The independence of key federal oversight bodies is at risk of being undermined by “political meddling”, according to a new report from the Centre for Public Integrity.
At present, funding for oversight bodies is determined by the government as part of the annual budget. However, the think tank has warned this creates a conflict of interest – making agencies dependent on the government they are scrutinising.
“Accountability institutions should not be scared to bite the hand that feeds them, indeed that is their job,” Geoffrey Watson SC, Director of the Centre for Public Integrity and former ICAC counsel, said.
“It also poses a temptation for governments, which have an incentive to keep their failings hidden, to cripple institutions whose work may bring such failings to light.”
Since 2013-14, the Australian National Auditors Office, an agency which examines government spending, has had $6.4mil cut from its budget.
Over the same period, the Auditors Officer was responsible for uncovering ‘Sports Rorts’ and ‘AirportGate’ – the partisan allocation of $100m in sports grants to Government electorates and $27m overspend on land at the future Western Sydney airport site.
Current model renders watchdogs vulnerable
“The experience of recent years has demonstrated that the current model renders watchdogs vulnerable… This is one explanation for the cuts to the Australian National Audit Office’s budget in the wake of the Sports rorts and Leppington Triangle revelations,” the report’s authors write.
A recent review of the National Archives of Australia also found that budget cuts have hindered its ability to deliver on its mandate – causing the deterioration of significant historical documents, and a growing backlog of access requests.
“When you lose records of the government, then you of course reduce the transparency and accountability of government, the integrity of government processes and the trust that people are able to place in government,” David Fricker, Director-General of the Archives, recently told Senate Estimates.
“When records are lost, you also lose resources which are called upon to uphold the rights and entitlements of Australians.”
The problem, according to the Centre for Public Integrity, lies in how these bodies are funded. Each year, agencies like the ANAO and National Archives are allocated funding through the federal budget – a figure which is set by the government.
Because they are part of the budget, rather than independent appropriations, those wishing to block funding cuts can only vote against the entire budget, rather than the individual cuts – severely limiting scrutiny of funding decisions.
Funding must be independent of Government
The findings mirror recommendations from a similar inquiry into the funding of oversight bodies in New South Wales. Last year, that inquiry warned bodies like ICAC were no longer able to fulfil their “statutory and constitutional functions” due to budget cuts and the politicisation of their funding.
As a solution to this deadlock, the Centre for Public Integrity has proposed the Parliament establish an ‘Independent Funding Tribunal’ to oversee the budgets of major federal oversight bodies.
This includes the Australian National Auditors Office, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Ombudsman, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the National Archives, and, once established, a National Integrity Commission.
“The contradiction inherent in the Executive controlling the funding of agencies which scrutinise it is self-evident,” the report’s authors write.
“Removing Executive control of the funding of key accountability institutions is essential, if these institutions are to be genuinely independent – and critically, to be seen to be independent.”
“The adoption of a model via which funding is allocated by an appropriately qualified and designed Tribunal would be an important step towards the achievement of this independence.”
With plans for a federal anti-corruption commission delayed until after the next election, oversight bodies are one of the few remaining checks on government power. The need for their independence is stronger than ever.