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Thursday, 2 December 2004
Page: 14

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (9:58 AM) —I, and also on behalf of Senators Bartlett, Brown and Lees, move:

That the following matters be referred to the Finance and Public Administration References Committee for inquiry and report by 15 August 2005:

(1) The administration of the Regional Partnerships program and the Sustainable Regions program, with particular reference to the process by which projects are proposed, considered and approved for funding, including:

(a) decisions to fund or not to fund particular projects;

(b) the recommendations of area consultative committees;

(c) the recommendations of departmental officers and recommendations from any other sources including from other agencies or other levels of government;

(d) the nature and extent of the respective roles of the administering department, minister and parliamentary secretary, other ministers and parliamentary secretaries, other senators or members and their advisers and staff in the process of selection of successful applications;

(e) the criteria used to take the decision to fund projects;

(f) the transparency and accountability of the process and outcomes;

(g) the mechanism for authorising the funding of projects;

(h) the constitutionality, legality and propriety of any practices whereby any members of either House of Parliament are excluded from committees, boards or other bodies involved in the consideration of proposed projects, or coerced or threatened in an effort to prevent them from freely communicating with their constituents; and

(i) whether the operation of the program is consistent with the Auditor-General's `Better Practice Guide for the Administration of Grants', and is subject to sufficient independent audit.

(2) With respect to the future administration of similar programs, any safeguards or guidelines which might be put in place to ensure proper accountability for the expenditure of public money, particularly the appropriate arrangements for independent audit of the funding of projects.

(3) Any related matters.

I will speak briefly to the motion to outline the case for the reference of these matters to the Finance and Public Administration References Committee for inquiry and report. Senators would be aware that this is an issue that has been debated in the parliament and in the public arena for a couple of weeks.

During the last week or so I have attempted to negotiate a suitable reference with other senators who have an interest in these matters. With a lot of cooperation and goodwill we have tried to gain support for this motion. It is supported by Senator Bartlett, on behalf of the Democrats; by Senator Brown, on behalf of the Greens; and by Senator Lees. We have tried to come up with a reference which will deal with the public concern that has arisen regarding the operation of the Regional Partnerships program, with some of the decision-making processes that seem to have underpinned it and with the lack of transparency of some of those decision-making processes. It is very much the case that the parliament and the Senate have a legitimate interest in this issue, in the way that public money has been expended, particularly as it has been expended under discretionary programs like the Regional Partnerships program. There are a lot of questions about the operation of that program that need to be answered, and so far we have not been able to get a lot of those answers.

We propose to ask the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee to examine some of those issues. We think that is the appropriate committee to look at issues of public administration and the administration of particular programs. All Australians share an interest in making sure their taxes are used responsibly, that those funds are accounted for properly and that the proper mechanisms are in place to account for any grants that are made. There is a deal of public concern about some of the ways that some of these grants have been made, and it is appropriate that the finance and public administration committee take on the responsibility of inquiring into these matters. I would point out that this committee last year examined the operation of the Dairy Regional Assistance Program, with particular reference to one grant to a steel profiling plant. The report made a number of findings and recommendations. It reads:

The Committee recommends that Commonwealth funding to address regional disadvantage be distributed on the basis of objective funding considerations and that mechanisms be put in place to support intended policy outcomes.

It continues:

The Committee recommends DoTARS adopt transparent and systematic assessment procedures for regional program grants, incorporating an improved documentary record of assessment procedures.

This is an issue that the committee has been following. This is an issue that has been of concern with respect to previous programs. This is an issue the committee reported on. I might say that, despite the fact that the government opposed the referral of that reference at the time, it accepted all of the recommendations of the report when it delivered its response. The government in its response said it—and I quote:

... ensured these have been addressed in the policy and processes for the new Regional Partnerships Programme.

The government accepted the logic of the report of the committee. It said that these sorts of concerns would be addressed in the Regional Partnerships program. There is enough evidence and there are enough question marks over that program now so that it is appropriate that we see whether or not the government has properly adopted the recommendations of the finance and public administration committee about proper procedures being applied. This reference will allow the committee to continue its work to ensure that public funds are accounted for in a proper way, that proper checks and balances are in place and that governments are spending money not driven by political considerations but based on proper assessments with established criteria. Yesterday's revelation that one of the main criteria used in making these grants had not been made public, had not been published on the web site and had not been made available for members of the public to understand and evaluate is of serious concern. These are matters that can be properly inquired into by the Finance and Public Administration References Committee. We have sought to give the committee appropriate terms of reference and allow it to inquire into all of those matters.

I would stress two things. Firstly, the committee will not in any way seek to deal with the allegations that have been made regarding criminal conduct; that is not its role, that is not part of the terms of reference and that is not the role of the Senate. It will look very much at the administration of government programs, at the accountability mechanisms that govern them and at whether those have been properly applied. Secondly, Senator Harradine expressed some reservation and concern that this might be best done during the budget estimates committee process. I would say this to him. The point he made to me only a week or so ago was that there was some concern about the shortness of the estimates process. We have only a week in the February round of estimates to cover all of the committees. While this may be a matter people can pursue at estimates, I think the case is pretty clear that the Finance and Public Administration References Committee is the best committee to inquire into these issues. It will have the time and the resources to do that properly. As I say, this will be a continuation of the work it started last year on the Dairy Regional Assistance Program.

I think this is the appropriate response from the Senate. It is the appropriate role of the Senate to hold the government to account to ensure that taxpayers' funds are being expended properly and that proper accounting procedures are in place. I note that the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Anderson, indicated that he had no problem with the Senate having an inquiry and that he thought it was part of the proper process of the parliament and of the Senate. He declared he had nothing to hide and that therefore he had no problem with us having this inquiry. I would be surprised if the government were to oppose it, given that they support those sorts of accountability measures. Without labouring the point, I think this is an appropriate response from the Senate to the public concern about these issues.