11 Jul 2021

Auditing responsibilities

From The House , 7:30 am on 11 July 2021

Sometimes Parliament spends time on complex and crucial issues; like this week’s debate on suicide prevention (which you can hear parts of in the audio below).

Sometimes a lot of time is spent on simpler matters.

Last week the House spent much of Wednesday and also Thursday morning passing a bill with just one effect - to give the Auditor General’s team more time to finish their annual investigations of local and central government entities. 

That debate requires a short audit of its own.

Cropped image of businessman checking expense in office

Photo: 123RF

A short count of auditors

The basics were simple. Australia and New Zealand are apparently experiencing a shortage of auditors. Travel and immigration restrictions have made this more acute. 

The Office of the Auditor General has statutory obligations regarding timetables for reporting audits of central and local government. 

The Auditor General, aware that he was at risk of failing those deadlines, wrote to both the Minister of Finance (Grant Robertson), and also Andrew Bayly (National’s shadow cabinet finance spokesperson) and asked if he could please have the same two month extension that Parliament had granted last year as part of its Covid-19 measures.

Last year the House unanimously supported the huge omnibus bill that included this extension, and did so quickly. 

This year the debate took many hours longer and was contentious. This year National opposed the extension bill with vigor, filibustering it as long as they could. 

National MPs Andrew Bayly and Michael Woodhouse react to answers in Question Time

National money spokespeople, Andrew Bayly and Michael Woodhouse led their opposition efforts.  Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Pointing a stick

National MPs gave a variety of reasons for their opposition, including immigration policy, wider worker shortage responses, and the Audit office’s current foci; but we want to focus on a more limited range of debating points.  

Here are a few examples from the debate. 

  • “I think this highlighted a minister who should have had greater oversight of what was going on with this entity.” - Andrew Bayly 
  • “This government… have known about this problem for a long, long time, and they have decided under the auspices of urgency to throw it on us…  Well, I'm sorry. You can't just change the rules of the game to suit yourself....” - Simon Watts
  • “What this indicates is we've got a minister who is out of touch. He is not over the detail in regards to this...” Simon Watts
  • “But what is most extraordinary is that the government has decided to do this largely for itself.” - Gerry Brownlee
  • “...Not the minister in the chair, but the one who's responsible for that government department, hasn't adequately provided the funding for the Auditor General to remunerate the staff sufficiently to keep them.” - Stuart Smith
  • “The minister responsible has been asleep at the wheel, and we're all paying for it.” - Stuart Smith

You get the gist.

These were not National’s only, or even their main debating points, but the only ones that matter here.

We’re not contending whether the bill was good, or necessary, or who had caused the auditor shortage, or even how to fix it. We'll leave that fight to the MPs.

We only want to correct the idea some portrayed of the Auditor-General’s place in the scheme of things. You could say the MPs generously gave us an excuse to clear up some confusion. 

Labour MP Deborah Russell

Labour MP Deborah Russell Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Placing responsibility

While we could write a long explanation of the role and place of the Auditor-General, that already happened, during the debate. Whew. Let’s start with an explanation from a former auditor, Labour’s Deborah Russell.

“I wish to talk about the special status of the Audit Office, particularly in terms of the opposition saying it should have been better supervised by the minister. The Audit Office is not supervised by a minister. It is an Office of Parliament. The Auditor-General is an independent officer of this Parliament, of all of us. 

“There are three independent Officers of Parliament: there is the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, there is the Ombudsman, and there is the Auditor-General. 

“As a Parliament, we rely on the Auditor-General so that we may perform our role of supervising the work of government departments and inquiring into it. It is an office that ought to be cherished, in particular by the opposition. It ought to be cherished and given the resources it needs as easily as it needs them, and in particular the opposition ought to defend the Auditor-General at all opportunities.” - Deborah Russell.

To round that out, I’ll add a debate comment from the Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson. 

“I do think we need to be particularly careful as a Parliament around the way in which we impinge on the activities of Officers of Parliament. They are deliberately at arm's length — both from the government, but also to some extent from Parliament — in the sense that they undertake their work, are regarded as trusted professionals who can manage their work programme and their workflow.” - Grant Robertson

In short: 

  • Parliament oversees the Office of the Auditor-General, not government. 
  • Even Parliament keeps at something of a remove from the Officers of Parliament to maintain their independence. 
  • And yes, the AG’s work is really more advantageous to oppositions than to governments. That’s a key reason why the office is kept well out of the reach, control and oversight of government ministers.

That’s possibly more than you ever wanted to know about audits. You’re welcome.

That’s probably also enough auditing for the week, which thankfully saves us trying to explain this gem from the same debate: “...we'll come to this Parliament, bypass that pesky democracy thing,..."