Three cheers for the Auditor-General

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
9 December, 2022

The Auditor-General is deeply concerned “about a lack of transparency and accountability over the spending of public money”.

On 14 November, he took the extraordinary step of writing to Parliament's Speaker, Adrian Rurawhe and the chairs of two select committees about the problem.

His letter warned that “the links between spending of public money and the difference being made through that spending are too often tenuous, lack transparency, and are focused on the short term.”

He also cited a recent report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton. Its central theme is the need for greater public accountability for the outcomes of government environmental decisions.

The Commissioner pointed out that “spending more money on a problem [does not] mean we are fixing it”. That he felt compelled to say so shows the scale of the problem.

Upton made another self-evident point: “for there to be accountability, there has to be clarity and transparency about what it is we are trying to achieve.” (“We” is official speak for “the government”.)

I cannot think of any senior ex-Treasury person who would disagree with these laments.

Certainly not me. In 2004 I reviewed the first decade of government spending under the Fiscal Responsibility Act 1993. Chronic fiscal deficits had been turned into sustained surpluses. Public debt was under control at last.

The weak point even then was the increasing quantum of ill-justified spending.

Taxpayers fund government spending, so giving them more voice seemed the best hope for improving spending quality. I proposed a Taxpayer Bill of Rights for New Zealand for this reason.

The problem with this was that greater spending discipline was not likely to be in the interests of either the public service or an incumbent government. ACT took up this proposal, but not National.

Taxation by stealth through ongoing inflation and progressive income tax rates proved to be a more attractive option politically.

In 2013, the New Zealand Initiative proposed an institutional option – a Fiscal Council reporting to Parliament.  That Council would use independent cost-benefit analysis to better inform parliamentarians and the public about poor-quality spending programmes. That would complement and strengthen the watchdog A-G’s role.

Again, as always, the problem is intense opposition from all those benefiting from poor quality programmes.  The deeper the rot, the harder it is to reverse. Poor quality spending is soft corruption.

The Auditor-General needs broad-based support on this issue.

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