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Vic Auditor-General ‘breached role’ in lobbying for powers

The Victorian Auditor-General is continuing an election-eve campaign for greater powers to “follow-the-dollar”, dismissing accusations the office inappropriately injected itself into the state election.

The CEO of the Victorian Auditor-General’s office says “failure to highlight major deficiencies in the act which actually prevent him fulfilling that role would be a dereliction of that role”. But one former senior public servant has told The Mandarin John Doyle has committed “a fundamental breach of his role as an officer of the Parliament” and should consider resignation.

John Doyle
John Doyle

Doyle joined with three former auditors-general in penning an opinion piece for The Sunday Age urging whoever is in power after Saturday’s election to give his office “follow-the-dollar powers, to allow auditing of all activities funded by Parliament”. Notably, this would include being able to audit private companies contracted under public-private partnership arrangements, currently worth about $17.7 billion in capital costs.

The four auditors-general argued:

“This Act is now seriously out of date and is failing to keep pace with contemporary trends in public service delivery. Other Australian jurisdictions have amended their audit legislation in recent years to meet the challenge of government service delivery arrangements and to allow the Auditor-General to test properly whether the programs of government are operating economically, efficiently and effectively …

“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.

“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.”

These arguments are not new, and were often discussed under Doyle’s predecessor Des Pearson, who co-authored the article.

But former senior public servants have told The Mandarin that Doyle’s actions, as a current public servant intervening in politics in the lead-up to an election, were “very, very unusual”, as one put it.

One former senior bureaucrat says while follow-the-dollar powers are warranted, publicly advocating for policy change ahead of an election is the preserve of elected representatives. The source believes Doyle “seems to have a view of himself as an unaccountable guardian of the public interest”.

“There is nothing wrong about advocacy by former A-Gs even during an election campaign. They are now private citizens and entitled to express their views. However the fact that Doyle did so and indeed was the author of the article is unprecedented and a fundamental breach of his role as an officer of the Parliament,” they told The Mandarin.

“If Mr Doyle is not prepared to operate within the framework of a parliamentary system he should resign …”

“In the case of follow-the-money powers both sides have made commitments to introduce these amendments. Whether they do so and when they do so is up to them. And if they fail to meet their commitments it’s up to citizens at elections to pass judgement … If Mr Doyle is not prepared to operate within the framework of a parliamentary system he should resign or alternatively the Parliament should dismiss him.”

But the CEO of the Auditor-General’s office, Dr Peter Frost, hit back, telling The Mandarin “holding government to account for the expenditure of public funds is the Auditor-General’s core role”.

Frost says if someone takes issue with the Auditor-General’s comments, “perhaps he or she should put that in writing to John, who would be more than happy to have the discussion”.

The Auditor-General himself was unable to comment, as he is currently on leave.

Following the dollars in Victoria

While some who have spoken to The Mandarin agree that the auditor-general should be given the stronger follow-the-dollar powers Doyle and his predecessors are requesting, one senior source was sceptical, expressing concern that the auditor-general “wanted unfettered access” to the information of private companies and that the current situation was being portrayed as the auditor-general having no access at all to relevant information, which is inaccurate. Sections 11 and 12 of the Audit Act provide the auditor-general with full and unrestricted access to any information that public sector bodies have.

Indeed, there appears to be some scepticism in the public service about the need to expand the auditor-general’s powers to obtain information from private companies. Grant Hehir, then-secretary of the Department of Treasury and Finance, told a 2010 inquiry by the parliamentary Public Accounts and Estimates Committee into the Audit Act 1994 that issues with access to information primarily came down to contract management:

“… if the concerns are largely about access to information then it could be seen to be a contract management issue. If contracts are written which do not provide managers with enough information to effectively manage their operation, then that is something the Auditor-General should be raising concerns about with Parliament. Whether you need to follow every dollar in order to do that I think is questionable, because what you are trying to get at is whether you have got value for money …

“There is either enough evidence provided to the contract manager by the provider to give assurance that the contract has been adhered to or there is not. If the contract does not provide enough information to give assurance to the contract manager and to any external body, whether it be the Auditor-General or a parliamentary inquiry or whoever else gets access to it, for them to ascertain that the contract is being delivered effectively, then the issue is poor contract management and poor contract description. That is the thing that needs to be fixed up. If the contract manager cannot be assured that the contract has been delivered effectively, then the contract is not written in a way which allows that to happen and it needs to be fixed …

“This comes down to: what were you trying to ascertain here? You are trying to ascertain whether public moneys are delivering the services and goods and services and outcomes that the government wishes to provide. That is all.”

Nonetheless, the report that came out of that 2010 inquiry recommended that the Audit Act 1994:

“… be amended to assign an explicit authority for the Auditor‑General to access the systems and records of public sector contractors and their subcontractors pertaining to the delivery of services under contracts in the Victorian public sector … in a manner which restricts the access authority to the systems and records of contractors and their subcontractors, which relate to the delivery of services under public sector contracts … [and] in a manner which emphasises that the access authority is a last resort reserve measure to be used only when all other avenues, including through contractual provisions, prove ineffective and use of the access authority is deemed necessary to fully protect the interests of Parliament.”

Both the Labor and Liberal parties have stated they will strengthen the auditor-general’s powers.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.