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Protecting the Auditor General

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 28 January 2017 00:00

The Auditor General’s office is under fire by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake over releasing reports to the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) and the Central Bank including details of bond transactions from 2008 to 2015. Even though Opposition members have banded together to fight for the independence of the office as an appointment made by Parliament, there are concerns that reducing the Auditor General’s powers would push the country back even further towards corruption, wastage and mismanagement. 

Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe and his predecessors have been credited with maintaining an institution that, perhaps more than any other, has withstood political pressure and influence. Over the decades, thousands of reports have been released by the Auditor General showcasing Government wastage, mismanagement and corruption. It has repeatedly highlighted oversights in the education and healthcare sector, which is tax payer funded, and sought to correct excesses in numerous Government departments. It even released a preliminary report faulting the Inland Revenue Department over its opaque VAT refund system, which eventually triggered a tax payer loss of an estimated Rs.13 billion, as the warning went unheeded.    

For more than 200 years, Government spending has been formally scrutinised by the office of the Auditor General. There is seldom any action taken on the findings of the Auditor General’s Department. This is chiefly because it lacks the teeth, the legal backing, to enforce its recommendations. Depending on the goodwill of successive Governments to follow the Auditor General’s reports has patently not worked. And, so, a new National Audit Bill was envisaged to fix the loopholes.

The law has been in drafting since the early 2000s. Maithripala Sirisena made it one of his main election pledges, vowing to have it passed in Parliament by 19 March, 2015. That promise was broken. A National Audit Commission was appointed in October but has no power till the legislation is enacted. Sirisena later promised to parliament that legislation for an Audit Commission would be presented to parliament in early January. That deadline too has passed.  

The original draft of the National Audit Bill called for surcharge payments to be levied on Chief Accounting Officers of loss making State institutions to hold them directly responsible for wrong decisions. But this was later removed despite the Auditor General’s objections.  

Combined with the loosening of several other clauses, the National Audit Bill is now in danger of being passed with a great deal of grandstanding but little impactful content. Ironically, the country would have Ministry Secretaries to thank for it. As Chief Accounting Officers, they have opposed moves to hold them accountable for financial abuses in their respective institutions, particularly as they are not empowered to act independent of powerful politicians who could order them to misuse funds for selfish, personal objectives.

The public have had to watch for decades while their tax money was frittered away. Now adding insult to injury, they are facing the possibility of having a toothless law foisted upon then. This Government, like many before it, is side stepping its promises and diluting well-intentioned legislation for shortsighted gains. It is time the public fought to have their interests put head of political agendas. 


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