At times, it seems like WA Auditor-General Caroline Spencer is on a one-woman mission to force some accountability on the McGowan government, which was elected promising gold standard transparency but has delivered anything but.
Opposition politicians flail about on the sidelines, but so ineffectual are they politically and so diminished in numbers are they parliamentarily that their efforts rarely land a hit.
WA Premier Mark McGowan.Credit:Rhett Wyman
A former WA auditor-general Des Pearson used to joke that governments hated him because they could not sack him. Spencer was appointed to a 10-year term in 2018 and reports directly to the parliament, with a statutory responsibility for independence and impartiality.
Of course the work of the Office of the Auditor General is not a one-woman show, but in setting audit priorities Spencer has made clear that the costs, and not just the benefits of the government’s much-vaunted pandemic management must be tallied.
And that transparency should be taken seriously, and is in the public interest.
One of the first things Mark McGowan did when he defeated Colin Barnett at the 2017 state election was to launch a special inquiry into the vanquished government’s financial management, his critiques of which formed a key plank of his electoral pitch.
He appointed former under treasurer John Langoulant to do the job, and when Langoulant reported in 2018, used the findings to hammer his conservative opponents politically and promise to change the way the state was governed.
“This special inquiry has shone a light on what was a grossly incompetent and financially reckless government,” the premier said.
“For those responsible, the only honourable thing to do now is reflect on the lessons learned and apologise to the people of Western Australia.
“The damning report provides a clear guide to my government and future governments.
“My government will continue to strengthen governance, accountability, transparency and the focus on the key economic and social benefits of government decisions when dealing with taxpayers’ money.”
Langoulant made a wide range of recommendations – many of which have been implemented to a greater or lesser degree. Most significantly, the McGowan government has returned Treasury to the centrality of the annual budget process and taken seriously its warnings about the volatility of mining related revenues, which as McGowan’s luck would have it, have consistently hit on the upside rather than the downside.
Nonetheless it is an important discipline.
Langoulant’s first three recommendations in his inquiry report were to:
Despite promising a PBO from opposition, former Treasurer Ben Wyatt dropped the proposal like a hot potato once in office and it has since sunk without trace.
Infrastructure WA was a McGowan election promise, and the agency was legislated in 2019.
It produced a draft state infrastructure strategy in July last year, but has not yet seen the light of day as a final document.
In any case, the five-year-old government’s tens of billions of dollars of major infrastructure commitments, including Metronet, a replacement for Fremantle Port at Cockburn, and a replacement maternity hospital at Nedlands, have been committed to in advance of the completion of any such strategy.
In an update this month on the body’s activities, Infrastructure WA’s chief executive Phil Helberg noted the premier told a recent budget estimates hearing that the government had taken “a close look” at the recommendations of the draft strategy when handing down its (fifth) budget last month and had them “front of mind” in the budget process.
“Following submission of the finalised strategy, the Premier has requested supplementary information that points to major initiatives in the state budget that may affect the government’s response to the strategy’s recommendations,” the update said.
“This will ensure the strategy is supported by current information at the point of its tabling in Parliament. As soon as this work is complete, the strategy will be resubmitted to the Premier then tabled in Parliament.”
Those fluent in bureaucratese will understand the picture, and we can all “reflect on the lessons learned”.
Langoulant’s call for transparency special inquiry got a big mention in Spencer’s October 2020 audit of major government projects, which began thus: “The State Government, often with joint investment from the Commonwealth, invests billions of dollars each year in major projects to build roads, hospitals, schools, prisons … for the people and economy of WA. Despite this significant investment of public money, Parliament and the public cannot easily access information on the progress of these projects.
“My office has commented on this lack of transparency in a number of previous reports,” she wrote, recommending that Treasury and Infrastructure WA should work together to improve transparency through regular reporting to parliament on the cost, time and status of major projects.
Nearly two years on, and nothing much has changed.
“In 2020 … I said it would be a simple matter for the government to regularly report publicly on the status of projects to improve transparency to both Parliament and the public. This would … satisfy parliamentary and public interest, promote accountability, and build community trust and confidence around the management of the state’s significant investment of public money in major public assets.”
In the absence of the government’s efforts to do so, the auditor-general will fill the breach.
In a snapshot of 17 major projects, there was an 11 per cent increase in their budgets since approval, and of 14 active projects, 17 had their completion dates extended by a year or more, with one project – the Forrestfield-Airport Metronet link – running 2½ years late.
Spencer said many projects are now competing with a boom in WA’s building and construction sector – as they were during the period of the Barnett’s government’s major project blowouts identified by Langoulant – though this time it is because of government stimulus measures and supply chain disruptions as well a tight labour market exacerbated by COVID border closures and a strong resources industry investment.
“It is important the State Government considers predictable events, such as stimulus measures and the impact of closed borders on labour supply, when planning the delivery of its Asset Investment Program to avoid overstimulating industry,” Spencer said.
WAtoday’s Heather McNeill recently detailed how WA Health put up outrageous hurdles to public access to routinely collected information on COVID-19 and there are echoes of that approach here.
Spencer notes that the Department of Finance already reports regularly to the government on the status of major projects and she recommends that this information form the basis of regular government reporting.
“It is my intention to continue to periodically report and track a selection of major projects until the government fills the gap,” she promises.
The government should get its act together and free her office up to do more important work.
It is too secretive and the premier should return to his promise of “gold standard transparency”, if that is not already a punchline.
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