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Monday, 3 March 1997
Page: 1768

Mr GRIFFIN(9.47 p.m.) —I take it from the contribution of the previous speaker, the member for Parramatta (Mr Ross Cameron), in particular that we are considering this matter as one that can range far and wide and beyond the particular content of the Auditor-General Bill and cognate bills. As Deputy Chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and someone who was involved in two of the three reports which relate to these matters, I found a range of the issues broached by the member for Parramatta were not part of the consideration that my committee made in relation to these bills and issues. On that basis, for a start, I will take him up on a couple of the points he made and then go on to some other issues.

The bills before the House tonight—there are four of them—have the support of the opposition. There is an amendment, but essentially they have our support. They have support for a very good reason: essentially they are our bills. There have been only minor adjustments made by the government to the bills that were out there over the last couple of years and certainly around the time the Prime Minister made his headland speech which the member for Parramatta quoted from so extensively. There are some questions here. There is also a little bit of hypocrisy. When looking at the previous speaker's contribution, the fact that questions are not answered in question time is probably another issue that should be raised. The question of ministerial codes of conduct and how they can be flouted and treated like something out of Mission: Impossible is another issue. The fact is that these bills are essentially Labor Party legislation, with some minor amendments.

I will turn to a couple of issues for a start to give you an idea of some of the other aspects of the government's hypocrisy here. For example, there is quite a history to the issue of the appointment of the Auditor-General, and it is an important one, because all members of the chamber would agree that the Auditor-General ought to be independent and ought to be seen to be independent. The major changes in this bill are essentially—and this has been said by members of the then opposition who are now in government—symbolic. The symbolism is important. I agree that this is something that we should be doing, but it is largely symbolic.

When we go into the history of what has been happening around these bills and the considerations that have occurred—there is quite a history there—we find, for example, that in report 331 from the Public Accounts Committee there was a recommendation that the minister should seek the approval of the Leader of the Opposition or his/her nominee, the JCPA and an Audit Committee of Parliament. That was partially accepted by my government at that time—but with consultation, no powers of veto.

The interesting thing is that amendments were made to that bill when it got to the Senate. For example, in schedule 1, part 2, on page 16, it said:

. . . a person is not to be appointed as the Auditor-General until:

(a) a proposal that the person be appointed has been referred to the JCPAA under Section 8A of the Public Accounts Committee Act 1951 and the proposed recommendation has obtained the approval of at least a two-thirds majority of the JCPAA . . .

That two-thirds majority in effect means a veto. That was the now government's position in relation to this issue when this bill was before the Senate. Following on from that, the bills were withdrawn. Following the proroguing of parliament, the government reintroduced them and the Public Accounts Committee, under report 346, came down with a recommendation that:

The Audit Committee of Parliament should approve, by a three-quarters majority, the appointment of the Auditor-General and conduct public confirmation hearings.

The interesting thing is that, when we look at the bill today, it says:

The Minister must refer recommendation for appointment of Auditor-General to the JCPAA for its approval—

a simple majority. Essentially, we had a position where the JCPA and the Senate, at the behest of the current government prior to the last election, was talking about a veto and broad consensus approval whereas the government is now talking about a simple majority.

The JCPA is a very constructive committee of the parliament, and I am proud to be deputy chair of it, but it has a majority of government members. From our point of view, the key issue there was having a veto or a situation where whoever was appointed was broadly supported. I bring no reflection upon recent Auditors-General because, certainly at the time of their appointments, their appointments were welcomed, but there is a fundamental change here. The change is significant because it says something about this government's stated positions. Its position was that there should be a veto where all major components of the parliament agree. But now we see that commitment counts for naught.

Another issue which I think was quite significant was the question of conducting performance audits of a Commonwealth authority, that is, a government business enterprise or any of its subsidiaries. The JCPA's position was very much that this was a good idea and certainly that it is something that the government should embrace. Senate amendments, again sponsored by the current government, were successful to the earlier bills along those lines. The circumstances were then that report 346 from the JCPA fired on with the same recommendation. But here we go again! When we go to the provisions of the bill, the fact is that the Auditor-General may conduct a performance audit of a GBE, or of any of its subsidiaries, if the responsible minister, the Minister for Finance, or the JCPAA requests the audit. That is quite a different position from the likely operation of this bill. The situation is the control being removed from what was proposed to the Auditor-General to a situation where it has to be by recommendation following through from either the minister or the JCPA, both organs which, as I said earlier about the JCPA, have a government majority.

The circumstances, as you see them in some of these issues, are very different. We have had a position where the current government has changed its mind on some key issues. I know, from what I have seen of some government members who have been involved in this process right the way through, that they have some difficulty in coming to terms with it. Certainly it has been followed by some embarrassed silences in some meetings that I have been involved in around the question of this legislation in recent times. It does raise an issue about the question of credibility in this government. It is one thing to herald and to parrot on about the fact that this is a new broom, a new approach, and that there are major changes occurring in the operation of this place, but when we look at the detail we can see some fairly skilful window dressing. For example, the ministerial code of conduct was heralded and trumpeted by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) as a significant break with the past: here was a move forward in standards in this place, in standards of executive government. But what did we see happen?

As minister after minister was tripped up and otherwise found wanting in their own personal behaviour and the institution of their duties, that code was weakened. It was weakened by the words of the Prime Minister himself. It went from being a bold new blueprint for the future—a Star Trek document—to a situation where it was very similar to the position of the previous government, to a situation where it was recommendatory rather than compulsory, to a situation where, `You've already got two ministers; you're not getting any more.'

I congratulate the Prime Minister on the fact that so many more questions being asked in question time. The one thing I would like is a few more answers. We are not getting answers on this side of the House. We sure are getting a chance to ask a few questions, but we are not getting any answers.

This legislation is supported by both sides of the House because it is good legislation. Essentially, it leads to a much needed revamping of the question of the Auditor-General and the question of financial and regulatory frameworks in relation to Commonwealth enterprises. It is long overdue and is something that the parliament should broadly support. I know that the view within the audit office, and also within senior management in government departments, is that this is a significant reform, that it should go ahead post haste. Hence I have great pleasure in supporting it here in this House today. I could go on further, but I do not think I will quote from Alexander the Great, St John the Righteous, Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse. I might just leave it to roughly considering the question of the bill at hand, a bill which I am proud to support.

I am pleased to be part of the JCPA, which has had a very constructive role in making these bills even better. I am happy to see it coming before this House and I wish it a speedy carriage.

I will finish on one other note which again raises the question of accountability, of this new broom. The central issue which relates to the question of the role of the Auditor-General and the capacity for the Auditor-General to discharge his duties is that of funding. If you do not have the money to employ enough auditors, you are not in a situation where you can audit government departments properly and ensure the value for money which was mentioned by the previous speaker, although I am quite sure he has not read the bills.

Another issue relates to the question of the JCPA which, under this legislation, will become the JCPAA because it will take on the role of the Audit Committee of Parliament. This committee is an incredibly crucial committee of the parliament in the role it performs, but again the question of funding is crucial to the performance of its duties. This government, for all its talk about accountability to parliament, has severely cut back on resources to parliamentary committees since it became the government. This is not only in this area, but right across the board.

As members would know, if you do not have the research resources available to your committees, you will not be able to perform your duties as well as you would like. That has implications for the scrutiny of government legislation, it has implications for the scrutiny of government action that is non-legislative and it has important implications for the operation of this parliament both in its role of performing a review of what is done by the executive and as an organ to recommend changes to the executive. The JCPA will have an increased role, a role of even greater importance in the operation of this place, but it will be in circumstances where at this stage there is no increase in resources. That is not good enough.

The government has recently, for example, with taxation legislation, forwarded these on to the committee for consideration. I am quite supportive of that. I am not supportive of the situation where drastically reduced time frames are put forward in getting reports back and the situation where there is a limited amount of resources—and getting smaller—in the coverage of those sorts of issues, which all have implications for the effective operation of those committees and the roles that they play.

That again relates to that question of the audit office. The fact is the audit office has a very important, independent and symbolic role, which is improved by this legislation. I support that symbolism. The real issue is the question of resources to perform its duties, and on those issues we are still awaiting the government's response in ensuring those resources are available to properly perform those sorts of activities. I commend the bills to the House and I wish them a speedy passage.