Four auditors-general fear watchdog powers failing Victoria

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The Age: Four auditors-general fear watchdog powers failing Victoria. November 16, 2014. Farrah Tomazin The Sunday Age’s state political editor.

Auditor-General John Doyle with predecessors Ches Baragwanath and Des Pearson. Photo: Justin McManus

Victorian auditors-general spanning the past three decades have joined forces to warn both major parties that public scrutiny is being hamstrung by “seriously out of date” state integrity laws.

In an unprecedented move, Auditor-General John Doyle and his predecessors Des Pearson, Wayne Cameron and Ches Baragwanath have united to call for unfettered powers that would give the state’s financial watchdog the ability to “follow the dollar” on taxpayer-funded services and projects delivered in partnership with the private sector (PPPs), such as the East West Link.

With two weeks until the state election, a joint statement to The Sunday Age warns that the current Audit Act needs urgent reform so the Auditor-General can thoroughly ensure taxpayers are getting value for money on services and major projects.

Perturbed: Victorian Auditor-General John Doyle and previous holders of his office are concerned the Audit Act does not allow them to obtain a clear picture of government finances.

“After years of unnecessary delay there is now a gathering threat to the ability of the Auditor-General to undertake the depth of investigation required to make appropriate conclusions about public spending and government programs,” the group writes. “We need contemporary audit legislation, early in the term of the new government, so that Victorians get an integrity system that works, and Parliament’s [and thus the citizen’s] right to know is fully strengthened.”

As an officer of the parliament, the Auditor-General’s job is to scrutinise how public-sector resources are managed. But, as the law stands, the watchdog cannot access information about private companies contracted by the government, with records often shielded from scrutiny because of commercial-in-confidence rules.

Last year, for instance, staff from the Audit Office were unable to visit two private jails – Port Phillip Prison and Fulham Correctional Centre – while investigating drug use in the corrections system, because their mandate did not extend to private-sector providers. The Coalition had promised to strengthen the Auditor-General’s powers, but failed to before Parliament adjourned.

Tensions between the government and the Audit Office intensified after Mr Doyle refused to sign off on a final tally of the state’s finances amid a heated debate about the valuation of school assets.

But the latest intervention is arguably the most significant. It is unprecedented for successive auditors-general to come out so strongly in the middle of an election campaign to raise concerns about Victoria’s integrity system. Asked why they decided to take such action, Mr Doyle told The Sunday Age that the expansion of alternative ways of delivering services – including the proliferation of PPPs – meant it had become increasingly important that the matter was finally addressed. He also said his office planned to scrutinise the East West Link, should the project go ahead in the next term of Parliament.

Warning that an “independent integrity system is critically important for Victorians to trust and hold their governments to account”, the group has called for:

“Unfettered and unambiguous” authority to access information about publicly funded private contractors and third parties (not just information from the public service).
A smoother and more effective consultation process with Parliament and government agencies.
Removal of secrecy provisions that limit the Auditor-General from sharing information with other independent integrity organisations.

“There are 21 public-private partnership projects operating or being built in Victoria and a further four under procurement,” the group writes. “As the number (and dollar amount) of these projects increases, the ability of the Auditor-General to have confidence in and report to Parliament on overall government spending and programs is being steadily undermined.”

Labor has promised to provide the Auditor-General follow-the-dollar powers should it win on November 29. The Coalition says it also remains committed to strengthening the act.

Mr Doyle has been the state’s financial watchdog since 2013. His predecessor, Mr Pearson, was auditor-general from 2006-12. Before him were Mr Cameron (1999-06) and Mr Baragwanath (1988-99).

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