Australia’s auditor general calls for more funding as number of investigations drop

By on 04/10/2020 | Updated on 04/10/2020
Taking a view of value: the auditor general warns that cuts are reducing his ability to investigate scandals like the purchase of overpriced land near Sydney airport. (Photo by Maxim75 via Wikimedia Commons).

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) – which conducted six fewer audits than its target this year, due to budget constraints – will be forced to further cut the number of investigations it is able to undertake unless it receives more funding, the agency has said.

The agency revealed misspending on various fronts in 2019-20, including then-sport minister Bridget McKenzie’s office award of AUS$100m (US$72m) in sport grants to marginal seats, and the infrastructure department’s payment of AUS$30m (US$21m) for land worth AUS$3m near Sydney Airport.  

However, ANAO delivered 42 performance audits over the time period, short of its 48 target, prompting the auditor general Grant Hehir to write to prime minister Scott Morrison requesting a funding boost. “Without supplementary appropriations, the number of performance audits tabled in the parliament will continue to reduce,” he wrote.

In its annual report, the ANAO said it had recorded a deficit of AUS$3.1m (US$2.2m) in 2019-20. The agency’s total revenue from the government fell from AUS$70m (US$50m) in 2019 to AUS$69.2m (US$49m) in 2020, The Mandarin reports

“The ANAO budget is in loss for the third year in a row,” Hehir said in his letter. “This is in part due to investment in new ways of working, including technologies that will improve the efficiency of the ANAO. The deficit also reflects our transition to a lower funding base.”

‘Audits should be held’

Deputy prime minister Michael McCormack told reporters in Canberra last Wednesday that he didn’t believe there would be fewer audits, and that “those sorts of audits should be held”. He added: “If that office needs to make the necessary investigations into whatever the case might be, then those investigations will be taken – and that’s the proper and transparent way to do it.”

He would not be drawn on whether the ANAO would be awarded additional funding in the next budget, which is due to be announced on 6 October.

According to Guardian Australia, members of the joint committee of public accounts and audit, including the deputy chair, Labor’s Julian Hill, and the independent senator Rex Patrick are publicly lobbying for more funding for the ANAO.

Hill told Guardian Australia that fewer audits would mean “scandals like ‘sports rorts’, dodgy airport land deals and multibillion defence blowouts may never come to light. Less scrutiny may be convenient for Scott Morrison, but it weakens our democracy and independent scrutiny of government.”

Patrick said the auditor general “is one of the last bastions of frank and fearless analysis and advice within the public service,” and funding the office for anything less than 48 performance audits would amount to “silencing the auditor general”.

A preview of the audits the ANAO hopes to undertake 2020-21 includes investigations into coronavirus response measures such as the Covidsafe app, the jobkeeper wage subsidy, and the National Covid-19 Commission.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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