Thursday, May 23, 2024

Auditor-General makes submission on Fast-track Approvals Bill

Auditor-General, John Ryan, has provided a submission on the Fast-track Approvals Bill, encouraging the Environment Committee to consider whether the transparency and accountability arrangements in the Bill are proportionate to the discretion being provided to Ministers.

The Auditor-General (pictured) said that while it is not his role to comment on proposed policy, he did have an interest in supporting Parliament to ensure that accountability arrangements work to improve trust and confidence in the public sector.

“The purpose of the Bill is to provide a fast-track decision-making process that facilitates the delivery of infrastructure and development projects with significant regional or national benefits,” said Mr Ryan.

“The fast-track approval process under the Bill gives Joint Ministers decision-making powers. Applications will be made to Joint Ministers who will then refer them to an expert panel to consider and report back with a recommendation to grant or decline the application. Joint Ministers then consider the recommendations before making the final decision to decline or approve an application. 

“My office has published recent reports where we have commented on Ministerial decision-making processes that have lacked evidence about why decisions were made. Ministers of course have a broad discretion to make decisions, however that power comes, in my view, with an obligation to be transparent to the public about how and why they made those decisions, particularly where those decisions differ from official advice.

“We also know that conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived, can create public concern around the integrity of decision making.”

While the Cabinet Office Manual sets out the expectations1 and processes for how Ministers should manage conflicts of interest there is no legal requirement to comply with it, the Auditor-General said.

“Given the significance of the decision-making powers in this Bill, I encourage the Committee to consider additional statutory requirements to strengthen the management of ministerial conflicts of interest.”

“I note that there are legislative regimes in other settings for managing conflicts of interest such as in the Crown Entities Act 2004 and the Companies Act 1993.”

Areas covered include:

  • what types of interests require a disclosure;
  • an obligation for making disclosures;
  • who disclosures of interests must be made to;
  • consequences of being interested in a matter; and
  • consequences for failing to disclose an interest.

“The Bill includes a requirement to inform applicants of the reasons for declining an application. However, there is no requirement for Joint Ministers to specify their reasons for approving an application, or for any of the conditions being imposed,” said Mr Ryan.

“There is also no requirement for Joint Ministers to specify their reasons for deviating from a panel’s recommendations, or any directions given for the panel’s reconsideration.

“The Committee may wish to consider including a requirement in the Bill that Joint Ministers record and make public their decisions and the reasons for them.”

The Auditor-General has encouraged the Committee to consider whether the transparency and accountability arrangements in the Bill are proportionate to the discretion being provided to Ministers.

“This will help safeguard public confidence in the quality and integrity of decisions made through the fast-track regime and provide protection for Joint Ministers involved in the decision-making processes,” he said.

Latest Articles