Opinion

OPINION: What Is The Auditor-General?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University.  The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of
29 Jun 2015 13:49
OPINION: What Is The Auditor-General?
The Auditor-General is one of the traditional “officers of Parliament” which often also include other such positions as the Ombudsman, Parliamentary Counsel and Chief Electoral Commissioner.

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University.  The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of Japan.

Welcome back to Parliament 101.

Last week we followed a reader’s suggestion to look at some of the proposals for applying direct democracy techniques to the representative system we have in Fiji.

This week we return to fulfil a promise made at the end of last year that we would examine the office and role of the Auditor-General.

The Auditor-General is one of the traditional “officers of Parliament” which often also include other such positions as the Ombudsman, Parliamentary Counsel and Chief Electoral Commissioner.

Being officers of the Parliament, means their reporting responsibility is to the Parliament and they are independent of the Executive.

To maintain their independence, these positions are often established in the constitution and operate under their own specific legislation separate from the public service.

These offices do not add new powers to the Parliament but rather provide the expertise to help the Parliament use its powers more effectively.

Historically, the Auditor-General is the oldest of these officers and the one most vital in enabling the Parliament to meet its responsibilities for Executive oversight.

That the office of the Auditor-General of Fiji is entrenched in the Constitution (Part C of Chapter 8) tells you that it plays a key role our system of responsible Government.

What does the Auditor-General do to make it such a significant office?

If you belong to any club or association that raises and spends money, especially one that has a treasurer, you will be familiar the need to include an auditor’s report at your annual general meeting.

The club executive officers have to prove that they have spent the members’ dues and other funds wisely and by the rules of the club.

To do this properly, they have to have an independent, outside accountant review the year’s financial records to certify that everything was done properly and according to the rules.

This is pretty much the same reason that the Parliament needs the Auditor-General – except at a much higher level of responsibility and, with the powers to match.

Basically the Auditor-General provides the specialist accountancy capacity to enable the Parliament to meet its responsibility to hold the Government to account for all its financial transactions.

You might recall that we discussed these obligations in a couple of earlier columns when we explained the importance of Parliament’s “power of the purse”.

Section 139 of the Constitution specifies that only the Parliament raise revenue while Section 141 provides that only the Parliament can authorise spending the monies raised.

These provisions mean that the Government can only raise and spend money provided by the Parliament.

The Parliament therefore is responsible for the public’s finances at both ends of the budget process.

At the start when it gives money to the Government, the Parliament must be certain that the Government wants the money for appropriate public purposes.

In the end, the Parliament is obliged to show the people that their money was properly used.

Parliament uses two different types of committees for each of these two types of financial responsibility.

To find out why the Government wants the money in its budget, the whole Parliament sits as a committee called the Committee of Supply.

 

When the Government introduces its budget into the Parliament as an Appropriation Bill it provides a document called the Estimates paper.

The Estimates paper sets out in some detail the need for the money requested in the Appropriation Bill.

The Committee of Supply debates the Government’s proposed budget then by taking each heading in the budget in turn for scrutiny.

A year later, to satisfy itself that the Government actually used the money appropriated for the budget properly, the Parliament uses a different type of committee.

Last year, Parliament 101 reviewed the work of the standing committee especially created for this purpose – the Public Accounts Committee (often called simply the “PAC).

And, this brings us back to the role of the Auditor-General.

Much of the scrutiny of Government expenditure that the Public Accounts Committee undertakes is given over to reviewing the audit reports submitted by the Auditor-General to the Parliament.

Indeed, there is a high degree of interdependence between the Auditor-General’s office and the PAC in Fiji as in most of our neighbouring parliaments where up to 95 per cent of a PAC’s time is taken up on such audit reports.

Given that the overwhelming amount of the PAC’s time is spent of the Auditor-General’s reports, the quality of the committee’s work hangs on the quality of these audits.

The size of the Government and the range of its activities – everything from education and health to security and international affairs – makes the Auditor-General’s work for the Parliament very challenging.

Section 152 of the Constitution says that the Auditor-General must “inspect, audit and report to Parliament the public accounts of the State, the control of public money and public property of the State and all transactions with or concerning the public money or public property of the State” at least once every year.

This would be an impossible job if the Auditor-General, Tevita Bolanavanua, and his office had to do everything from scratch.  However, he doesn’t.

You might think of the Auditor-General as the nation’s chief accountant who is the Parliament’s bookkeeper to the Government’s bookkeepers.

All Government departments need to keep records of their finances and to make sure that all their income and expenses are properly recorded.

It is the task of the Auditor-General to make sure these accounts are in order and to report his assessment to the Parliament.

In making his assessment, the Auditor-General does not just check to see that department’s financial figures are balanced.

It is essential to determine whether the monies raised and expended were properly authorised and in keeping with the correct procedures both in law and bureaucratic process.

Given the importance of the Auditor-General in scrutinising the Government for the Parliament, the Auditor-General has to be free from Executive interference.

The Constitution (sec 152[5]) provides this freedom by saying the Auditor-General “shall be independent and shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority, except by a court of law or  . . . by written law.”

This independence would not mean much unless the Auditor-General also has the freedom to scrutinise all the Government’s finances.

Again, the Constitution affords this protection to his office by mandating that the Auditor-General shall have “access to all records, books, vouchers, stores or other government property in the possession or control of any person or authority.”

This power is vital to his role since the Auditor-General must be able to see all the information he needs to do his job completely and competently.

As is the case elsewhere, the extent of Fiji’s Auditor-General responsibilities has been broadened in recent years to include more than just the traditional assessment of the probity of the Government’s financial activities.

Various changes to the Audit Act and provisions in other acts permit, or require, other types of audits that assess not just the financial aspects of the Government’s activities

Thus, the Auditor-General can undertake efficiency audits, environmental audits and performance audits that put aspects of policy and administration under scrutiny.

Of course, on the other hand, no matter how detailed the Auditor-General’s reports are these will be ineffective unless the PAC does its job well and has the support of the whole Parliament.

The Auditor-General’s obligation to report annually to the Parliament would be meaningless if the Parliament is not thorough in reviewing the Auditor-General’s reports in order to take the right action.

In addition, through the PAC and its own debates on their reports, the Parliament is the main method for making the Auditor-General’s work publically understood.

There is one interesting aspect of the work of the Auditor-General that goes directly to you as a member of the public, however.

If you go to the Office of the Auditor-General website http://www.oag.gov.fj , you will find a “whistleblower” icon that will allow you or any other member of the public to report concerns regarding public finances.

Feedback: newsroom@fijisun.com.fj

 




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