Southern say: No shortage of scrutiny for audit extensions

Photos: Parliament TV
Photos: Parliament TV

Grant Robertson (left) and Michael Woodhouse squared off in Parliament on Wednesday and Thursday.
Grant Robertson (left) and Michael Woodhouse squared off in Parliament on Wednesday and Thursday.
Fellow citizens, be warned, we are in a time of crisis: New Zealand is suffering a severe shortage of auditors.

This news will no doubt cause widespread panic, but happily Parliament has stepped up to the plate to protect the public’s interests with the Annual Reporting and Audit Time Frames Extensions Legislation Act. Phew.

The legislation, introduced under urgency on Wednesday afternoon, should - in theory - have been relatively non-controversial.

The Office of the Auditor-general (OAG), an independent officer of Parliament, is responsible, among other things, for scrutinising the books of Government entities to ensure that everything is above board.

For many reasons, not the least of which is the closed borders caused by Covid-19, the OAG - and many commercial accountancy firms for that matter - are desperately short of staff.

This has meant, for the second year running, that the OAG is going to be late in delivering all the audits it is required to do by the statutory date.

Last year the auditor-general asked for an extension of time which Parliament, in full understanding of the predicament the office was in, granted.

This year, however, National decided to dig its toes in and not swiftly send the law change through as it had previously.

While it is tempting to imagine that National was filibustering to prevent the passage of the Gas (Information Disclosure and Penalties) Amendment Bill, which was left parked and idling on the agenda, its dudgeon was raised by a perceived undermining of the confidence and integrity of the audit process and the sudden adoption of urgency to progress the extension.

"They better lock themselves in for a long evening and an early morning start, because there’s a lot to be said about this and a lot to be unpacked," National Dunedin list MP Michael Woodhouse pledged.

He was as good as his word, taking nine calls as the Bill dragged its way through Wednesday and on towards lunchtime on Thursday.

Taieri Labour MP Ingrid Leary reflected the Government’s growing grumpiness with the antics of the Opposition with her pithy second reading speech: "Covid, Covid, public interest, two months. I rest my case. I commend this Bill to the House."

Ms Leary might have been satisfied but National was far from that.

Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds, who in her pre-Parliament role as chief executive of the Southern Institute of Technology had the pleasure of being audited annually by the OAG, emphasised that this was not a debate in the abstract but had an actual knock-on effect for Crown entities.

"The audits that are being delayed by two months are actually going to flow across into the pre-audits of December 31," Ms Simmonds said.

"So my concern really is that in six months’ time, he’ll be bringing this to us again and wanting things pushed out again."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson, who had been detained far longer in the House than he expected during the tortuous committee stages, opened fire in his third reading speech.

"For those National MPs who will now return to their electorates, they will proudly be able to say that they managed to extend out a debate to make sure that they fought against a two-month extension to ensure that there were robust orders.

"And they will proudly go to their electorates and go and say to them ‘That’s why we’re here’, and that’s why the National Party languishes in the mid-20 percents in the polls."

Actually, the latest Roy Morgan poll has National up 1% to 29.5% and Labour down 6.5% to 38.5% ... read into that what you will.

Mr Woodhouse, who a fortnight ago had the thankless task of following Mr Robertson’s headline-grabbing general debate speech and battled away bravely, was not backing down this time either.

"The minister of finance is cajoling us to go back to our electorates and talk about what we did this week.

"I’ll tell you what we did this week: we stuck up for business. We stuck up for the inconsistency that exists between the ‘suck it up’ approach by this Government to the severe staffing shortages that are a handbrake on this economy and a Government that gives itself a pass for teachers and for auditors.

"We will be going back to our home areas, and we will be highlighting that inconsistency, and the ham-fisted approach that this Government is taking."

Should the two men bump in to each other in South Dunedin this weekend that would be a fascinating meeting of minds.

Storm the barricades

Queenstown man Basil Walker, an independent candidate in Invercargill in the last election, is an unlikely protester.

But "a peaceful protest" was his reason for not filing an expenses return after the election, his lawyer told Queenstown District Court this week.

The return has now been filed, and Mr Walker’s point presumably made.

Greened off

Green activists have a long history of championing forlorn causes and Dunedin party member James Cockle has found another one: putting himself forward as a challenger to James Shaw as party co-leader.

Mr Cockle’s chances of winning seem slim, but there is a longstanding tension between the activist wing of the Greens and more pragmatic figures such as Mr Shaw.

Any sizeable amount of support for Mr Cockle will be reason for the party’s MPs to pause and reflect.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

 

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