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Thursday, 28 October 1993
Page: 2783

Senator SPINDLER (4.55 p.m.) —I wish to put on record the Australian Democrats' support for the Audit (Auditor-General an Officer of the Parliament) Amendment Bill 1993. It is the duty of the Auditor-General's office to scrutinise government on behalf of parliament. We all know that in the last few years the power of the executive government has risen tremendously and that the Auditor-General, basically, was caught between two conflicting duties: firstly, to the executive government, which had the purse strings and had the control of the resources available to the Auditor-General; and, secondly, his acknowledged duty to provide reports on scrutiny of government departments and the activities of government generally to the parliament. It is therefore very fitting that the Auditor-General be made an officer of the parliament.

  It is quite clear that this issue has been on the table of this parliament for some time. In March 1989, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts argued in its report No. 296 on the Auditor-General that a strong audit office is essential for the maintenance of accountability of federal government organisations and officials to parliament.

  The two main difficulties that that report identified were the resource constraints that I have mentioned—and successive Auditors-General have seen fit to draw attention to that—and the fact that the Auditor-General really must, in particular, examine the unit that allocates resources, that is, the Department of Finance.

  The public accounts committee identified five major reasons underlying the Auditor-General's main problems. The first is parliamentary complacency. The second is the conflict between the two duties to the legislature and to the executive. As Senator Watson says, complacency of the legislature is something that this bill seeks to remedy and that is why the Democrats are supporting it. Another is the lack of a mechanism which, according to the public accounts committee, would allow parliament to assume responsibility for the office. Clearly, this is something that we are rectifying today. There is also a lack of awareness of the importance of the audit of government activities.

  I wonder whether that latter point has not gradually over the last few years become less apparent. It seems to me that the tabling of consecutive audit reports in this chamber at least has drawn attention to the work of the Auditor-General. The importance of the work of that office in keeping a tight check and scrutiny of government activities has, I think, been reinforced. I do not wish to detain the chamber. I repeat that the Democrats will, for all the reasons I have outlined, support this bill.