Monday, 15 June 2020
Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit; Report
On behalf of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit I present the committee's report entitled Report 481: efficiency and effectiveness: inquiry into Auditor-General's reports 25, 29, 38, 42, 44, 45 and 51 (2018-19).
Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).
One of the key functions of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit is to ensure the transparency and accountability of public administration and expenditure in the Commonwealth. Accordingly, examining the efficiency and effectiveness of the administration of government programs ties directly into the statutory responsibilities and interests of the committee. This report is presented to the parliament pursuant to section 8(1) of the Commonwealth Public Accounts and Audit Act 1951 and details the committee's findings from the inquiry into the Auditor-General's reports of 2018-19 as referred to in the motion.
The purpose of this inquiry was to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of the administration of a range of government programs across a variety of subject matters and Commonwealth agencies. The committee identified several common themes across the seven Auditor-General's reports which were examined, including the importance of strong governance structures, the effective measurement and management of program performance and appropriate stakeholder engagement. These elements are critical to the success of all government programs, and the committee's findings are relevant to all government agencies undertaking program management on behalf of the Commonwealth.
In examining the operations of these programs, the committee has made 11 recommendations to agencies, including to the Department of Home Affairs, relating to externally reported key performance indicators and an electronic tracking system for applicants seeking citizenship by conferral; to the Department of Finance in reference to cost-recovery guidelines and benchmarking activities by cost-recovery entities; to the Australian Taxation Office regarding improvements to data analysis and systems designed to report on debt arising from compliance activities; to the Department of Social Services, relating to risk management and public reporting for the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022; and to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the Australian Taxation Office in relation to policy objectives, key performance indicators and risk assessments for the Farm Management Deposits scheme.
In presenting this report I would really like to acknowledge the work of the committee secretariat in this inquiry. I'd like to thank all members of the committee for their cooperation and their assistance—and also the deputy chair—and indicate that this is a bipartisan report. I commend the report to the House.
I thank the chair for her remarks. It is indeed a bipartisan report, continuing the tradition broadly for around 100 years of striving for bipartisan work through this committee. I think you used to be a chair of this committee, Mr Speaker, some years ago and would understand the breadth of its work. It is a bit of a monster report, this one. It is seven individual audit reports all stapled together. In that vein, I would also extend thanks to the secretariat, particularly given they were still getting up and running and a little short-staffed when we held these hearings late last year. A lot of work went in.
Of those seven reports, there were probably a few things that got gold stars. Efic, I think, had one of the most positive audit reports I've read in my time here. There were some moderate issues identified—cost-recovery principles in particular and issues of overcharging of fees and charges, particularly in the agriculture sector and the maritime sector, which need to be addressed. As the chair mentioned on DSS's work in family violence, the committee was concerned that, despite all of the activity, the government didn't have an appropriate performance framework to actually measure and report on what the outcomes were. Of course, in such a complex area, with Commonwealth-state cooperation, it's really important we're assured that taxpayer funding is achieving outcomes and not just being expended. Similarly, the scandal which was broken some years ago in relation to the Australian tax office's treatment of small businesses and collection of tax debts was the subject of an audit report. To summarise, most of the hopes for improvement hung on a massive IT upgrade that the tax office was doing over Christmas. So hopefully that's all gone well and has addressed most the concerns.
The two areas I want to make a couple of brief remarks on included, firstly, the citizenship audit report. This was nothing short of a scandal. It was a total administrative failure, and it was one of the most damning audit reports that I've read in my time here. It found that the number of citizenship applications stuck in the pipeline had blown out by 771 per cent and that almost 250,000 people were waiting for citizenship as of 30 June two years ago. That means hundreds of thousands of permanent residents of this country who wanted to confirm their commitment to Australia were stuck in the department's black hole, waiting for something to happen. It would just be a coincidence that they weren't allowed to get on the voting roll before the last election, wouldn't it? But there is no need for colourful phrases; the report speaks for itself. The direct and damning conclusions of that report were that applications for citizenship by conferral had not been processed efficiently by the Department of Home Affairs. They had not been processed in a time-efficient manner. They had not been processed in a resource-efficient manner. Processing times had increased. There were significant periods of inactivity evident for both complex and non-complex applications. In plain English, what that means is that the Auditor-General had a look around the department and found stuff literally sitting in filing cabinets and tambour units for years in which nothing had happened and the Department of Home Affairs had not checked the quality of its decisions for a year.
They're quite serious matters and, indeed, the Federal Court did the department for an unreasonable delay under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act—quite rightly so. The interesting thing I'll just note is that, despite a very clear finding—and the euphemistic blind Freddie could see that the department were not being efficient on this—the department bowled up a curious submission which said at the outset, 'We don't agree that we weren't being efficient,' and then went on to outline pages of things that they were doing to become more efficient. I just pay tribute to—a peculiar thing you might think given I've just bagged the department's performance—the first assistant secretary who appeared. I think he was superb. He was not defensive. He was a model that perhaps the secretary of that department can seek to emulate in dealing with parliamentary committees. He provided reasonable and rational answers as to what improvements have been undertaken. As the committee said, I do hope that they lead to some improvement.
This issue is dear to my heart, given my electorate. I've had men sitting in the foyer week after week crying from being separated from their families for five, eight or 10 years because, until they become citizens, they aren't allowed to have their family reunion applications processed. They haven't seen their wives and kids, in some cases, for over a decade because of this cruel policy.
The final comment I will just make is on the Farm Management Deposits scheme. There are a couple of concerning aspects to that. The minister decided, as is the minister's right, to unilaterally say that they were increasing the cap for the Farm Management Deposits scheme from $400,000 to $800,000. However, no cost-benefit analysis was undertaken. Indeed, it became apparent through the inquiry that a very small number of farmers would in fact benefit and all from the big end of town, so to speak. It was also of concern to some members that, in 20 years of the operation of this scheme, despite the obvious opportunities for rorting, there had been no enforcement action undertaken. But, as we noted in the report, it is an interesting case study about the views of a big agency on what constitutes risk—the Australian tax office versus a small agency in agriculture. I commend the report to the House.