Audit record not good enough
Larry Dennis. Heather Jacobs Matthews. Heather Thomas.
You have only to mention their names and people immediately know who and what you are talking about. Their messages as auditors-general has been nothing but consistent.
Sadly, however, their annual reports play in the news media like a broken record, do they not? Except for that that which is actually broken is the accounting and accountability of government finances.
But this didn’t just occur overnight; it has been years in the making. There is a thread to their criticism that can be traced all the way back to some of the earliest reports. Yes, they vary in intensity and focus over the years, some far more serious in their findings than others, but the underlying message remains the same: not good enough — and that summation is arguably an understatement.
What is patently clear is that our government must do better to the point where improvement is a national imperative today, bearing in mind not just the backlog of audits but the national debt and the crimp that Covid-19 has placed on an already struggling economy.
My first point: when I write “government”, I mean just that. Our government regardless of which party is in power.
Second point: the wonder is that something has not been done long before now to arrest and turn around what is on any view an unsatisfactory and unacceptable state of financial affairs.
Cue the party partisans who will jump here and tell you who is to blame and that a simple change of government would make all the difference. You think? Honestly?
There are the earnest cries too, of corruption and fraud, potential or otherwise, some about matters that have long been under police investigation and some of which were at one time the subject of a commission of inquiry.
Seen any noticeable changes? Apparently not: if the latest report and plea of the Auditor-General are anything to go by.
There is a favourite Arabic saying of mine that seems most apt here: the dogs bark but the caravan moves on. I read recently that the Hungarians have a further twist on that: money talks. The dog barks. But the caravan continues.
Here it is past time we focused on changing the direction of the caravan of government accounting and accountability.
The Auditor-General recently shared a couple of ideas — and not for the first time. I would like to add two of mine:
1, Public Accounts Committee: this theoretically is the parliamentary committee that is meant to ensure the legislature’s oversight of government finances. There is a reason why it is headed in Commonwealth parliamentary democracies by the Opposition spokesman for finance. It should be far more active, robust and visible than it has been to date. The specific complaints, along with the recommendations of the Auditor-General, should be investigated and tracked – and for results. Responsible civil servants can and should be called to explain and account.
2, The Great Annual Budget Debate, which rarely is that great unless you measure success by the amount of time spent. The focus needs to be sharpened. With the support of the Speaker, the debate should zero in not just on what is proposed to be spent in the coming financial year, but on how money was actually spent the previous year in comparison to what was proposed. A keen Opposition would be asking searching questions and following up as necessary thereafter with parliamentary questions. All for the record and for public consumption. It’s hard work, sure, but this is how the system is meant to work for us — taxpayers and voters.
My last point: we may like to think that we have reached the point where, on matters such as this, our parliamentarians can find a way to eschew the usual politics — or, rather, politicking — and instead build the common ground that will improve governance and move Bermuda forward.
Better governance would benefit all parties. The challenges continue whether in power or vying for power.
Otherwise, we will lumber on with the same old, same old. By all means, continue to carp, complain, criticise and blame the other guy, but good luck with that as a solution to what ails us.