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Wednesday, 7 December 1983
Page: 3387

Mr CONNOLLY(3.50) —It is my pleasure to join the honourable member for Mitchell (Mr Cadman) in supporting this amendment to the Public Accounts Committee Act. As the longest serving member of this Parliament on the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts and, I think, the holder of the record of the longest serving Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts, I would like to make a number of observations on this occasion. I think it is worth while recalling that the basis of the Public Accounts Committee is, indeed, a very old one. It was founded in the Gladstonian circle of responsibility which was introduced into the United Kingdom Parliament during the period of Gladstone's very excellent prime ministership, when public administration became not just a part time interest for the rich but rather a serious element of government policy and, therefore, the responsibility of the Parliament. Leading on from that, of course, the Committee was one of the very early features of the Federal Administration when it was established in 1901. The Committee was established in that period.

It is also worth noting that during the Depression as an economy measure the Committee was done away with. It was not reintroduced into this Parliament until 1951. Nevertheless, I think it has played a significant role in the Australian parliamentary system, being represented in all States of the Commonwealth except , at this stage, Queensland and the Northern Territory. Over the years the relationship between parliament and the Executive has been assisted, parliament has been aided in meeting its responsibility to exercise its review powers over appropriations and a comprehensive system of reporting to the taxpayer has effectively been established by the Auditor-General reporting to the Parliament and by the work undertaken by the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts both in its own right and in meeting its statutory responsibility of reporting to the Parliament on the Auditor-General's activities.

Like the position of Auditor-General, as I said, the Public Accounts Committee was established by a statute of the Parliament. In a sense that makes it somewhat unique in Australia and in Commonwealth experience, as most public accounts committees tend to be committees established by each parliament on a sessional basis. The important thing about having a statutory base is that no government of the day has the power, except of course by taking the matter to the Parliament, to do away with the Committee. I think this has, in a sense, assisted the Committee's moral powers of persuasion, if nothing else, and has also given it the capacity to report to the Parliament without fear and favour. Since 1951 the Committee has definitely pursued a vigorous program of inquiry into the financial operations of Commonwealth departments and authorities. It has searched to establish whether value has been obtained for the money spent on various programs and whether departments or authorities under examination are effectively organised to implement the policies of government which fall within those areas of responsibility.

In recent years greater emphasis has been put on the question of efficiency and effectiveness as well as accountability in the traditional accounting manner. Since the Committee's re-establishment, therefore, its work has fallen into a number of very clear areas. For example, in terms of financial reporting to parliament by Commonwealth departments and authorities, it has tabled a significant number of major reports over the years, especially those on the Budget Speech, the estimates of receipts and expenditure and the Appropriation Bills, which were reported on in 1954. In more recent times it has entered into the field of automatic data processing in the public sector. A number of significant reports in that area have been tabled which, in turn, have resulted in major changes taking place within the Public Service as a whole.

It is worth noting that one of the reasons the size of the Committee has been increased is that the government of the day has decided to refer to the Public Accounts Committee all purchases of main frame computers and, therefore, to bring the Committee into a direct relationship with both the Executive and the Public Service in the context of the purchase and, presumably, ultimately, the use of computers on a long term basis. I think it is fair to say that the expertise the Committee has built up in this area is second to none. But I should emphasise for the benefit of the Clerk of this House, who is ultimately responsible for staffing the Committee, that significant thought will have to be given to ensuring that the Committee has available to it not only sufficient Public Service staff of very high calibre but also, equally importantly, access to personnel in the private sector who in fields such as computers tend to be more up to date than has been my experience with members of the Public Service.

Another important field which the Committee pioneered was that of internal audit. It was our experience over many years that the standard of internal audit in the Public Service was absolutely unsatisfactory. As a result of our inquiries into this area there was a major shake-up in the Public Service Board in particular. There is now in place a series of significant reforms which have a direct genesis to the work undertaken by the Committee. The area of departmental and program administration again is of greater interest in the present context. We looked, for example, at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1977, the pharmaceutical benefits scheme in 1980 and the Government Aircraft Factories in 1982. In the same year we tabled the first report on the medifraud inquiry, a matter which has been of considerable public as well as political interest in recent years.

The field of public administration, however, is endless. An enormous amount of work has yet to be done. The interest of the Committee in this area was demonstrated by the report we made last year, which was tabled this year, into the selection and training of senior management in the public sector. It is worth noting in that context that the Government's White Paper, which I understand will be produced in the very near future, draws on that report to a very significant degree in its proposals for reform of the public sector. For those who over the years have tended to berate parliamentary committees and to suggest that they do not have an effective role in the administration of government, I think it is only fair to say that the role of the Public Accounts Committee, while unique, as the honourable member for Mitchell has pointed out, at the same time is extremely efficient. The Committee has performed in this parliamentary context a role which is of great importance indeed. In fact, I think I should also emphasise that it is really the only area in which members of the back bench are given the opportunity to understand the complexities of public administration. I hope that the fairly significant number of Ministers who have come from the ranks of the Committee over the years have demonstrated by the manner in which they have handled their portfolios, that they have learnt much by the experience.

Much could be said about the Committee over recent years and in particular in terms of the expansion of our interest with the co-ordination of activities, particularly with regard to the public accounts committees in the States. In 1977 the Committee hosted the first conference of Commonwealth and State public accounts committees in Sydney. The second conference was held in Melbourne in 1981 and the third in Perth this year. The purpose of those conferences was to allow members of the public accounts committees throughout Australia to discuss matters of mutual concern and to encourage Federal and State co-operation on significant public sector accountability issues. It has long been our view that through section 96 grants in particular there has been a flow of funds from the Commonwealth to the States without putting in place an adequate system of accountability, one to the other. This is particularly so in the case of educational funding towards universities.

In addition, we have established the biennial parliamentary seminars. These created significant opportunities for the Public Service, the private sector and members of the parliaments, both Federal and State, to discuss issues of major importance to society. The Committee hosted seminars on financial administration and parliamentary scrutiny in 1979, information technology in 1980 government expenditure and accountability in the same year and senior management in the public sector in 1982. It is my understanding that the Committee will continue to carry out this most important service both to the Parliament and to those sections of the community which are interested in various aspects of public administration and its ultimate improvement.

The Committee also commenced in 1981 the publication of discussion papers which were designed to increase interest in and debate on significant issues. In that context perhaps the most significant were our papers on internal audit, the collection and dissemination of statistics and the form and standard of financial statements of Commonwealth undertakings. The last one in particular has resulted, like most of our other reports, in significant administrative reforms being undertaken by government. It is quite clear that with the growing complexities of government and the intractable problems facing all parliaments in the management of the nation's affairs, it is now becoming a matter of vital concern that parliaments should be given the opportunity to keep informed of the mechanisms by which the efficiency, effectiveness, development and conduct of government progress can be best assured. I have no doubt that the watchdog role performed by the Public Accounts Committee, as well as its more recent role of getting the Parliament back into the mainstream of public administration, are of great importance to all Australians, and especially have relevance for this Parliament. Future generations of members who will serve here I hope will be able to build on the foundations we have laid in recent years to demonstrate that democracy is not just a word bandied about in this House but does, in every sense of the term, represent the capacity of this Parliament to run the affairs of state to the benefit of all Australians.

However, I join with my colleague the honourable member for Mitchell in emphasising that the changes in the administration of the Committee which have taken place in the last 12 months or so cause me, as the past Chairman, some concern. I am well aware of the difficulties the House of Representatives has in conducting a wide range of committees. I am also well aware that in doing this it is expected that all committees will fit into a prearranged set of traditional roles as dictated by time and administrative convenience. I should also point out, however, that when dealing with a committee which has been in operation now for over 31 years, which has tabled in this House 222 reports, which has a larger number of members than any other parliamentary committee has ever had, and which has a record that I think it is fair to say is second to none, it is not necessarily possible always to expect either its administrative staff or its members simply to say: 'We are going to pander to mediocrity; we expect you to reduce your capability to fit in with the standards of others'.

One thing the PAC has demonstrated over the years is a very high standard of excellence. It expects nothing less of its members. It expects nothing less in the quality of its reports. It is in the interests of the Parliament as a whole, certainly of the House of Representatives, whatever action be taken with regard to supplying personnel for the Committee, that excellence be the objective of all reporting, not just by the Public Accounts Committee but by all the other committees of this House. Therefore, I seriously suggest that action be initiated to ensure not only that there is a continuity of staff of the highest calibre but also, in relation to the difficulties we have had in recent years over the Canberra Commercial Development Authority inquiry, that the parliamentary staff advise Mr Speaker on the question of appointing a legal adviser to all committees of the Parliament.

I emphasise that the PAC in recent years has had the support and assistance of Mr Justice Paul Toose, CBE, a retired New South Wales Supreme Court judge. I brought him on to the staff of the Committee as a result of the difficulties we experienced with the CCDA inquiry. I did not wish to see a repetition of that situation. It emphasises that we can no longer rely on the support of the Crown Solicitor and the Attorney-General's Department to give to committees of the Parliament expeditiously the type of quality legal advice they must have. As I said in my address to this House last night, we are responsible for the natural rights of all Australian citizens, and it is not good enough that parliamentary committees and their reporting mechanisms should in any sense be brought into question on that subject. For that reason, I earnestly ask the House to give further thought to appointing a formal legal adviser to the Parliament.