‘Blowtorch on failures’: Parliamentary Committee to examine ‘sloppy record keeping’ and APS culture through ANAO reports

By Matthew Elmas

Thursday November 12, 2020

Labor member for Bruce Julian Hill during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, June 15, 2020. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

A parliamentary committee will examine ‘sloppy record keeping’ and the development of ethical cultures in the public service through new inquiries into ten highly critical auditor-general reports, including the Leppington Triangle land purchase.

After a delay, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit yesterday outlined two new inquiries into governance of public sector resources and regulatory activities, referencing a string of Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) reports.

Spanning from October last year to September, 2020, the committee will run the ruler over reviews of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), Defence Housing, the CSIRO’s property investment strategy and many others.

Recommendations about stewardship of public resources are expected after a bruising year for public administrators amid the Leppington Triangle scandal and persistent auditor-general criticism about procurement across the commonwealth.

The inquiries, and the reports which will be examined, are as follows:

Inquiry into governance in the stewardship of public resources:

  • No. 11 (2019-20) Implementation of the Digital Continuity 2020 Policy;
  • No. 31 (2019-20) Management of Defence Housing Australia;
  • No. 39 (2019-20) Implementation of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Property Investment Strategy;
  • No. 2 (2020-21) Procurement of Strategic Water Entitlements; and
  • No. 9 (2020-21) Purchase of the ‘Leppington Triangle’ Land for the Future Development of Western Sydney Airport.

Inquiry into regulatory activities:

  • No. 33 (2019-20) Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s Regulation of Higher Education;
  • No. 47 (2019-20) Referrals, Assessments and Approvals of Controlled Actions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999;
  • No. 48 (2019-20) Management of the Australian Government’s Lobbying Code of Conduct — Follow-up Audit;
  • No. 5 (2020-21) Regulation of the National Energy Market; and
  • No. 8 (2020-21) Administration of Financial Disclosure Requirements under the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

While the committee has a statutory obligation to examine ANAO reports, the latest inquiries are slated to eclipse its 2019-20 output in just two months, after the committee was only able to finalise one inquiry into seven auditor-general reports in 2019-20, despite the ANAO completing 42.

It did commence one other into seven reports, which is due to report during 2020-21. The latest inquiries are expected to deliver their reports next January.

After lambasting the committee for its lack of work in Parliament last month, deputy chair and Labor MP Julian Hill says he’s pleased the committee is now ‘picking up the pace’.

“Last year we did less work than any committee in recent years and we can’t blame all of that on COVID-19,” he says.

“Turning the blowtorch on failures by the government in regulation is really important.”

Hill — also critical of recent cuts to the ANAO’s budget —says the 10 reports being reviewed by the committee raise ‘pretty serious questions’ about whether government entities are operating properly within the scope of legislation, particularly in relation to the Leppington Triangle land purchase.

“We’ve seen a series of report from the auditor general that highlight regulatory failings, particularly the ability of agencies to undertake risk-based regulation,” he says.

The role of public service leaders in developing ‘ethical cultures’ and the extent of ‘sloppy record keeping’ across the Commonwealth will be points of focus for the committee, Hill says.

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