GREENS BILL: Annual Public Meeting for Public Sector Agencies

Today Mark introduced a Greens Bill which would require every South Australian public sector agency to hold an annual public meeting, once in each year, to which members of the public are invited and at which they can ask questions, thus providing increased public accountability and transparency.


PUBLIC SECTOR (ANNUAL PUBLIC MEETING) AMENDMENT BILL 2020

The proposal in this bill is quite simple—that is, that every South Australian public sector agency must, once in each year, hold an annual public meeting to which members of the public will be invited and at which they can ask questions. Currently, a few agencies do this, but all agencies are required to prepare annual reports which are tabled in parliament. The Public Sector Regulations 2010, regulation 7, sets out the specific requirements for public sector agency reports. This bill takes those reports and adds an extra level of accountability via a public meeting.

Annual reports of public sector agencies vary in their quality and level of detail, yet all have the stated objective of giving parliament and the public important information about the agency's activities and performance. The requirements for these reports are set out in Premier and Cabinet Circular PC013.

Annual public meetings will provide a further mechanism to ensure public accountability and transparency. The concept of annual public meetings, or APMs, is identical to the longstanding practice of private sector companies and non-government organisations, which hold annual general meetings to present annual work performance outcomes to shareholders or members.

Every South Australian is a shareholder and member of the framework of government in South Australia, so why should we not have that same right? I know that there are accountability mechanisms through parliament; however, these are no substitute for public agencies dealing directly with those who are affected by their decisions.

This idea is not new in the public sector. In February 2018, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC) held its first APM and included presentations from the ABC chairman, the managing director and the chief financial officer. The ABC's annual public meeting was initiated by the ABC to increase transparency and accountability in the same way that public companies do at their annual general meetings. More than 400 people attended live events in Sydney, Rockhampton and Launceston, while around the country others watched on a live stream.

In December 2016, the Northern Sydney Local Health District held its first annual public meeting at the Kolling auditorium at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. The meeting offered to guests a chance to meet and chat with the board members and the executive and hear about the activities of the local health district, including highlights from the past financial year and audited financial statements. Guests also had the opportunity to ask questions of the board chair and the chief executive.

Another example: as part of the outreach activities in the Canadian public sector, Crown corporations are encouraged to hold APMs to share information and solicit feedback from the public. This was first proposed in the 2005 review of the governance framework for Canada's Crown corporations. APMs are promoted as a positive opportunity to encourage public participation. The purpose of an APM is stated as: to provide information on the agency's activities, to solicit feedback from the public and to provide the opportunity for members of the public to ask questions.

How should an annual public meeting of a public entity be conducted? The approach, I think, should and will vary according to the agency's business; however, there are some key common features that would be expected in an APM. These include, firstly, being open to all members of the South Australian public; in other words, that they should not be just exclusive invitation-only events. I would contrast what I have in this bill with, for example, what the Environmental Protection Authority conducts every year. They are legally obliged to conduct an annual round table; however, their governing act does not provide that they have to invite the public, so it tends to be an invitation-only event.

Secondly, the APM should present the agency's annual report to the public. Thirdly, the APM should demonstrate transparency, accountability and accessibility in the eyes of the public. It should provide the public with a means to gain a solid understanding of the agency's operations and an opportunity to ask questions and/or make observations. The meeting should enable interactions with key members of senior management; for example, the CEO or members of the governing board with the general public.

I will now outline the mechanism that is used in the bill. Under the Public Sector Act 2009, public sector agencies in South Australia are legally obliged to report annually on their operations and performance. The act states:

The public sector agency must ensure that the report is accurate, comprehensive, deals with all significant issues affecting the agency and written and presented in a manner that aids ready comprehension.

Some government agencies are also subject to separate legislation that may specify additional or different reporting requirements, but, even so, the reporting requirements outlined in the Public Sector Act 2009 still apply. The specific requirements of agencies in relation to their annual reports, as I said, are set out in regulation 7 of the Public Sector Regulations. These annual reports are seen as a key mechanism to ensure public accountability and transparency and that is what is noted in Premier and Cabinet Circular 13, which relates to annual reporting requirements.

Ideally, the requirement for these public sector agencies to hold an APM would be added to the requirements of the Premier and Cabinet Circular 13; however, that is not a vehicle that is available to me, so I have put in a bill before parliament. There is nothing to prevent later insertion into that Premier and Cabinet Circular, regardless of the outcome of this bill. Under my bill, the requirements for an annual public meeting would apply to all agencies and independent authorities that are required to provide an annual report to the South Australian parliament.

I know that reports to parliament are all tabled. We can note them. We have the opportunity here to talk about them, but we do not have the opportunity to ask any questions of those public servants. Members of the other place might have an opportunity, for example, in estimates hearings. We might have an opportunity if there happens to be a standing committee or a select committee that is looking at the agency, but generally we do not have that opportunity. If it is difficult for members of parliament, how much more difficult is it for members of the public?

This bill requires that there be a meeting every year. It requires that the CEO or equivalent attend that meeting. We do not want these public meetings held with junior officials who cannot answer questions and are not able to take responsibility for anything the agency does. We need high-level people there. I think this will be a very welcome addition to the accountability and transparency regime for public authorities in South Australia. I commend the bill to the chamber.