficiency audits that window into the executive government that the Parliament by passing that legislation expected, and that it give consideration to having officers at a more senior level conduct the field activities of the Audit Office in dealing with the Auditor-General's efficiency audits.

Finally, I take up the comment of my colleague the honourable member for Banks that it is probably a good idea that the Audit Office and the auditee get some general agreement on where they are going before audits start. I recall Mr Brigden, when he was the Auditor-General, commenting during a hearing of the Expenditure Committee on why the efficiency audit division within the Audit Office was disbanded, saying that some people took the view that they had to set out to be gotchers all the time and that that was not the best way for the Audit Office to work. That might be so but I, as a member of parliament and a member of a couple of parliamentary committees, hope that the Audit Office has not made its operations so bland that the window into the operations of executive government will be obscured, at the least, or closed.