(By Shalika Wimalasena – Translated by Akitha Wijayasinghe)
Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution has proposed a number of critical changes that affect the fiscal control, including restriction of the power of the Auditor General and the removal of state-run institutes from the supervision of the Auditor General. The new proposal was also criticized by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s faction, and it was recommended by the committee appointed by the PM to study the draft to ditch it.
However, although the task of safe guarding the professional status of the audit service and protecting its independence are in the same direction, they are two deviations. If professionalism is not protected, issues with service independence can arise.
Even before the 19th Amendment empowered the Audit Services Commission on professional matters, there had been serious debate over the Audit Act. Previous governments have always sought to limit it, and as a result the originally drafted Audit Bill had to be amended or downgraded on a number of occasions.
This article is based on an interview with the former Auditor General Sarath C. Mayadunne, who was a founding member of the drafting operation.
The beginning of procrastination
The National Audit Bill was first approved in principle by the Cabinet in 2005. This draft was prepared with the technical assistance of the Audit Court of the Netherlands and the National Audit Office of the United Kingdom.
The Auditor General’s Department was informed that the prepared bill would be approved after being produced to the Cabinet by the Legal Draftsman’s Department. But the Treasury proposed that the bill should be further strengthened before tabling it in Parliament. This is how the procrastination began.
I was the Auditor General until 2006, during which time the process of procrastination continued. The presentation of the bill in Parliament was delayed day by day due to a long period of silence and renewed discussions.
What does it mean to be independent?
Here, prevailing international standards at the time were studied. The 1997 Lima Convention was significant among them. Launched with the intervention of the International Association of Supreme Audit Institutions, the Convention acknowledged that public auditing must be independent and robust as much as possible.
Sri Lanka also continued to be a member of this Association. It is important to understand clearly the idea of independence. This means making it an institution that is not subjected to the authority of the executive, that is, the cabinet and state institutions, but only to parliament.
It is the Parliament’s responsibility to strengthen the state audit. This is an institution to assist Parliament. When the initial audit bill was being drafted, a convention called the Mexico Declaration was presented around 2005. That agreement also provided a more detailed explanation of the aforementioned points. Also, in 2012, with the intervention of the United Nations, a number of issues on the need to strengthen public audit were raised as a convention. The discussion about the National Audit Bill was once again expanded in recent times, focusing on these issues that have been discussed internationally.
2015 not different to 2005
Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who contested the 2015 Presidential Election, told the public the day that the audit bill would be passed in Parliament, through his 100 Days program, which never happened. However, the newly appointed government had also held discussions with the Auditor General’s Department in this regard.
In the meantime, it should be mentioned that several proposals were made to improve the professionalism of the Audit Service. It was in 2016 that a new bill was tabled in the Cabinet with some amendments by the Legal Draftsman’s Department. It was being re-negotiated with some procrastinating process. What’s important was the revelation that attempts are being made to change its content. That is to say, the government of 2015 acted to break the power of the Audit Act, as same as the 2005 government.
The importance of sovereignty
This is the issue that needs to be understood and collectively defeated by the people in relation to this Audit Act. The reason is that this state audit is directly relevant to the people. State finance is a very valuable part of people’s sovereignty. People’s sovereignty cannot be properly exercised without regulating public finances. Article 148 of the Constitution of this country gives Parliament full control over public finances. Therefore, Parliament and its Members of Parliament must take full responsibility for any allegations relating to public finances. Accountability comes with a responsibility in everything. That is, there is an obligation to answer about how the responsibility was fulfilled. Here Parliament is subject to an obligation to answer. That is to say, if there is any weakening of the public finances, the Members of Parliament should intervene.
Audit General’s responsibility
The next step is to clearly understand that the Auditor General is the statutory authority that reports to Parliament on the financial affairs of the Executive, that is, the Cabinet and public officials. The primary role of the Auditor General is to report accurate information on public finances to Parliament. On the other hand, Parliament has a responsibility as well as an obligation to strengthen the Auditor General and his department and to protect them from influence of the Executive. Bigger issues can arise if it is not done properly. That is, Parliament has the primary responsibility for protecting public audits. If the Auditor General does not properly report information to Parliament on fiscal matters, the Members of Parliament are to held guilty.
A system that has long been in disarray
In light of these facts, the responsibility upon the Parliament here is clear. But today, the Treasury has arbitrarily taken the power that Parliament should have in this regard. Because of this, the Parliament has to give the financial approval as stated by the Treasury today. Therefore, a Parliamentary Committee should directly approve the Auditor General’s budget and formulate a methodology to include it in the overall budget. This is the currently accepted system in the world. On page 43 of the book ‘Overseers’ by David Maggie, a Canadian official on behalf of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in 2002, it is clear that the United Kingdom and Australia have set up separate parliamentary committees to prepare the budgets of the Auditor General, and that they are operated way more independently.
Why fear the Audit Act?
The legislature should intervene in the budget of the Auditor General, leaving no room for the executive to interfere. But what is happening in Sri Lanka now and what is about to happen is a totally different situation. The executive is once again officially trying to violate the National Audit Act. The legislature is silently watching. As we can see, there are people inside or outside the cabinet who are accused of corruption. They want to cripple the Auditor General to protect their corruption and commit more crime and corruption.
How a government with a vision should act
In particular, allegations of such immorality pose a challenge to the long-term existence of a government. It undermines public confidence. If this government or any government has a long-term vision, it should intervene to resolve this issue with haste. It is important to understand that these are not things to be done for short-term interests.