Coalition MPs urge Scott Morrison to restore funding to auditor general | Australian politics

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Scott Morrison has been urged by members of his own government to restore funding to the auditor general, who has warned he will conduct fewer audits without a budget rescue package.

Guardian Australia understands the Coalition-controlled joint committee of public accounts and audit has written to the prime minister backing the auditor general’s call for more funding to deliver 48 performance audits a year.

The committee, which is chaired by the Liberal MP Lucy Wicks and has a total of nine Coalition members, resolved to keep the recommendation confidential until budget day on Tuesday.

They join a group of Labor and crossbench MPs lobbying for more funding, including Senator Rex Patrick, who has publicly called on Wicks to reveal the committee’s recommendation.

In its annual report, the ANAO revealed it had delivered just 42 performance audits last year, down six on its target, and the number of audits would continue to decrease due to “budget constraints”.

The audits revealed, among other issues, that the office of the former sport minister Bridget McKenzie had skewed the $100m community sport infrastructure grant program towards marginal seats. Another report revealed that the federal government paid a Liberal donor $30m for land adjacent to Western Sydney airport – 10 times its fair price.

The Centre for Public Integrity has found that the ANAO is producing nearly 30% fewer performance audits and receiving $17m less funding than in 2016-17.

“Whereas in 2016-17, 59 performance audits were performed, in 2019-20 that number fell to 42 and it is predicted to fall to 38 by 2023-24,” it said.

In a preview of its work in 2020-21, the ANAO has proposed more than 50 potential audits on topics including the jobkeeper wage subsidy, the Covidsafe app, the joint strike fighters’ capability, the Coalition’s electricity underwriting scheme, the Building Better Regions fund, and the National Covid-19 Commission.

After Guardian Australia revealed the ANAO funding shortfall on Wednesday, Labor and crossbench MPs have been lobbying the government to boost its funding.

The independent MP Zali Steggall told Guardian Australia: “The ANAO keeps this government accountable and urgently needs a budget rescue package.

“Without a National Integrity Commission, the audit office is the only agency scrutinising government spending of public funds.”

Despite the audit committee joining the push, there is little sign their wish will be granted in the budget. The deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, has insisted the government doesn’t want fewer audits but Morrison has refused to be drawn on “budget speculation”.

In a statement, the deputy chair of the audit committee, Labor’s Julian Hill, said: “Morrison’s arrogant refusal to rule out further cuts to the independent auditor-general’s budget is fuelling fears a revenge attack is looming.”

Hill said “governments attack independent watchdogs at their own peril” – citing the public backlash at the former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett’s cuts to that state’s auditor.

“As the Morrison recession takes hold, every dollar counts and independent scrutiny of government expenditure is more important than ever.”

The audit committee has a duty in law to consider the pre-budget submission of the Australian National Audit Office and make its own recommendation.

This is usually fulfilled by statements to parliament on budget morning but this year the committee took the extra step of writing to Morrison before the budget.

Patrick, a member of the audit committee, said the public had a “right to know” whether it had backed the auditor general.

“I am most disturbed that the chair of the committee is running the [audit committee] like a secret chamber,” he said in a statement.

“[Wicks] should not be using her position as committee chair to run a protection racket for prime minister Morrison or to hide the decisions of the committee.”

Guardian Australia contacted Wicks for comment.

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