News National Audit watchdog barks despite government shortening the leash

Audit watchdog barks despite government shortening the leash

Auditor-General Grant Hehir at an earlier Senate inquiry into sports rorts. Photo: AAP
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A little noticed mid-term review by Australia’s Auditor General of his own work goes a long way to highlighting why the Morrison government has cut Grant Hehir’s funding.

In a nutshell, Mr Hehir takes his statutory independence too seriously and has exposed unethical performance in the federal public service that he sheets home to the culture of the government itself.

The Auditor talks of “too strong a focus on red tape reduction … too often at the expense of effective outcomes” and of operating “under a self-regulatory approach” that provides almost “no formal mechanisms … to provide assurance on compliance”.

The shameful COVID-19 unpreparedness of aged care facilities directly under the funding and control of the Commonwealth is more than enough evidence of this.

Mr Hehir defends his credibility saying “under auditing standards a negative conclusion can only relate to a material finding”  – in other words it must be fact-based.

According to Mr Hehir, an effective auditor is someone who is not seeking to enhance their career prospects by being “tied to the perceptions of, or reactions to, their work by government.”

In fact he says auditors should have preferably non-renewable fixed terms and not as now “subject to administrative directions by the government”.

No wonder his pleas before the Budget for more funding were not only ignored but greeted with a $16 million dollar cut.

In this, the Morrison government has continued if not escalated the treatment metered out to the agency by Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull since the Liberals regained power in 2013.

Each year has been marked by a cut that has led to the number of specialist staff shrink from 350 to 320 – this, remember, is to scrutinise the huge operation that is the federal government of Australia.

There have been fewer audits, but taxpayers can be grateful that it has not led to any lessening of the quality of the forensic examinations launched.

A most dramatic recent example was the exposure of the brazen manipulation of the sports infrastructure grants run out of the sports minister Bridget McKenzie and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s offices.

And as parliament resumed on Monday, senate estimates discovered that the Audit Office itself had referred to the police the hyper-inflated $30 million price tag paid in 2018 to two Liberal donors for 12 hectares of land earmarked for expansion of Sydney’s new airport at Badgerys Creek.

The Secretary of the Infrastructure Department, Simon Atkinson, told the senate the auditor beat him to the punch and that he “suspects criminal activity”.

The minister at the time, Paul Fletcher, was kept in the dark and unlike with New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, there is no evidence phone tapped or otherwise of him saying to anybody “I don’t need to know about that bit”.

But Mr Hehir clearly believes the government and the public servants who work for it should lift their game when it comes to how they spend taxpayers’ money.

The Auditor General talks of the sometimes “unethical” approach to procurement across the public sector with too many entities “regularly” falling short of the rules behind government purchasing.

It’s no trifling matter. For example, in 2018-19, $64.5 billion was spent buying all sorts of things, according to AusTender, the Commonwealth’s procurement information system.

Sydney Liberal MP Jason Falinski told ABC TV the auditor’s work in uncovering the airport sales rort shows there’s no need for an ICAC-style integrity commission in Canberra.

He, like the Prime Minister and many in the government, have little appetite for that sort of scrutiny.

The underfunding of the Auditor General is confirmation they don’t welcome any sort of hard-nosed checking.

But this Auditor General, while he may be on a shorter leash, has no intention to stop barking.

Mr Hehir says in the final five years of his term he will not be as reluctant to call out the ethics of government and public sector behaviour.

He says not to do so “is unsustainable” so he will develop an audit methodology to assess ethics as a priority.

The nation will be grateful.