CHIEF Minister, Katy Gallagher has found herself in a quagmire over the process used in the appointment of the auditor-general.
The process so incensed the deputy chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Brendan Smyth, that he resigned the position accusing the Chief Minister of using the committee as “a rubber stamp for Katy Gallagher’s decision”.
Any appointment to a position established under legislation, with a few exceptions – such as the judiciary – must be referred to the appropriate Legislative Assembly Committee requesting a committee perspective before the appointment is made.
The government does retain the power to proceed with an appointment even if the committee suggests that the appointment is inappropriate.
Nevertheless, any member of the Assembly has the right to challenge the appointment by moving a motion of disallowance.
However, for the appointment of the auditor-general, the PAC has an even stronger and more direct role as set out in Section 8 of the Act, which effectively provides a power of veto.
Since the middle of this year there has been an ongoing battle over the way Dr Maxine Cooper was appointed as auditor-general by the Chief Minister.
Gallagher has been accused of abusing her position of power, bullying the chair of the PAC, Caroline LeCouteur, and riding roughshod over the intention of the Act. The matter is now before a Select Committee on Privileges.
The position of the auditor-general is one of the most important appointments made by government. It should be very carefully considered by the PAC and the Assembly as a whole.
The office of the auditor-general is one of the key mechanisms by which government accountability may be maintained.
In fact, the chair of the PAC wrote to the Chief Minister employing particularly strong language: “The committee is therefore of the view that your public announcement… was premature with regard to the process and a discourtesy.”
The Chief Minister has unreservedly apologised for any “discourtesy” which she suggests was unintended.
In evidence to the Select Committee on Privileges, LeCouteur said that the first she was aware of the appointment was from her staff telling her it was in the media. The same morning a hand-delivered letter had arrived in her office, but was not yet opened.
Auditors-general are required to be critical of governments from time to time when they encounter issues and it is in the interest of non-government members of the Assembly that the person appointed is well-qualified, competent and capable of delivering “frank and fearless” reports.
Former Chief Minister Jon Stanhope could certainly not be accused of appointing a patsy considering the extent to which the former auditor-general Tu Pham proved to be effective and critical in the role over seven years.
The auditor-general reports to the Assembly rather than to a minister – making the government very uncomfortable at times.
This is why a process that provides for a clear, uncompromised appointment is so important to the Assembly and, in turn, to the community.
Dr Maxine Cooper may prove to be a very fine auditor-general. However, her qualifications, background and suitability should have been assessed by the PAC before being pre-empted in the media.
Now the Assembly has appointed a Privileges Committee to take evidence about how this appointment was handled (or mishandled). It is a serious matter that must be considered with the utmost care.
The Assembly cannot afford to have a government abuse this sort of appointment process or a major mechanism of accountability will be lost.
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government.