Legislative Council: Wednesday, November 16, 2022



Public Finance and Audit (Auditor-General Access to Cabinet Submissions) Amendment Bill

Introduction and First Reading

The Hon. H.M. GIROLAMO (22:12): Obtained leave and introduced a bill for an act to amend the Public Finance and Audit Act 1987. Read a first time.

Second Reading

The Hon. H.M. GIROLAMO (22:13): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Public Finance and Audit (Auditor-General Access to Cabinet Submission) Amendment Bill 2022 provides additional powers for the Auditor-General to access cabinet submissions. The purpose of the bill is to immediately rectify a specific issue that was raised by the Auditor-General in his 2022 annual report, which is that the Premier refused to provide any and all of his government's cabinet submissions that the Auditor-General requested in order to complete his audit and fulfil his legislative obligations.

To be clear, the Premier has refused to provide the Auditor-General with any of his government's cabinet submissions that he has requested since the election. The Premier's argument is that this is the same policy that was followed by the former government, but the truth is that his approach to veto all requests by the Auditor-General is a reversal of decisions made under the former government.

This is a massive blow for transparent and accountable government. Do not just take my word for it, the Auditor-General himself has said, and I quote, 'the change of government has certainly changed the scenario for access'. He confirmed that all cabinet submissions that were requested by the Auditor-General during the last four years of the former Liberal government were provided in full.

Even since the election the opposition has provided all eight cabinet submissions that the Auditor-General has requested in full. The Premier has provided zero. Worryingly, the Premier has confirmed during parliamentary questions that he does not intend to give the Auditor-General any cabinet submissions he requests in the future.

What is the Premier trying to hide? Why does he continue to refuse to provide the cabinet submissions to the Auditor-General? Why does the Premier refuse to respond to questions on notice within 30 days in the house, a disgraceful and brazen reversal of the transparency arrangement under the former government? Why is he cutting the Auditor-General's budget by $1.49 million, of which the Auditor-General said, 'This is the first ever I am aware of being imposed.'

When asked in a recent Budget and Finance Committee hearing whether powers to access cabinet submissions would help him undertake his functions he replied, 'Yes.' The Auditor-General serves a crucial role to ensure transparency, accountability and integrity, and he does so in the public interest. We do not accept that South Australia should become a secret state, neither should this council and neither should this parliament. South Australians deserve better.

Ultimately, it is crystal clear that legislative provisions are required to remove the Premier's veto for these requests. Key provisions include new section 34A—Provision, production and use of Cabinet submissions, which protects individuals from penalties for providing or producing cabinet submissions. Specifically, this bill ensures that individuals will incur no civil or criminal liability when providing or producing cabinet submissions to the Auditor-General, including that this action is not to be regarded as a breach of any duty of secrecy or confidentiality imposed on a person by law.

The bill also provides important measures for the management of documents, including that documents must be stored securely and distributed only to members of the Auditor-General's staff who require access to the document in order to assist the Auditor-General or in the exercise of the Auditor-General's function. Further, schedule 1—Transitional provisions, are also important, because this bill provides that the bill applies retrospectively. This means the bill will capture and rectify the discrete problem that the Auditor-General has raised in his annual report.

Moreover, we also know that it has been widely reported that the Auditor-General has provided scathing commentary relating to the administration of payments totalling at least $133 million for local sporting clubs and infrastructure grants. Our view is that these are broader concerns that require further detailed consideration over the coming months to specify whether additional measures, legislative or otherwise, are required to broaden and strengthen the Auditor-General's powers. We think that any further measures require significant additional consultation, especially to ensure consistency wherever possible with recent introduced legislation in Western Australia and New South Wales.

This bill will ensure that the Auditor-General is not prevented from accessing cabinet submissions and is consistent with approaches in other jurisdictions federally and interstate. This is consistent with our approach to transparency when in government. It is important to acknowledge that in 2019 the former government struck an agreement with the Auditor-General to improve transparency and accountability and reverse the previous approach under Labor that blanketed secrecy right across government decision-making.

This agreement is reflected in Premier and Cabinet Circular PC047, and it is this agreement that we base this legislation on. The key difference between the circular and this bill is that we have removed the power of the Premier to veto requests for cabinet submissions made by the Auditor-General due to the unprecedented and perverse interpretation of the veto clause by the current Premier.

Whilst we acknowledge that this bill does not intend to rectify all of the issues raised in the Auditor-General's report, we do think that immediate urgent action is required to enable the Auditor-General to complete his audit and fulfil his statutory obligations.

I would also like to reflect on my time as an external auditor prior to entering this place. I find the lack of access to documentation, including evidence of approvals and declarations of conflicts to be very concerning. If the South Australian government were a corporate organisation they would be in breach of the Corporations Act for not providing access to sufficient records. This would result in a disclaimer of opinion. Access to all relevant information by an auditor is vital to ensure material issues and errors are identified and rectified where appropriate. Transparency is key.

In closing, it is also important to acknowledge that the Auditor-General is an independent authority who is responsible to this parliament and not to a department. All of us here today, including the government, crossbenchers and opposition, have a responsibility to ensure that the Auditor-General has all the tools necessary to undertake his function for the good of the state. I commend the bill to the council.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.