Tuesday, 7 February 2017
I wish to speak on the Australian National Audit Office report on the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. We have now received the report from the ANAO on the government's administration of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. The report prepared by the Audit Office is a sad and troubling catalogue of woe in the administration of Indigenous affairs. In September 2013, responsibility for the majority of Indigenous-specific programs, as well as some mainstream programs that were designed to address the persistent disadvantage afflicting Indigenous communities, was transferred into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Some 27 programs with 150 administered items, activities and sub-activities from eight separate portfolio entities moved to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. We know now from this report that this was a grievous mistake by the previous Prime Minister, Mr Abbott.
In 2014, the Indigenous Advancement Strategy was announced by the Australian government. The ANAO has reviewed this strategy at a cost of nearly $900,000. The 2014-15 budget papers show that the government said it would save $534.4 million over five years by rationalising these Indigenous programs, grants and activities. In this case rationalisation is another word for cost cutting, for centralising, for establishing a top-down approach. This approach has been driven from 1 National Circuit, but has disenfranchised the communities and organisations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia.
The audit report points to the failure of attempts by the department to engage in partnerships at the regional level with Aboriginal organisations and communities. It points to a lack of information being given to services and organisations. Minutes were not even taken at some information meetings. The audit report shows conclusively that the department did not effectively implement the strategy. It was a rushed job; a botched job. Planning and design for the strategy was squeezed into a timeframe of seven weeks. As a direct result, the department did not implement key necessary steps in the process, such as consultation, risk management and, very importantly for this place, advice to ministers. I quote the report:
The department's grants administration processes fell short of the standard required to effectively manage a billion dollars of Commonwealth resources … the Department did not :
These are very serious failings for a program that promised to deliver change and efficiency by bringing together different programs into an integrated approach that in partnership with communities would deliver transformative change. It simply never happened, but many Aboriginal organisations and communities were damaged and it created havoc and distress for many of our people and our organisations
The audit found that the department did write up a consultation strategy but did not fully implement the approach outlined in the strategy. This is an auditor's understanding from the complaints that Aboriginal organisations across the nation have made; but it is also complaints that have been made to myself, to Senator McCarthy and to Ms Burney in the other house.
The report found that in most instances the department negotiated agreements that were consistent with the minister's approval. However, it also found that there were limited assurances that negotiations were fair and transparent. The audit continued to find problems. It found that the department did not maintain sufficient records throughout the assessment and decision-making process, so it was simply not possible for the auditors to determine how the committee arrived at its funding recommendations. The department did not record compliance with probity requirements—that is, with the department's own probity rules. The department says that it is authorised to intervene and improve the governance of Aboriginal organisations. It seems they could learn some very key factors from the Aboriginal organisations themselves. Further, the audit found that the department did not maintain adequate records of ministerial approval of grant funding. The audit found that the list of recommended projects provided to the minister did not even give enough information to meet mandatory requirements of the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines.
One can feel some sympathy for the minister. He was not given the information he needed to make decent decisions. Even when he made decisions, they were reversed by the department in many cases. The audit also observed that the department reallocated funding from projects approved by the minister. In one case, in 92 of these projects approved by the minister the department reallocated them without his consent. So the department made 92 projects, approving their funding. The department had a different view, because they simply reallocated the money. The minister, however, presided over all of this, so he cannot be let off the hook lightly. We will be asking further questions about these issues over coming weeks.
I would like to close by focusing on the broader strategic relationship issues between governments and our communities. This audit report highlights the quintessence of why there is no celebrated relationship between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this country and the nation state, especially this government.