Budget should reverse ‘brazen’ Coalition cuts to transparency bodies that hold government to account

Anti-corruption experts have urged the Coalition to use Tuesday’s budget to reverse “brazen” attacks on accountability and transparency bodies, saying the current government is “extraordinarily” eager to conceal its activities.

a sign on the side of a building: Photograph: Danny Casey/AAP

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Danny Casey/AAP

The Centre for Public Integrity on Monday released an analysis of the funding of 11 crucial government bodies, including the Australian National Audit Office, the office of the Australian information commissioner, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the commonwealth ombudsman, the CSIRO and the ABC.

a sign above a store: The ABC is among organisation’s targeted for funding cuts by the Coalition, along with others including the CSIRO and the Australian National Audit Office, who revealed the sports rorts affair.

© Photograph: Danny Casey/AAP
The ABC is among organisation’s targeted for funding cuts by the Coalition, along with others including the CSIRO and the Australian National Audit Office, who revealed the sports rorts affair.

In many cases, the centre found that funding in real terms had either fallen or not kept pace with additional workloads since 2010-11.

The analysis found total funding had been cut by $1.4bn in real terms and the percentage of budget allocation to the 11 agencies had dropped from 1.14% to 0.6% over the past decade.

Related: Coalition MPs urge Scott Morrison to restore funding to auditor general

The audit office, which has recently revealed the sports rorts and Leppington Triangle scandals, is among the worst hit, according to the Centre for Public Integrity. Its funding has been cut by $23.7m since 2016-17, Monday’s briefing paper said.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, was last week urged by some of his own Coalition MPs to restore funding to the auditor general who has warned he will conduct fewer audits without a budget rescue package.

The barrister, anti-corruption campaigner and Centre for Public Integrity director, Geoffrey Watson SC, said there was a clear intent behind the cuts: punishing agencies that cause trouble or discomfort for government.

“Unfortunately, the pattern is clear,” Watson told Guardian Australia on Monday.

“They’re attacking those who have been holding the government to account. I’ve been involved in this now for a fair while. I’ve never seen any government that is so eager to conceal its activities or at least to keep them from scrutiny.

“That’s a big call because every government wants to do that. This one’s extraordinary.”

The information commissioner’s office, which handles freedom of information requests, has repeatedly warned that its funding is not allowing it to meet significant demand, leading to longer wait times for those applying for government documents.

It was given a $25m funding boost in 2018, but the money was used to fund new duties under the privacy act, rather than address the existing backlog of freedom of information requests. It has also been given new roles without any additional funding, including scrutinising the government’s COVIDSafe app.

Related: Coalition hides conflicts of interest of staff involved in $30m land purchase near Western Sydney airport

“I think you’d be shocked if you knew how hard it is … they’re so under-resourced that if you want to get access to government documents you’re confronting several months of delays just to have it dealt with,” Watson said.

“I’m not blaming the information commissioner, but the effect of it is chilling in the sense that by the time you can get the documents, the issue is dead.”

CSIRO, the government’s premier science agency, was hit with $115m in cuts under the Abbott government, and a more recent restructure has caused the loss of dozens of jobs.

Watson said funding to Australia’s accountability agencies could have been partly restored using the millions of dollars the federal government overspent on a parcel of land near the Western Sydney airport, known as the Leppington Triangle, owned by Liberal donors. That scandal was recently revealed by the auditor general.

“This gives you some idea of the need for these accountability bodies,” Watson said. “If the government had not paid 10 times too much for that land next to the airport, they could have funded these organisations with the $27m left over.”

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