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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 74


Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (3:06 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Hill) to a question without notice asked by Senator Evans today relating to the financial administration of the Department of Defence.

In doing so, I have to say it was a very unusual question time because the Minister for Defence actually answered the question. More than that, he confessed, so it was a very interesting question time. The minister confessed that he had lost complete control of the management of Defence, the financial management of the defence department, and that he had had to call in outside help. He had had to call in the Department of Finance and Administration and he had had to call in Ernst and Young—he had had to call in just about anybody—because, after three years of having his Defence accounts qualified by the Auditor-General, the minister had finally admitted defeat. Last year he came in here and said, `Well, while we've got problems there have been significant improvements this year and, while the Auditor-General has qualified our accounts for the second year running, things are on the improve.'

There was no pretence today, no pretence at all. He ran up the white flag and said, `Basically I can't do the job.' Three years in a row the Auditor-General has said that he cannot approve the defence department's accounts because they are in a shambles. They are not a true reflection. The department is unable to identify its assets and unable to identify its leave balances. We are not talking about chickenfeed here. We are talking about $8 billion worth of Commonwealth assets that it is unable to identify. This is one of the largest departments in the Commonwealth and this minister has been unable to get his accounts past the Auditor-General for three years running.

The Liberal Party in Western Australia used to be very fond of the idea of three strikes and you are out when it came to young Aboriginal offenders and others in the criminal justice system. I say to the minister: three strikes and you ought to be out. Three times you have failed to get your accounts past the Auditor-General. Three times the Auditor-General has said: `You haven't got proper financial management of one of our largest departments. You can't run your department. I can't sign off on your accounts because you can't tell me where the tanks are and you can't tell me how much money we owe our service men and women. You've got no proper records.' Three years in a row the Auditor-General has said, `I can't sign off on these.' Yet the minister has failed to get on top of this issue.

Senator Hill has been in the job for all of those three years. He has been in the job and has failed to get on top of it. As I said, at least he was honest today. He threw his hands up and said, `I've had to get in outsiders. I've had to hand over to Senator Minchin.' That must have really galled him—having to hand over to his old factional enemy Senator Minchin because he has got the job now of sorting it out. Senator Minchin has been called in because, quite frankly, Senator Hill cannot manage it. I can see Senator Ferguson smiling. Senator Ferguson, you would smile. There is a delicious irony in all this that you and I both understand.

Senator Minchin has been given the job of sorting out the mess that Senator Hill has made of Defence's financial systems. Senator Hill has had three years. Clearly, the Prime Minister and others have said: `Enough's enough. If the Auditor-General won't sign off on this stuff we've got to get somebody else in.' So they have got a two-pronged attack. They have got Ernst and Young coming in—I would be interested to know how much that is going to cost us; in addition to all the other costs of Defence, we are now paying for Ernst and Young to sort out the problems—for what the minister describes in delightful terms as a `remedial program'. A remedial program has been applied to Senator Hill's management. Quite frankly, Senator Hill ought to go. He is not up to the job.

It is nice for Senator Minchin to offer to help out. It is nice for the government to say: `We'll look after him. We'll put in a remedial program. The bloke's struggling a bit so we'll have a remedial program. We'll have a little literacy program, a remedial program, a little bit of accounting literacy because, quite frankly, he ain't up to the job. So we'll use taxpayers' money to do the job that this bloke can't do. We'll get in Ernst and Young and we'll pay them a fortune, and we'll get his old mate Senator Minchin, his old comrade from South Australia, who's always been one of his biggest fans, to come in and lend him a hand!'

I do not know if Senator Hill is all that comfortable with Senator Minchin but he has run up the white flag. He has got to get someone else to run the department because he cannot do the job. In a private company if you cannot do the job you resign. The head of Telstra resigned today. He could not manage the job. He has gone. Senator Hill ought to take the same advice. The payout is probably larger in his case. I know he missed out on the London job. Senator Alston beat him to the punch. But if you cannot do your job you ought to go. Quite frankly, three years in a row Senator Hill has proved he is not up to it. The government has got Senator Minchin in. They have got Ernst and Young in. But it is not good enough. This is $8 billion of taxpayers' money that he cannot manage. (Time expired)