Bushfires and COVID-19
During the 2019–20 reporting period, two events—the bushfires and COVID‑19—lend themselves to annual reporting on areas that ordinarily would not receive as much additional attention. This chapter begins by highlighting areas that were central to the reporting period, followed by more general reporting matters.
Information required by other legislation
Commonwealth entities are required to report against other legislation that applies to them, including the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) and Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
Work Health and Safety Act
Due to the events of 2019–20, employees have been required to work in different settings. The annual report provides insight into how Commonwealth entities have operated during these times in accordance with the reporting requirements of the WHS Act section 4(2):
The matters are:
initiatives taken during the year to ensure the health, safety and welfare of workers who carry out work for the entity; and
health and safety outcomes (including the impact on injury rates of workers) achieved as a result of initiatives mentioned under paragraph (a) or previous initiatives; and
statistics of any notifiable incidents of which the entity becomes aware during the year that arose out of the conduct of businesses or undertakings by the entity; and
any investigations conducted during the year that relate to businesses or undertakings conducted by the entity, including details of all notices given to the entity during the year under Part 10 of this Act; and
such other matters as are required by guidelines approved on behalf of the Parliament by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit.
All Commonwealth entities, except for two entities and one company, reported on the above matters to varying extents. The National Competition Council (NCC) and Australian Accounting Standards Board and Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (AASB and AUASB) did not report against the WHS Act. The NCC reported that it relies on ‘risk oversight and management principles and systems put in place by the ACCC’ although there was no further reporting on work health and safety specific to the NCC in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Energy Regulator’s annual report. The AASB and AUASB only noted that, due to them having ‘less than 50 employees[,]…are therefore not required to establish an Occupational Health and Safety Committee under section 34 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2001’. The Financial Adviser Standards and Ethics Authority Limited (FASEA) did not report on work health and safety in its 2019–20 annual report.
Five Commonwealth entities—Department of the Treasury (Treasury), Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Australian Office of Financial Management (AOFM), Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources and the Royal Australian Mint (Mint)—across the two portfolios reported on the impact of bushfires on work health and safety. Those Commonwealth entities implemented the following measures:
senior Crisis Management Team stood up;
testing emergency preparedness;
providing updates to staff on the conditions;
monitoring indoor air quality;
flexible working arrangements;
access to emergency leave provisions; and
closing premises due to poor air quality—Questacon and the Mint—or due to catastrophic fire danger days to non-essential staff—ANSTO’s Lucas Heights Campus.
Some Commonwealth entities made a broad statement acknowledging the need to keep their employees safe during the bushfires, but did not elaborate on the actions they had in place to ensure this.
The majority of Commonwealth entities reported on how COVID‑19 impacted their working environment and resulted in them working remotely. Some Commonwealth entities reported this in the work healthy and safety section of their reports and other Commonwealth entities reported on it elsewhere in their report. The following additional responses were implemented by Commonwealth entities to respond to COVID‑19:
establishing a response team;
mitigating risk through plans, e.g. if a case is identified and transitioning back to the office;
communicating regularly with employees including by way of resources;
putting in place social distancing, providing disposable face masks, sanitisation and cleaning arrangements;
working from home risk and workstation assessments;
implementing wellbeing initiatives; and
travel restrictions and repatriating overseas employees.
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
Commonwealth entities and companies are required to report against the EPBC Act. Reporting against the EPBC Act section 516A(6) requires:
include a report on how the activities of, and the administration (if any) of legislation by, the reporter during the period accorded with the principles of ecologically sustainable development; and
identify how the outcomes (if any) specified for the reporter in an Appropriations Act relating to the period contribute to ecologically sustainable development; and
document the effect of the reporter’s activities on the environment; and
identify any measures the reporter is taking to minimise the impact of activities by the reporter on the environment; and
identify the mechanisms (if any) for reviewing and increasing the effectiveness of those measures.
All Commonwealth entities, except for one being the NCC, reported against the above requirements to varying extents. FASEA reported that, ‘[t]he company’s operations are not regulated by any significant environmental regulations under a law of the Commonwealth or of a state or territory,’ however, the legislation applies to Commonwealth companies and the committee could not identify an exemption for FASEA.
To minimise their impact on the environment, Commonwealth entities reported:
installing energy efficient fittings, including LED lights, heating ventilation, air conditioning and limiting water use;
encouraging electronic documents and publications;
printing on recycled paper and defaulting printers to two sided;
using video or teleconference where appropriate to reduce travel;
recycling and waste management systems; and
reducing single use plastics with the installation of water stations and in‑house cafes minimising waste, for example using biodegradable cutlery.
A number of Commonwealth entities required more detail in their reporting to be compliant with the above section and the committee suggests Commonwealth entities review the requirements of this section to ensure that their reporting is satisfactory.
17AF(2) significant changes in the financial results for non-corporate Commonwealth entities
In explanations of non-corporate Commonwealth entities’ financial performance, it was noted by some Commonwealth entities that a surplus or deficit was recorded due to COVID‑19. There is a reporting requirement for non-corporate Commonwealth entities, Rule 17AF(2), which is applicable ‘if there may be significant changes in the financial results during or after the previous or current reporting period’.
Two Commonwealth entities formally indicated reporting against this requirement—AASB and AUASB and Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)—and both attributed the variances to reduced travel costs as a result of COVID‑19, amongst other issues.
17BE(p) significant activities and changes for corporate Commonwealth entities
There is a reporting requirement for corporate Commonwealth entities that too should be reported against when there are significant activities and changes. Rule 17BE(p) is applicable when there is ‘any significant activities and changes that affected the operation or structure of the entity during the reporting period’.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) formally indicated reporting against this requirement, outlining the need to scale its remote access to enable working from home during COVID‑19.
In light of the events of 2019–20 outlined above and the reporting by some entities of the impact of these events, it seems plausible that more non‑corporate and corporate Commonwealth entities may have triggered reporting against the relevant section outlined above.
General reporting observations
In terms of reporting overall, the majority of Commonwealth entities across both portfolios were missing one or more mandatory reporting requirements. Whilst the number of missing reporting requirements was low, these requirements are prescribed by the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 and if mandatory must be reported on.
The committee commends the following Commonwealth entities for presenting fully compliant annual reports: Australian Taxation Office, Productivity Commission, Reserve Bank of Australia, Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources and CSIRO.
One Commonwealth company, FASEA, is included in the Treasury portfolio. Of its ten mandatory reporting requirements, FASEA did not provide or was missing information for half of them.
The list of requirements is to be included and the PGPA Rule 2014 for both non-corporate and corporate Commonwealth entities states ‘as set out in Schedule 2/A’. Three Commonwealth entities—AOFM, Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) and National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation—summarised the checklist leading to some items being too simplified and omitted.
The following requirements were recurringly missing from reports of non‑corporate Commonwealth entities:
Direct electronic address for report, Charter and Information Publication Scheme—instead non-corporate Commonwealth entities would refer to their home website and a hyperlink is not always accessible.
Fraud certifications—a number of non-corporate Commonwealth entities included some text but not as a certification.
Two non-corporate Commonwealth entities—ABS and APRA—did not provide a discussion and analysis of their financial performance.
Recording the part of report in the compliance checklist for non-corporate Commonwealth entities
Non-corporate Commonwealth entities are required to include in their compliance checklist the ‘Part of Report’ that corresponds to each reporting requirement. It is ambiguous what this exactly entails, for instance does it mean a heading or page number(s), as annual reports varied in how they recorded the ‘Part of Report’.
The non-corporate Commonwealth entities Resource Management Guide No. 135 states ‘[e]ntities must also provide details of the location of the information in the annual report that addresses each of the mandatory requirements specified by the PGPA Rule’. In addition the guide notes that ‘[t]he information presented in entities’ annual reports should be able to be easily accessed by the reader’. To provide easy access to the contents location, it appears that including page numbers, would be the more appropriate way to indicate the ‘Part of Report’ due to its specificity.
Some non-corporate Commonwealth entities chose to include the heading to the section or chapter, however, in most instances this required the reader to search for the exact information as the heading applied to multiple pages.
In an attempt to clarify what is expected, this committee, during the 45th Parliament, suggested in its 2019 ROAR No. 1, providing a precise page range to improve accessibility and reiterates that this is its preferred approach to recording the ‘Part of Report’.
Further, three non-corporate Commonwealth entities’ page numbers in the compliance checklist did not always match up with the text on the page.