THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
JULIAN HILL MP
DEPUTY CHAIR, JOINT COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTS AND AUDIT
MEMBER FOR BRUCE
PORTER’S GAG HAS CHILLING EFFECT ON AUDITOR INDEPENDENCE
Reports in The Guardian today show Attorney-General Christian Porter has used extraordinary powers to hide the Auditor-General’s findings on whether a major defence procurement project delivered value for money for the Commonwealth.
This decision risks a chilling effect on the Auditor-General’s independence, as other agencies begin to raise the possibility of seeking certificates from the Attorney-General to censor their own audit reports.
For the first time ever, the Attorney-General’s powers were used under Section 37 of the Auditor-General Act to force the Auditor-General to delete large slabs of an audit report into a $2.2 billion purchase of the Australian Army’s Protected Mobility Vehicle–Light.
According to the Guardian, material removed relates to conclusions regarding the value for money that Australia received from Thales after the Liberal Government decided not to pursue an open tender process.
The request to invoke these extraordinary powers came at the request of a private multinational company, Thales, for a certificate under section 37(2)(e) of the Act, to prevent “unfair prejudice” to their commercial interests.
The Attorney-General has tried to cloak his decision to protect Thales’ commercial interests, by claiming censorship was needed to protect the “security, defence or international relations” of the Commonwealth under section 37(2)(a) of the Act.
But in evidence provided to the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) the Auditor-General revealed that when the draft report was completed for release in January 2018, he “had worked through all national security issues” with the Department of Defence which had no outstanding defence or security concerns about the audit’s publication.
It was only many months after Thales lodged a case in the Federal Court on 5 January and asked the Attorney-General to censor the audit report that Liberal Ministers then claimed the audit report’s publication would prejudice Australia’s defence and security.
Now, the Auditor-General has given evidence that he fears more agencies may threaten to gag him:
“…since this issue has arisen … I think for the first time in the course of our work agencies are starting to raise with us issues about seeking certificates on matters. So, while some of the conversation's been about how this has only happened once, one of my concerns around some of the issues and processes here is that, for the first time for us, people are starting to flag this as a course of action early in processes. That's one issue that has concerned me since this time.”
Auditor-General, Mr Grant Hehir, 19/10/18, JCPAA Public Hearing
While Mr Porter’s actions were within the bounds of the Act, it is clear such powers should be used in extraordinary circumstances only. Mr Porter has still not given a valid explanation as to his actions in this case – it’s not good enough.
Independence of the Auditor-General is absolutely central to any claim of credibility of parliamentary control over the executive in the Westminster system.
Labor is committed to strengthening integrity including through the introduction of a National Integrity Commission, and will carefully consider the need for possible changes to the Auditor-General Act after the JCPAA has completed its inquiry.
MONDAY, 22 OCTOBER 2018