Wednesday, May 12, 2021
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Coalition trying to stop auditor general giving evidence on report critical of arms deal

The government is attempting to stop the auditor general giving evidence about a report critical of a $1.3bn arms deal, more than two years after it used extraordinary powers to suppress parts of his findings.

In 2018, the government redacted parts of an audit report that were critical of its purchase of a new combat vehicle fleet from arms manufacturer Thales.

The redactions were made after an “aggrieved” Thales complained about a finding that Australia could have saved hundreds of millions of dollars had it gone to the United States to buy its new fleet, instead of buying 1,100 of the company’s locally built Hawkeis.

The attorney general, Christian Porter, issued a certificate to redact parts of the report on the grounds that it would unfairly jeopardise Thales’s commercial interests and could harm Australia’s national security, defence or international relations.

Since then, the crossbench senator Rex Patrick has been locked in a freedom of information battle with the government in the administrative appeals tribunal (AAT) in an attempt to force it to release the unredacted version of the report.

During the AAT proceedings, Patrick also issued a summons to the auditor general, Grant Hehir, to give evidence.

Hehir has previously told a parliamentary inquiry that he was careful to ensure the report could not jeopardise national security and was “unaware as to why” national security grounds were used to justify the suppressions.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is objecting to the summons, arguing that Hehir should not be called to give evidence before the AAT.

It argues that such a summons would unfairly impose on the time of the auditor general, that his view is already known by the tribunal, and that the summons is not in keeping with the objects of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975.

Patrick said the protracted handling of the matter was embarrassing and “a disgrace”.

“The lengths the Morrison government appears willing to go to hide embarrassing information knows no boundaries,” he told the Guardian. “First they censored the auditor general in the parliament and now they’re doing everything they can to censor him in the tribunal.”

Patrick’s legal action has already been successful in disclosing some of the redacted material in the report. One part that was redacted was the audit’s analysis of material and data that was already fully in the public domain.

“I have finally been given access to the a large portion of the material that was censored from the parliament and the public,” Patrick said. “The material is completely benign and should never have been withheld.”

The government is planning to call a major general to give evidence on why the information contained in the redacted report is sensitive, Patrick said.

“The government are happy to bring along their preferred witness to explain why he thinks the material is sensitive, but they are seeking to prevent me calling my preferred witness to explain why he thinks the material is not sensitive,” he said. “From the government’s perspective it seems OK for them to call a major general to the tribunal, but it’s not OK for me to call an auditor general.”

The department was approached for comment. It said it could not comment on ongoing proceedings.


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