Increase powers of Auditor-General

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The Age: Increase powers of Auditor-General. November 27, 2014

Editorial

Governments and oppositions make much of holding to account each other’s spending promises. Last Friday, both major parties were arguing with each other on their costings. This is part and parcel of democracy at work.

However, a democracy can only properly thrive when there is independent scrutiny of how public money is spent – without fear of, or favour to, anyone. This role is carried out by the Auditor-General’s office. It is important and vital work.

Therefore, it is with dismay that we note the disquiet aired in today’s Sunday Age, both in a news report and an opinion piece, by the present Auditor-General, John Doyle, and his three immediate predecessors – Des Pearson, Wayne Cameron and Ches Baragwanath – that the ability of the AG’s office to do its work properly is being compromised and undermined.

They question the office’s efficiency in being able “to test whether public money is being spent appropriately and effectively” .

The Audit Act 1994, under which the office operates, was “seriously out of date”. Other jurisdictions nationwide had kept up with the times, but not Victoria. For the past six years, the auditors-general said, the office had brought this to the attention of government, and yet nothing had been done. They are now seeking both the government and the opposition, whoever wins office in two weeks, to uphold a commitment to rewrite the act.

This lack of action is either woeful neglect, bordering on irresponsibility, incompetence, a cynical manipulation of the political cycle (it is not an issue on which votes are easily gathered) or blindness to the acuity of the problem.

A spur to their call is the ballooning use of public-private partnerships to build infrastructure. They cite two very large and well-known PPP projects: the desalination plant at Wonthaggi and the proposed East West Link. These projects run into the billions of dollars.

The office says there are 21 PPPs operating or being built in this state and another four under procurement, yet it “cannot fully audit taxpayers’ money being spent on these projects”. Clearly, this is not good enough.

A key priority to do so, they say, is to legislate for “follow-the-dollar” powers, which would allow the Auditor-General to examine information from third parties.

Finance Minister Robert Clark said in February such powers would be delivered. They haven’t.

In September, Mr Clark said there was draft legislation but “it has been agreed with the Auditor-General’s office not to proceed”, to allow more talk on the bill. The opposition’s shadow finance minister, Martin Pakula, said that Labor would implement such powers.

The Auditor-General’s office has been in existence in Victoria since 1851, when the colony was proclaimed. The first auditor-general, Charles Ebden, had a staff of six. Now, it has a staff of about 150 and the office is overseer of $50billion of government spending.

The public had the right to know then how money was being spent, and it has the right to know now. The Auditor-General’s office is one of three pillars maintaining the integrity of that right. The other two are the Ombudsman and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission.

It is alarming the four men who have most recently held the position of auditor-general have felt compelled to declare publicly “there is now a gathering threat to the ability of the Auditor-General to undertake the depth of investigation required” to test if public money is being spent usefully or if it is being wasted.

The office must have the powers necessary to do its job effectively. If nothing is done, then the public has the right to ask, as we do now: Who benefits from this inertia?

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