A parliamentary committee has described continued deficiencies in the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s (DAWE) administration of Australia’s environmental laws as ‘unacceptable’.
The Joint Statutory Committee on Public Accounts and Audit has this week released its report on its inquiry into the regulatory activities of five commonwealth agencies, including DAWE.
The inquiry considered a 2020 audit report on the effectiveness of DAWE’s administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions — actions which might have a significant impact on areas of environmental significance — under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
The EPBC Act sets out Australia’s national environmental protection regime.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) found that DAWE’s administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions was ‘not effective’, despite the department being subject to multiple reviews, audits and parliamentary inquiries. The committee said this was a concerning finding.
“The committee is concerned that the department failed to demonstrate it had acted on the recommendations of previous audits and considers that it would benefit from stronger oversight and accountability to improve in a range of areas,” it said.
These areas, the committee noted, included improvements to ICT systems and capabilities, record keeping practices, assessment and treatment of compliance risk, performance measurement frameworks, quality assurance frameworks, and the efficiency of its environmental regulation.
ANAO also found that DAWE’s regulatory information was stored in multiple IT systems, and the department’s ability to use that information was ‘limited by a lack of linkages between systems and data management issues’. These limitations increased the risk that DAWE’s view of regulated entities and compliance risks was ‘not complete and accurate’, ANAO found.
The committee noted that the risks to the environment of non-compliance with the EPBC Act and of regulated entities failing to comply, could be ‘substantial’.
“DAWE’s responsibility to manage those risks is therefore a serious one,” it said.
The committee said it was ‘unacceptable’ that DAWE was found to be falling short in a number of key areas, noting that it was important that Australia’s environmental laws are administered in a ‘competent and consistent manner’.
“Regulatory information should be collected, managed, used and published according to best practice, particularly when responsibility for regulation is shared between states, territories and the commonwealth,” the committee said.
“An understanding of risk drawn from this information should inform compliance and enforcement settings. Similarly, the department’s internal governance and performance measurement should be sound.
“It is unacceptable to the committee that the audit found deficiencies in each and every one of these areas. There have been deficiencies in the department’s administration of the Act for many years, as evidenced by numerous previous reports.”
The committee said it was also ‘very concerning’ that a lack of records prevented ANAO from forming a view on some issues.
“Accurate record keeping is vital to the effectiveness of regulatory agencies. Without this, the department is exposed to numerous threats including risks relating to probity and conflicts of interest, compliance risk and the inability to adequately substantiate decisions,” it said.
While DAWE had indicated that it was undertaking a range of initiatives to implement the ANAO’s recommendations, the inquiry’s evidence highlighted the ‘scope and scale’ of the work needed to ensure DAWE functions adequately in its regulatory role, the committee concluded.
It has made further recommendations to the department, including that it provide an update on the status of projects that have been planned or initiated in response to the ANAO’s findings within six months.
The committee has also recommended that the auditor-general consider conducting a follow-up audit of DAWE in 2023, ‘to assess the department’s progress in implementing the audit report’s recommendations’.
“The committee intends to list this program in its future ‘audit priorities of the Parliament’ to advocate for a further audit and continued oversight of the department until substantial change is demonstrated,” it said.
Labor MPs Julian Hill and Terri Butler said the recommended follow-up audit ‘puts the government on notice that they will actually need to deliver on their promise to act on the auditor’s findings’.
“This government-controlled committee has unanimously called on the Morrison government to fix their numerous failures and deficiencies, including information technology, record-keeping, managing compliance risk, measuring performance, quality assurance, and regulatory efficiency,” Hill, who is also deputy chair of the committee, said.
“The auditor’s report exposed vast shortcomings in the Morrison government’s environmental decision-making, harming jobs, investment, and environmental protection.”
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