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‘That would be courageous, minister’: the Auditor-General finding dodgy deals

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At a dinner in 2005, attendees speculated about how to pronounce the name of Grant Hehir, then the head of Victoria's education department and now the Commonwealth Auditor-General.

Federal Auditor-General Grant Hehir has been scoring some ‘direct hits’.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It is Grant with a short "a", the diners learned, prompting the MC to joke that "sometimes it's difficult to get a Grant out of government". Hehir has lived up to the joke. [And for the record you pronounce his last name ''Hair'' with a soft second ''h''].

In the last year he has pointed out egregious government spending on tax advice for the head of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, land bought for 10 times its value from a pair of wealthy businessmen near Western Sydney airport and the "sports rorts" scheme.

Each was among the biggest political hits of the year and all were delivered by a man with almost no public profile and an approach to answering questions so dry and detail-laden one politician said he would use it to run down the clock on parliamentary committees.

In keeping with that, a spokesman for the Australian National Audit Office declined requests for an interview with Hehir or any other staff.

Who is he?

A career public servant with a reputation for hard work, Hehir's former colleagues from across the political spectrum describe him as serious, scrupulously non-partisan and exceptionally smart.

"He probably didn’t have a political bone in his body and was very much a straight shooter as head of Department of Treasury and Finance," says former Victorian Liberal treasurer Kim Wells. Labor MP Julian Hill, who is deputy chair of the committee overseeing Hehir's work, sees him in much the same terms.

But there was a brief time decades ago when Hehir did have a political role. In 1989, he was in Labor Left and joined the newly independent ACT government as chief of staff to Labor's Rosemary Follett, the territory's first chief minister.

With the infant government scrambling to work out what assets and staff it had, the skills Hehir would display decades later ferreting out odd expenditure federally were already in evidence as he played a key role in the chief minister's office putting together the first ACT budget.

Born in country NSW near Albury, Hehir arrived in Canberra by way of a Treasury cadetship after graduating from the University of New England in the early 1980s. "He's no silver spoon," says one former colleague who was close with Hehir.

Hehir did not stay long in the early years of ACT politics, where governments rose and fell every year or two. By 1991 he had left Follett's staff for the public service and seven years later moved to Melbourne to become the man to see if you "wanted anything done" on the budget as the Kennett Liberal government drove hard to balance the books with asset sales and spending cuts. If Hehir still had a Labor mindset, it was not on show.

"He was trusted and respected, he was even hard to threaten," says a former senior public servant who worked with him in Victoria. Hehir's philosophy was simple, the former colleague said: markets should operate honestly and government spending should benefit the public, not those with vested interests.

In 2003, Hehir was promoted to head the Department of Education and then the state's treasury in 2006 under governments of both persuasions. He was not a showy operator. One colleague who worked closely with Hehir says he does not even know what football team he supports (it is St Kilda, Wells says).

But there is a wry sense of humour. "That would be courageous, minister", Hehir said in one Victorian meeting, according to a person present.

The rare wry aside — a reference to Sir Humphrey Appleby in the classic British sit-com Yes Minister — puzzled younger attendees but delighted those of Hehir's vintage who got the joke.

Politicians of both sides seem to have appreciated Hehir's abilities: he was poached to become the NSW Auditor-General in 2013 and took up the Commonwealth position two years later.

What does he do?

The role of the auditor-general is a little known but core part of the Australian government, which is reflected in the fact it was established in the fourth piece of legislation ever passed.

Among the first major scandals it uncovered was a stamp fraud worth £662 (about $80,000 in today's money) at the Melbourne Post Office in 1914.

The work has changed but the fundamentals are the same.

Auditor-General Grant Hehir.Credit:Joe Benke

Hehir's agency, the Australian National Audit Office, checks government departments' annual financial statements, which are mostly pedestrian declarations of figures and accounting jargon. What governments really fear, former NSW auditor-general Tony Harris says, are the ANAO's performance audits.

Those audits look at whether money is being spent efficiently and departments are achieving objectives. It is that kind of audit that found community sporting grants had been distributed on a political basis in the "sports rorts" scheme that claimed Senator Bridget McKenzie's seat as a minister.

This kind of work makes the job of an effective auditor-general a lonely role, says Harris, who admires Hehir's "sterling work".

To ensure the auditor-general's independence, unlike other senior public servants, Hehir does not answer to a minister but instead reports to parliament via the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit. However, the government does control the ANAO's budget, which has fallen by 18 per cent in real terms since 2012-13, reducing the number of audits Hehir can perform.

What has he done?

Last week Hehir uncovered taxpayers had paid for about $120,000 of tax advice for ASIC chairman James Shipton, even though he only had approval for $4000. Deputy chairman Daniel Crennan also received about $70,000 in relocation expenses, above the allowed amount.

And in September he found the government spent about $30 million on a block of land near Western Sydney Airport worth about $3 million — a transaction Hehir referred to the police.

Hehir moves deliberately but effectively, reflecting his long government experience. An example: his auditors found out about the ASIC expenses during their regular audit but Hehir only wrote to the Treasurer after the commission's annual report was released "to gain greater confidence that appropriate action would be taken".

"He won’t be intimidated by people trying to cover their arse," a former colleague says.

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