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Tuesday, 18 May 1993
Page: 737

Senator MICHAEL BAUME (5.13 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

Report No. 32 of 1992-93, which is an efficiency audit by the Auditor-General into the implementation of an interim greenhouse response, is quite damning in its criticism of the Department of Primary Industries and Energy. Once again, we have to decide who was responsible for the action—or is it in this case the inaction?—of a department. Is the concept of ministerial responsibility still alive and well in Australia? It appears not from what we have seen so far in the Department of Transport and Communications, but now we have a matter of gross dereliction of ministerial duty in failing to establish that the department was carrying out government policy. I do not know whether the Minister will regard himself as not bound by the old principle of ministerial responsibility. He has not been sacked, stood down, suspended or criticised by his Prime Minister.

  I wonder whether this will just be another of those instances where a Minister has presided over what is clear incompetence without suffering any of the normal consequences that have flowed under the Westminster system in the past from that kind of behaviour. The question we have to ask is why the Minister allowed this situation to develop and to continue for so long. I will outline the failures of the department in this area in just a moment.

  The fact is that a government instruction was given, government policy was set, public statements were made about what the Government would do and what its intentions were, but the Audit Office has found that the department did not adequately respond to the Government's instructions. Who is responsible for a government department's failure to respond to government determinations and decisions? Surely the Minister should be monitoring whether or not government policy is being implemented by his department. Yet we have no evidence whatsoever that the Minister is either concerned, involved or taking any kind of rap for this failure to implement a policy which was publicly stated.

  By way of background, back in October 1990 the Commonwealth Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean) and the then Minister for Resources announced an action package of immediate measures—I stress the word `immediate'—to improve the use of energy in Australia and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Whether one is of the view that this is as urgent a matter as some people say is beside the point. The fact is that the Government said it was urgent and that immediate measures were needed. Senator Coulter has indicated that he will take this matter up after I have finished speaking.

  The Ministers nominated a range of activities, including the expansion of some existing programs, to be run by their department in cooperation with other bodies and governments. They said that the programs were aimed at seeking better use of energy in our factories, offices, shops, homes and our roads. What did the Auditor-General find in his efficiency audit of this determined government policy? He found the following:

. . . The package had not been adequately implemented by the Department. It has taken longer than anticipated to achieve significant advancement of the policies. In the implementation of some significant measures many months had elapsed before initiation of any action. After just over two years of elapsed time the ANAO has estimated that the package was one year behind what could have been achievable. The ANAO considers that this delay is unreasonable, in view of the sense of urgency envisaged by the Government and justified by consideration of the issues involved.

Here we have massive delay in implementation of this program, and criticism of the department. What was the Minister doing? Did he ever go back to Cabinet and say, `Hey, my department and I are not doing too well on this. We need a few new resources, or something, but we are not doing it'. Maybe the Minister did do that, and maybe this Government, as is its custom, did not care that it was breaking its own word yet again on an issue that many Australians feel is very significant.

  In this report with which we are dealing, the Audit Office noted:

. . . that insufficient attention had been given to managing the programs, including those which had been in place prior to the announcement of the expansion—

this immediate, significant, urgent, so-called expansion—

in 1990. A number of the programs which had been started had not been able to approach their potential, because of deficiencies in planning and delivery.

The Audit Office continued:

In short, the Department did not fully respond in the manner expected of it.

Who was responsible for that? Did some poor bureaucrat get his head kicked in? Or is it the Minister who is responsible? The Government, of course, is only too happy to allow members of the bureaucracy to stand aside, to `carry the can'. But the buck stops with the Minister. The report continued:

Right up to the announcement in October 1990 it had not fully anticipated the greater priority to be given to the subject. Subsequently, it—

meaning the department—

did not provide the numbers of people approved for the programs or make full use of those that were there.

The question is whether the Minister knew this and, if he did not, then why not. The question then is why the Minister did not inquire. The report continued:

Staff meant to be available for putting the programs into place were heavily engaged on other tasks . . . This was the case right up until the time of our audit, more than two years after the announcement—

that is, the announcement of the program. The report continued:

There were a number of major organisational changes in 1990-91 which the Department allowed to disrupt the efficient implementation of the programs.

I will not continue with the general question of Australia's poor record in energy saving—no doubt Senator Coulter will talk about that—but I want to deal with the failure by the department and by the Minister. The department's research had shown that few people in Australia were aware of the need to save on energy. The ANAO concluded:

The public is still unaware and sceptical about Government programs and pronouncements on the topic—

namely, the topic of energy saving. In other words, not only did the department do nothing itself, but it also failed to promote or encourage other people to do anything. The Government was allegedly desperate to implement an urgent, immediate policy, yet the Minister failed to ensure that the stated policy was implemented. The report continued:

Although the Department maintains that its aim has been to achieve steady and reasonable progress across all sectors, the ANAO considers that to date it has been unable to demonstrate significant and measurable energy savings in any of the energy end-use sectors.

That represents a 100 per cent failure rate. The report continued:

The slow progress in improving the Commonwealth's application of its programs for energy efficiency within its own responsibilities is not conducive to obtaining rapid and effective responses from the community at large.

In other words, this was not a don't-do-as-I-say situation, because nothing was being said, and it was certainly not a don't-do-as-I-do situation, because nothing was being done either. The department's own research showed that the Government was seen to be asking for action from other energy consumers but was not active in improving its own energy use. The report continued:

The failure to allocate the full complement of resources to the task as originally anticipated risked confirming that view—

that is, the view held by the public. I conclude my remarks by referring to another comment by the ANAO in its report. It said:

  The Department's reports—

meaning the reports on this matter—

have concentrated on presenting the range of activities it has undertaken and which improve its public image.

It then makes this telling point:

They have not provided information on the real achievement in progress against objectives as called for by an accountability document.

The Auditor-General, in the report's conclusion, considers that the department has not provided an objective view of its overall performance with the programs in its public reports. In other words, it has misled the public. The question is whether it has misled the Minister or whether the Minister went along with the misleading nature of these reports. The conclusion continued:

In addition we note that there has been a tendency to reinforce this public face within the Department itself. DPIE has not fully explored opportunities to place hard information in the public arena concerning the potential for economic gains in our usage of energy in Australia.

The final conclusions of the Auditor-General in respect of ministerial responsibility and departmental competence—and the Government and people of Australia should take note of their significance—are these:

The ANAO considers that the administrative platform established for the energy management programs would have been insufficient for ensuring the most effective contribution by DPIE to the longer term National Greenhouse Response Strategy. A key aspect is the importance of recognising practical implementation problems and structuring programs and implementation methods accordingly. The experience of the Department over the last three years is, however, a basis from which it can now move to a new level of achievement in national energy management.

It is very polite of the Australian National Audit Office to say that the department has learnt from its experience of doing nothing and might now be able to actually do something. The report continued:

The ANAO has made a series of recommendations which will contribute to this objective. DPIE has responded positively to almost all of the recommendations made for improving future administrative effectiveness, expressing disagreement with only parts of two recommendations out of a total of nineteen.

  That sounds like a mea maxima culpa from the department which now, at last, says it will do something. The major area of disagreement on recommended action relates to management of current evaluation programs. In this report we have a clear indication of failure of ministerial responsibility backing up a failure of departmental activity. We have to ask seriously who was responsible for these kinds of mistakes, these kinds of `administrative error' when there is a Minister who is getting paid for being the `responsible' Minister. If people are prepared to take the money, they have to take the flak and cop the responsibility. We have seen too many Ministers in this Government prepared to take the money but not do the job.