Deputy PM insists government doesn’t want fewer audits as Australia’s auditor general pleads for funding

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Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michael McCormack has insisted the government doesn’t want – and there will not be – fewer audits of its activities, despite the auditor general warning he needs more funding or will have to make cuts.

The deputy prime minister and infrastructure minister also walked back his earlier comments that the purchase of land at Western Sydney airport for 10 times its fair value would come to be seen as “a bargain”, after Scott Morrison publicly rejected his assessment.

On Wednesday Guardian Australia revealed budget constraints have resulted in the Australian National Audit Office conducting six audits fewer than its target, prompting the auditor general, Grant Hehir, to write to Morrison pleading for more funding in next week’s budget.

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In 2019-20 the ANAO produced 42 performance audit reports, resulting in revelations including that sport minister Bridget McKenzie’s office had skewed $100m of sports grants to target marginal seats and the infrastructure department paid $30m for land currently worth $3m in the Leppington Triangle.

© Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Michael McCormack has walked back his comments that the purchase of land at Western Sydney airport for 10 times its fair value would come to be seen as ‘a bargain’.

After the ANAO’s deficit of $3.1m, Hehir asked for funding to be put “on a more sustainable basis”, warning the prime minister that “without supplementary appropriations, the number of performance audits tabled in the parliament will continue to reduce”.

On Wednesday McCormack told reporters in Canberra: “I don’t believe there will be fewer audits, and those sorts of audits should be held … We don’t want lesser audits, we just want everybody to do the right thing.”

It is unclear whether McCormack intended to weigh in to support the auditor general’s case for more funding or was merely expressing hope the ANAO can conduct the same number of audits with less funding.

McCormack refused to be drawn about whether the ANAO’s shortfall will be fixed in the budget, saying the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, will make announcements on Tuesday.

“I’m sure the auditor general, if that office needs to make the necessary investigations into whatever the case might be, then those investigations will be taken – and that’s the proper and transparent way to do it,” he said.

On Monday McCormack said that although the Leppington Triangle purchase was “very much over the odds” it would “eventually … be hailed as a good decision”.

On Tuesday Morrison told journalists he agreed with the findings of the auditor general after a scathing report accused unnamed officials in the federal infrastructure department of acting unethically over the land sale.

In a rebuke to McCormack, Morrison said he was “disappointed” adding that the sale was not “something that I would ever like to see repeated” and that the cities minister at the time, Paul Fletcher, “feels equally disappointed”.

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On Wednesday, McCormack said: “I too was disappointed that the Leppington Triangle was well over the odds of what it should have been.

“And there is an inquiry and review going into that at the moment by an independent arbiter to make sure that sort of thing does not happen again.”

Members of the joint committee of public accounts and audit including the deputy chair, Labor’s Julian Hill, and the independent senator Rex Patrick are publicly lobbying for more funding for the ANAO and privately urging the chair, Liberal MP Lucy Wicks, to do likewise.

Hill told Guardian Australia that fewer audits would mean “scandals like sports rorts, dodgy airport land deals and multibillion defence blowouts may never come to light”.

“Less scrutiny may be convenient for Scott Morrison, but it weakens our democracy and independent scrutiny of government.”

Patrick said the auditor general “is one of the last bastions of frank and fearless analysis and advice within the public service” and funding the office for anything less than 48 performance audits would amount to “silencing the auditor general”.

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