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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 13904

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (11:05): On behalf of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, I present the committee's report entitled report 435: Review of the Auditor-General's reports Nos 33 (2011-12)to 1 (2012-13). I ask leave of the House to make a short statement in connection with the report.

Leave granted.

Mr OAKESHOTT: The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, as prescribed by its act, examines all reports of the Auditor-General, and reports the results of the committee's deliberations to the parliament. This report details the findings of the committee's examination of five performance audits selected for further scrutiny from 24 audit reports presented to parliament by the Auditor-General between May and August 2012.

The findings of the selected audit reports from the independent Auditor-General were largely positive, but a number of areas for improvement were also identified.

Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership

The first audit report we reviewed—probably the most outstanding one and the priority work for further consideration by this chamber—was on the National Partnership for Literacy and Numeracy. This agreement between the Commonwealth and the states funds efforts to improve student literacy and numeracy outcomes, focusing on students who are falling behind.

This audit linked closely with the committee's previous work looking at national funding agreements.

While overall that partnership seems to have had a positive impact on schools and students, the evidence presented to us showed that there was still some more work to be done.

In particular, future programs would benefit from:

implementation plans and reform targets being negotiated at the same time as the initial high level agreements are made;

performance data assurance mechanisms being built into agreements; and

more time being allowed in agreements for facilitation payments to take effect before reward payments are made.

During the committee's review, we did hear in a worrying way that $64 million of Commonwealth funding had been withheld from the various states and territories due to reform targets not being met as part of the original agreement.

This shows that governments at all levels, including through the Council of Australian Governments, need to work harder if we are to lift Australia's literacy and numeracy standards. This is urgent work that does matter!

I want to pause here to reflect on what the COAG Reform Council also said last week about the mixed target results and entrenched inequity in education. This is an area of urgent priority. I may say something a little controversial here, in that whilst there are members in this chamber who have great literary members of their family, and I note a speech made by the shadow minister of his uncle, Robert Hughes, earlier this year in this chamber as one of the finer moments in this chamber this year. But really, if we are serious about music, literature and the arts having meaning, then this area of literacy and numeracy is one that needs great focus. If we are to be sure that our future is not fatal, if we are to be more than the sunburnt country or the lucky country, if we are to be the resilient country, this is something that all parliaments in this country need to give much greater attention to, and the work that was done by the Auditor-General, the follow-up work that was done by the Public Accounts Committee has identified that we continue to fail in the lives of many to deliver programs that lift the literacy and numeracy standards in this country.

Fast - tracked programs

Two of the other audits the committee reviewed involved programs that were being fast-tracked. Together, the findings suggest that when making decisions on program timing the government does need to pay more attention to the capacity of agencies to manage large and complex projects in compressed timeframes, while still complying with administrative requirements. These were issues rolled out with intent through the 2008 to 2011 period known as the global financial crisis and the stimulus package response, but there were still issues from an accounting and auditing position that are worthy of reflection.

Renewable Energy Demonstration Program

One was the Renewable Energy Demonstration Program which was significantly impacted by the decision to fast-track funding, as the Auditor-General's report detailed. Compressed timeframes contributed to lower quality grant applications and poor documentation of decisions around project selection and probity.

The committee concluded that the accelerated demands placed on the department of resources and tourism were the major cause of its administrative shortcomings—particularly because this was the first major program to be taken on by the then new department. I would hope that across agencies there were many lessons learnt.

Health and Hospitals Fund

Another that we looked at was the Health and Hospitals Fund, the first two rounds. In our review we learned that the fast-tracking of these rounds of funding meant there was not enough time for the health department to produce a clear strategy to inform its funding priorities. This led to a reliance on states to identify their own infrastructure gaps and needs.

Another concern was the finding that the department did not advise the health minister on the relative merits of the projects submitted to her for potential funding, an issue the committee previously has raised in regard to other programs run through other agencies and their relationships with other ministers. I do note the $1.8 billion regional round of the Health and Hospitals Fund now is delivering over 100 projects throughout regional Australia, delivering great equity and including, from a parochial point of view, two great projects on the Mid North Coast at both Port Macquarie and Kempsey hospitals.

Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy

The Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy was also reviewed by the committee and dealt with the important issue of quarantine in Northern Australia. The report contained mostly positive findings, but highlighted a need for better data management systems and better use of existing data to inform management decisions. We were given the feedback that there is ongoing work to make that happen which we will continue to follow.

Incoming international air passengers

Finally, following up earlier work, the committee looked at Customs' processing of incoming international passengers at Australia's airports.

Our review focused on the SmartGate automated clearance system, which has been rolled out at airports around Australia.

While the audit indicated a need to improve SmartGate clearance rates, recent efforts by Customs show some encouraging signs of progress and a greater use and understanding of the SmartGate procedures.


In closing, I would like to sincerely thank the other committee members and agency representatives who were involved in this inquiry for their cooperative approach in support of this committee's role of scrutinising the spending of money on behalf of the public. I would like to thank those same people for their ongoing work in a very busy committee that takes its oversight role very seriously, and I also would like to, as it is the Christmas season, pass on the wishes of the committee to the secretariat who are here today and thank you for your ongoing work on a very busy workload.

I commend the report to the House.