Coalition MPs renew call for Scott Morrison to boost auditor general’s budget

Exclusive: Parliamentary committee chaired by Liberal MP Lucy Wicks and with a majority of Coalition members urges more funding

Liberal MP Lucy Wicks
Liberal MP Lucy Wicks, the chair of the joint committee of public accounts and audit, which has urged a budget boost for the auditor general. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Liberal MP Lucy Wicks, the chair of the joint committee of public accounts and audit, which has urged a budget boost for the auditor general. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Last modified on Thu 15 Apr 2021 17.40 EDT

Scott Morrison has again been urged by members of his own government to give a budget boost to the auditor general, despite the prime minister brushing off a similar request last year.

The joint committee of public accounts and audit, which is chaired by the Liberal MP Lucy Wicks and has a majority of Coalition members, has called for funding to reach a target of 48 performance audits a year and an extra $6-7m to test government entities’ claims about their achievements.

A spokesman for Angie Bell confirmed the Liberal MP had supported the recommendation “as does the whole committee”. The other Coalition members are Claire Chandler, David Gillespie, Matt O’Sullivan, Paul Scarr, Ross Vasta and Rick Wilson – although Gillespie, at least, was not present when the committee deliberated on the call for more funding.

The independent senator, Rex Patrick, told Australia “the Coalition had been dragged to 48 [performance audits] by Labor” but called for a bigger expansion in the ANAO’s program and budget.

In September Australia revealed that the auditor general, Grant Hehir, had written to Morrison seeking a budget increase, warning that performance audits would be cut if the efficiency dividend continued a trend of cuts.

Despite Labor and the crossbench warning a budget cut would be seen as payback for the agency uncovering sports rorts and the Leppington Triangle sale, the watchdog’s resources again fell by $14m in the October budget.

Morrison told parliament he would consider the Australian National Audit Office’s resources when responding to the committee’s review of the Auditor General Act.

The committee is now working to submit an interim report on the funding question, but has already written to the government asking for a budget increase.

In addition to its audits of financial statements and government programs, the ANAO is seeking funding to audit agencies’ performance statements. These annual statements to parliament about purported achievements and outcomes were introduced in 2013 but are currently not independently assessed.

The new function for the ANAO, which has been the subject of a pilot program, would cost an extra $6-7m per year, after a period of ramping up its capacity by training and hiring more auditors.

On Tuesday the ANAO released its draft program of potential performance audits for 2021-22. The ambitious list of about 80 potential audits is double what the agency is likely to deliver, after the number of performance audits fell to 42 last year.

Covid-19 programs feature prominently, with proposals to look at support to the aviation sector, the Covidsafe app, vaccine and treatment strategy, and Treasury’s management of debt.

Cross-entity topics included cybersecurity and the remuneration packages of accountable authorities.

Other potential topics include:

  • The agriculture, environment and water department’s management of environmental water, the 20m trees program, and post-bushfire wildlife and habitat recovery.

  • The Australian Taxation Office’s compliance work on non-payment of the superannuation guarantee, and the black economy taskforce.

  • The defence department’s management of information assets, inventory, and procurement of six cape class patrol boats.

  • The home affairs department’s coordination of border intelligence, counter-terrorism, corruption controls at airports, and handling of the media.

  • The infrastructure department’s building better regions fund.

  • Service Australia’s debt recovery.

Patrick said both Labor and the government “are simply unambitious in promoting the important role of the ANAO”.

In public committee hearings, Patrick has suggested the ANAO should perform up to 70 or 80 performance audits a year.

“There is huge bang for buck in what you put into the ANAO – it is a deterrent across the commonwealth public service for questionable conduct, or even simply requiring public servants be more careful,” Patrick said.

The audit committee deputy chair, Labor’s Julian Hill, told Australia it was “pretty ridiculous” the Morrison government had not already increased the ANAO budget because the case for more oversight of spending had “already been well made”.

“They don’t need another report or more advice – just fund the ANAO properly,” he said.

Hill declined to comment on the specific budget recommendations of the committee, which were decided in private.

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