Rebels without applause: our underfunded accountability institutions

by Bill Browne

When Aussie band TISM immortalised state auditor-general Ches Baragwanath as a “rebel without applause”, they acknowledged that rock star status eludes most heads of our integrity bodies. By nature, audit work is meticulous and measured – some would say tedious – but it can change the national conversation and have ministers and public servants quaking in their boots.

Consider the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), which shone a light on the “sports rorts” affair where grants were skewed towards marginal seats and the $30 million taxpayer dollars paid to a Liberal donor for land valued at one-tenth of that sum. The Auditor-General also keeps a watchful eye on government advertising, which has a regrettable tendency to promote the current government rather than genuinely inform the public.

The ANAO had its funding cut for its troubles, limiting the number of performance audits it can perform – part of a trend of cuts discussed below. Funding in last year’s budget was to address rising office costs, not expand the ANAO’s capacity. The ANAO is funded to perform 42 performance audits this year, down from 55 a year back in 2011-12. Imagine what another 13 audits a year would uncover.

Information Commissioner
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is responsible for regulating privacy and freedom of information (FOI). If a department ignores an FOI request or refuses to hand over documents, you can request an OAIC review of the decision.

Unfortunately, there are so many deficient FOI decisions that the Information Commissioner is swamped with hundreds more requests than it has capacity for. Last year’s Budget funded a dedicated Freedom of Information Commissioner – who would be a welcome addition, except he has not started yet.

This year’s Budget announces additional money for the OAIC’s privacy and regulatory functions, but deep cuts to the OAIC overall – which is dire news for the FOI backlog and means zero consequences for FOI officers who run interference for their department and its minister at the expense of the public’s right to know what is being done in their name.

$136 million in integrity cuts scheduled for the coming years
Buried in the portfolio budget statements are deep cuts to many of Australia’s accountability institutions. Most of the cuts are buried in the forward estimates, in other words for between two and four years in the future.

Worst affected is the Director of Public Prosecutions, which will have $17 million less revenue from government in real terms in 2025–26 than it had 2021–22, a 19% cut.

The Office of the Information Commissioner – already failing to meet its targets and swamped with hundreds of requests – faces a cut of $13 million per year by 2025–26, or 48%.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman is looking at a $9 million cut in 2025–26 relative to 2021–22, or 23%.

The Australian Law Reform Commission’s revenue will be $208,000 lower, a cut of 8%. The Fair Work Ombudsman and the Registered Organisations Commission Entity will lose 9%, a $7 million cut in 2025–26.

The Australian Human Rights Commission will be $4 million lower, an 18% cut.

Only the Australian National Audit Office escapes unscathed, with a begrudging 0.1% funding increase through to 2025–26.

Across the nine organisations, this sums to a $53 million cut in real terms in 2025–26 alone, and a $136 million cut when every year’s cuts through to 2025–26 are added together. So a budget that spends $2,700 million on a six-month fuel excise cut does not spare one-twentieth that amount for accountability institutions over four years.

With trust in government in long-term decline in this country, the Information Commissioner overwhelmed by requests for FOI reviews, no integrity commission in sight and fewer audits than there were 10 years ago, we should be investing more in our accountability institutions – not cutting them to the bone.

Figure 1: Revenue from government over the forward estimates, 2021 dollars
Figure 1: Revenue from government over the forward estimates, 2021 dollars

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