In the latest in an ever growing list of questionable deals by the ACT government, it’s been revealed that a $300 million contract was awarded to ActewAGL for ICT help desk, HR services and accounts payable without a tender or expression of interest process.
Estimates Hearings are an important process with the function of scrutinising decisions by the government of the day on how it intends to raise and spend money. Ministers and senior government officials are brought before the Estimates Committee to answer questions about the expenditure, performance and effectiveness of their directorates.
Now, having only had a brief sojourn in the Commonwealth public service many years ago, I came into the Assembly unfamiliar with the process. Being in Opposition means that I need to get across it quick because it’s an important function of keeping the government to account.
Although I’m not on the Estimates Committee (this year it’s comprised of two Liberals – Alistair Coe and Andrew Wall; two Labor – Bec Cody and Michael Pettersson; and one Green – Caroline Le Couteur), it is hard not to pay attention to what’s happening in the building.
As a newbie, I’m still learning the ropes but from what I can see, at the heart of the Estimates Hearings process is accountability and transparency of government decisions that affect all of us.
So when we find out from these Estimates Hearings that Icon Water, which is under the Chief Minister’s responsibility, awarded a contract worth $300 million without a tender process or calling for expressions of interest, it raises a few questions.
The fact that Icon Water chose not to use the government’s own in-house Shared Services Provider is questionable enough (after all, what is the point of this service if not for this exact type of process)?
Why does Icon Water think it is above using this service when other government directorates do so? And why did the Chief Minister allow this happen on his watch?
Has Icon Water done this before?
Have any other directorates done this?
How many more millions of dollars of taxpayer money are we talking about?
In a speech in parliament in February this year outlining the ‘achievements’ of the first 100 days of this term, the Chief Minister stated that “Canberrans want to know the government is listening to and working for them. Our debates in this place will have the interests of all Canberrans at their heart”.
Where are the interests of the Canberrans who are footing the bill through whopping rates increases for decisions made by this government?
Where are the interests of the Canberrans who have a right to know, question and understand a decision made by this government that we now find out has not been properly scrutinised; with no transparent process and may never have come to light if it were not for the Estimates Hearings process?
This is from a government that is yet to explain deals like the $4 million purchase of the CFMEU headquarters in Dickson only to lease it back for $1 per year; or the $4.2 million purchase of a Glebe Park block even though it was valued at less than $1 million.
In his Budget Reply speech, Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe called on the government to explain; to provide a full and frank disclosure of these decisions because Canberrans have a right to know why their money is funding these questionable deals.
Mr Coe also outlined six integrity measures to bring about the transparency and accountability to decisions that this government so desperately needs:
- A Public Works Committee – to safeguard the ACT against recurring problems with infrastructure projects;
- Giving more options to whistleblowers – making it easier for public servants to call out actual or suspected wrongdoing;
- Monitoring department audits – allowing Assembly Committees to receive twice yearly progress reports on audit activities of ACT government agencies;
- Improving the unsolicited proposals process – to give more clarity in legislation with regard to timelines and IP protection;
- Broadening the invoice register – making the Government publish a list of all payments made by the Government that are over $12,500; and
- Reporting land acquisitions – to ensure that all land acquisitions are reported to the Assembly Public Accounts Committee. The details would include the value, the reason for the purchase, the purchase method and information about the vendor.
The revelation of this $300 million contract without an open tender process is, sadly, as outrageous as it is unsurprising.
The government has many, many questions to answer. The Estimates Hearings process will go some way to weeding out some of these questionable government decisions but who knows how many more remain unanswered with Canberrans paying the price.