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Audit of new Women's and Children's spend blocked


The state’s Auditor-General faces a billion-dollar battleground during the final days in his job as the government blocks secret Cabinet papers approving the new Women’s and Children’s Hospital and North-South corridor.

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The Liberal Opposition has introduced a bill that has passed the Upper House that would ensure the Auditor-General has access to SA Cabinet documents in line with other jurisdictions in Australia – and it’s pushing the Government to reverse its opposition to the move in the coming weeks.

In his annual report tabled in State Parliament, Auditor-General Andrew Richardson called for new legislation to force the State Government to provide access to Cabinet deliberations so he can check money allocated to the projects is being spent legally.

The state’s independent watchdog said the State Government has blocked 32 requests for information “that in my opinion should not be regarded as confidential, just because they are attached to Cabinet submissions”.

Richardson said not being able to see the documents means he can not give an “audit opinion” on whether controls are providing reasonable assurance that financial transactions are “being conducted properly and in accordance with law”.

“By way of example, two of the most significant infrastructure projects in South Australia – the North-South Corridor and the new Women’s and Children’s Hospital – are budgeted to cost in the order of $6.9 billion up until 2026-2027,” Richardson’s report said.

“Total costs for these projects are projected to be $18.6 billion in the 2023-2024 State Budget. I have not been able to sight the approvals for these projects in 2022-2023.”

Richardson, who must retire from the role on October 26, said in the report that without access to key documents he could not form an opinion about whether Cabinet decisions about the projects were based on sound business cases, risk analysis, legal opinion, grant evaluations and consultant reports.

Richardson has tabled the report saying he thinks the problem should be resolved with laws that ensure the Auditor-General has the power to see information required to publicly audit and report to the Parliament.

Shadow Treasurer Matt Cowdrey said its Public Finance and Audit (Auditor-General Access to Cabinet Submissions) Amendment Bill 2022 passed with full support by the crossbench in the Upper House during May but it was rejected by Labor.

Debate on the bill in the state’s Lower House is now scheduled to resume on October 17, with Cowdrey calling on the government to support the plan.

“It’s something we will take to the next election,” Cowdrey said, adding that the Opposition wanted to ensure South Australians know “transactions and decisions are transparent and accountable”.

“I think it shouldn’t just be worrying to the Opposition, I think it should be worrying to the people of South Australia,” Cowdrey said.

Richardson will also appear at the upper house’s Budget and Finance Committee on October 23, where it is likely the State Opposition will quiz him about why he believes new legislation should be introduced.

It will be one of Richardson’s last tasks as Auditor-General after being appointed in June 2016, as he will be required to retire from the job next month when he turns 65 years of age under current legislation.

A recruitment process for a new Auditor-General is underway, but Attorney-General Kyam Maher is also working to change the law so the Auditor-General is appointed for a set number of years without an age limit.

The law change, according to Maher, would bring SA in line with other jurisdictions in Australia.

In November last year, the SA Auditor-General reported to Parliament that a $1.4 million budget cut – the first ever imposed on his department – was putting the independence of the office at risk.

His department scrutinises all state and local government agencies and public spending.

In response to questions from InDaily, a spokesperson said the State Government “maintains exactly the same policy for providing access to cabinet documents as the former Liberal government. In fact, the disclosure rules were last updated in February 2019”.

“The workings of cabinets in all Westminster democracies are governed by long established conventions of collective responsibility and confidentiality,” the government spokesperson said.

“These practices have been in place for generations and should be preserved. We have proposed a number of options to the Auditor-General that we believe would satisfy his request for information without impacting on the long-established principles of cabinet confidentiality.”

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