Auditor-General Amendment Bill 2011, Thursday 13 October 2011
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:35): The Greens support the Auditor-General Amendment Bill 2011, which will provide for the Auditor-General to conduct a performance audit to assess the performance of state and territory bodies that receive Commonwealth funding to deliver specified outcomes. This is a most important piece of legislation. It will enhance the democratic process because it brings greater transparency and accountability to how government programs are implemented. When there is greater openness about how government bodies work, the public can then have greater involvement in the workings of government. I congratulate all members of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and, in particular, its chair Mr Rob Oakeshott. I was fortunate to be a member of the New South Wales parliament when Mr Oakeshott was also a member, and have always found that his work is very thorough and he is very committed to his own constituents and the people of this country.
The current act that covers the Auditor-General means that the Auditor-General can assess only the Commonwealth's administration of funding, not the use to which the funds have been put by the state or territory governments. Other senators have set out how the amendments in the bill will impact on the Auditor-General's office. I will provide some examples of how these amendments will play out. If we go back to the committee report, which is essentially where this bill comes from, it used the example of the Building the Education Revolution. That was a program the Greens supported as part of the stimulus package. As well as providing stimulus, the program also provided much-needed infrastructure to schools throughout the country. The previous speaker, Senator Ryan, once again railed against this program. But those comments only serve to show how out of touch he is with what is going on in communities. Yes, there were some problems with that program, as there are with many large-scale programs. But, from my experience of going to many schools and speaking in many communities, most people out there cannot believe their luck—that they have ended up with school halls and other infrastructure that they thought they would never have the chance of obtaining. It is making a real difference to education outcomes.
The Building the Education Revolution program was subject both to an audit by the Auditor-General and to an independent review by Brad Orgill. Both reports found that the program was a success. The Auditor-General has made the point that his audit could only concern itself with the administration of the program by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and not with the performance of the state and territory authorities in delivering the projects. This was a shortcoming.
With this bill enacted, we will be able to 'follow the money trail'. Those words have been used by many other speakers and it certainly sums up the essence of the changes to the act. It seems perfectly appropriate that the Commonwealth Auditor-General should be able to follow the money on such programs to ensure Commonwealth funds are being used for the purpose for which they were provided, whether it is the Building the Education Revolution, other stimulus programs, assistance for rebuilding after the floods, private providers picking up public money for vocational education training—an issue that I have been pursuing lately—or any other Commonwealth funds being provided for a whole range of purposes.
The contracting out of services should not result in the loss of government accountability. This particularly applies when it comes to private contractors. I am very pleased that the bill makes a significant amendment to allow the Auditor-General to audit the performance of contractors who receive money to deliver Commonwealth projects or services. As the committee report notes, the Commonwealth government is increasingly outsourcing the delivery of government programs and services. This outsourcing can potentially lead to a loss of government accountability if the performance of private contractors cannot be subject to audit. It was a unanimous finding of the committee, and a point on which there was general agreement in the evidence, that the Auditor-General should have the power to examine the expenditure of public funds when government enters into commercial arrangements for the provision of services. The head of the Defence Materiel Organisation submitted to the inquiry that the Auditor-General should have greater authority to examine the financial and performance outcomes associated with Commonwealth expenditure, including the authority to conduct company audits. Once this bill is enacted, the Auditor-General will have that authority.
In summary, the Auditor-General is one of our most important democratic institutions, providing accountability for the use of taxpayers' money and the general financial integrity of the Commonwealth government. This bill will make an important contribution, I believe, to improving this work. I did note that Senator Ryan spoke of amendments that he will shortly be circulating. We will certainly give those close attention but we are concerned—and I am happy to put this on the record—that the coalition could be up to more mischief here. Considering how thorough the work done by the committee was, leading to the recommendations which have been adopted in this bill, you again have to suspect what the coalition is up to.