Broadly, the report is supported. There are a number of (relatively minor) areas where greater clarity and strength is needed in the findings and recommendations.
I do, on behalf of Labor members, thank the Chair for the collegiate and inclusive way in which she has chaired the JCPAA this term, generally allowing evidence to be reflected in reports and negotiating consensus reports that focus on matters of public administration.
It is disappointing and perplexing that on this occasion, contrary to the generally bipartisan tradition of the JCPAA, that the matters outlined below were not included in the Committee’s report, reflecting the evidence received.
People can behave strangely on the eve of an election, and especially so it appears in the most corrupt, wasteful, rorting Government in Australia’s history, overly sensitive to criticism of even minor matters of administration. Such is life.
This inquiry was effectively completed months ago, and it is also sub-optimal that the Committee is finalising these changes in a rushed manner on what is likely, literally the last day of this Parliament. Better late than never though.
Digital continuity policy – National Archives of Australia
NAA ‘Resource constraints’ (aka Liberal Government budget cuts and serial underfunding)
The Committee failed to and should have clearly acknowledged and accepted the National Archives of Australia’s (NAA) advice that resourcing constraints have impacted on the NAA’s ability to meet policy targets.
The entire nation knows that the Government massively underfunded the NAA for years, risking decay and destruction of Australia’s precious national history. Only after a national campaign was the Government embarrassed and shamed into boosting funding somewhat.
It’s not rocket science and should not be controversial for the Audit Committee to state the bleedingly obvious – that years of serious underfunding of the NAA (which could more politely described as ‘resource constraints’ if the delicate sensibilities of Government muppets are offended) contributed to its failure to meet its policy targets.
It’s really a bit silly of the Audit Committee to have a whack at the NAA for failures in record keeping and implementing change policies, when they were so starved of funding that precious records were literally rotting and refuse to acknowledge this basic point.
Indeed, the previous Speaker, Hon Tony Smith MP, spoke in March 2022 in one of his last speeches to Parliament about the need to properly fund the Archives, which should not endure another “funding cliff”, requiring a “bipartisan commitment to protect the institution” (The Age, 29-3-22). Mr Smith specifically suggested that the JCPAA could oversee the archives and ensure it was not overlooked in relation to its funding and resourcing requirements. That is a worthy and sensible suggestion which warrants consideration and could be the subject of a future inquiry or indeed could have been the subject of a recommendation in this inquiry.
The first point of course for any recovery is to admit there is a problem, something the current Government members of the JCPAA have unfortunately refused to do.
Social media or encrypted records messages
The Committee failed to clearly acknowledge in its findings the evidence received that the Archives has received few or no records of social media or encrypted messages from public servants or Ministers.
Dancing around this evidence and failing to make a finding doesn’t change the fact this is a Government addicted to secrecy, and that the definition of Commonwealth record requires updating to ensure government records made or transmitted via modern forms of communication are captured.
The report could beneficially have made further recommendations as follows:
Recommendation: That the Government introduce legislation and take other appropriate action to:
provide a more modern definition of ‘Commonwealth Record’; and
in light of an updated definition, address any gaps in rules and policy guidance to ensure that encrypted messages and social media that relate to government decision making are retained.
Royal Archives and custody of records relating to the governance of Australia
It is understood and acknowledged that mere mention of the British Royal Family can cause tremors in some government members, such that their brains seem to freeze and their ability to engage logically in material before them evaporates, hence it was always likely to be impossible to conclude a rational discussion about this evidence and these matters.
With respect to the status of records in the Royal Archives that relate to the governance of Australia, the Committee acknowledges the Director’s advice that his view that the NAA does not have jurisdiction is simply his “view” and his personal “policy position”; and also that no request has been made to Her Majesty The Queen regarding transfer of custody of such documents to the NAA.
Given the importance of these documents to the governance of Australia and the value of public availability of these historical records, further consideration is warranted.
The report could beneficially have made further recommendations as follows:
Recommendation: That the Director-General of the NAA seek legal advice to confirm his “understanding” and “policy position” that the NAA does not have jurisdiction over the official records held by Australia’s foreign Head of State, Her Majesty The British Queen, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, including those parts of the Royal Archives that relate to the governance and Government of Australia, and report back to the Committee, in private if necessary.
Recommendation: That regardless of the legal position once established, the Government give consideration to making a formal request to Australia’s foreign Head of State, Her Majesty The British Queen, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, that records under the control of the Sovereign including those in the Royal Archives that relate to the governance and Government of Australia be transferred periodically and in perpetuity to the NAA for safe-keeping.
Management of Defence Housing Australia
During the public hearings of this inquiry questions were raised in relation to the capability (or, more precisely, the apparent lack thereof) of the Defence Housing Australia Board.
In particular, how and why the failed LNP politician Mr Ewen Jones was appointed to the DHA Board, noting his current work as a car dealer.
When questioned as to why this occurred, officials pointed valiantly but lamely to his apparent experience in property, which included work as a real estate agent. Mr Jones’ corporate profile on the DHA website points to his “strong real estate and corporate finance background”.
However when, eventually, the DHA Board capability matrix was provided it revealed that most of the required capabilities were not present in the Board at all or to sufficient degree. In particular “Finance and audit” and “Commercial property, housing and social planning” were not concluded as adequately covered by the Board. Hmmm.
Officials also admitted that Mr Jones was not qualified as a Company Director, only completing the AICD course after he was appointed to the DHA Board, at DHA’s expense.
Of course while former politicians may, can and do make significant contributions after leaving Parliament, such problems as are apparent with the DHA Board capability would be avoided if the Abbott – Turnbull – Morrison Government had not turned Government Boards, Embassies and the AAT into an employment agency and lucrative gravy train for unqualified mates and failed LNP politicians and instead made appointments based on merit and expertise.
Leppington Triangle Purchase
The Auditor-General found in his report that the Liberal Government paid approx. $30 million for a piece of land that was later valued at ~$3 million. This is called a fact.
It is also a fact that in pp 31-32 of Auditor-General Report 9 (2020-21) the audit highlighted that additional incentives to the seller were offered during the acquisition process:
the LPC Strategy contained a package of transactions ‘that the Commonwealth could offer to incentivise the LPC’s cooperation to dispose the balance of the LPC Triangle (i.e. the part not required for [The Northern Road realignment]) to the Commonwealth’. It also outlined ‘further inducements ... the package could be supplemented with’. Neither the LPC Strategy nor related briefings explained:
the disconnect between advising that the land should be acquire dearly to capitalise on goodwill, while also advising that the department should incentivise LPC’s cooperation; and
why the department considered the legislation that provides the Australian Government with powers to compulsorily acquire land, and that entitles the landowner to compensation on ‘just terms’, was inadequate for the purposes of the Leppington Triangle.
Taken together, it should not be controversial for the Audit Committee to conclude that:
1. Value for money was NOT achieved in this purchase, considering both the purchase price AND the additional and costly “inducements” – including an overly generous lease, a blank cheque for un-costed infrastructure works.
2. The public interest was not prioritised in this purchase.
3. The “inducements” to incentivise this ‘voluntary’ transaction were inappropriate and made the costs to the taxpayer arising from the flawed valuation worse.
It should also not be controversial for the Audit Committee to express its concern at the curious and inadequately justified decision to depart from the initially approved compulsory acquisition approach (as it resulted in payments and arrangements that were far more costly to the taxpayer and therefore not in the public interest).
The evidence overwhelmingly supports such conclusions to be drawn.
What is the point of the Audit Committee if not to draw such clear conclusions based on overwhelming evidence?
The decision to depart from compulsory acquisition and start chucking steak knives and the kitchen sink at the seller was NEVER properly explained.
The role of the Minister’s office in relation to the package of incentives including the costly road realignment was never made clear.
The refusal and failure of the Government majority on the Audit Committee to make clear and firm findings on these issues is shameful.
Finally, evidence was withheld from the Committee during its inquiry pending completion of the Australian Federal Police investigation into this whole matter. As that investigation is now concluded, the Committee should have recommended that all information previously withheld by the department should now be provided to the Committee, including advice as to the outcomes of all inquiries, reviews and investigations (noting the Committee can receive information in confidence if necessary.) Failure to be transparent simply undermines public confidence in government and public administration.
Julian Hill MP