Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2002 Week 12 Hansard (12 November) . . Page.. 3468 ..
MR QUINLAN (continuing):
omissions repeat themselves, then quite clearly the chief executive would be called to account.
It is a matter of trying to make sure that the bill is practical in its application. We cannot support the position that chief executives have to do the certification and must do preparation work to allow them to earnestly sign something. Our chief executives are generally very hard-working people. We know that at best they would be certifying something that somebody else had assured them had been done. This is not a practical amendment.
MR HUMPHRIES (Leader of the Opposition) (5.13): Mr Speaker, this amendment is a fairly short and simple one, but it raises issues which go right to the heart of accountability in our system of government. It raises very interesting questions to which I am not sure there are particularly clear answers.
The government's clause says:
The chief executive officer of a government agency must ensure that the agency complies with the Act.
That is fairly straightforward. Ms Dundas' amendment effectively says that the chief executive officer must certify in writing that sections blah blah have been complied with. Both versions are the same but Ms Dundas' has an overlay.
What is the difference between simply ensuring that the legislation is complied with and certifying in writing that it is complied with? The difference is the measure of responsibility you take as the certifier for the consequences of getting it wrong. If you certify in writing that the thing is correct and it turns out not to be correct, you take the consequences of that failure. If a fairly serious piece of misinformation is provided to the public, the parliament or the minister, the officer who signed it off would be expected, in extreme cases, to resign, or he would be sacked for having made that decision.
The Treasurer has argued that the number of contracts that might be caught by such provisions could be quite large in some agencies, and therefore it would not be fair to require a chief executive, who would be taking advice from more junior officers in the department or agency, to wear the blame for the misinformation he received and be forced to resign because the information was wrong.
It explains why in our system of government ministers certify very little. Ministers are peculiarly creatures of the advice they receive, particularly when they represent certain information to the public by way of reports or statements in parliament. As a rule, they rely on second-hand information, on what people, generally their advisers or officers in their agencies, have told them.
I would have thought that the consequence of that was that bodies, agencies or officers who certified certain things, not in writing but by simply making statements without that extra degree of certification, would have a let-out if they were proven to be wrong in the information they provided. They could say, "I was misinformed. My advice was wrong. Sorry. I will fix it up. I will get the right information for you now, but I am not responsible to the point of having to resign."