Financial figures released by Chief Minister Michael Gunner before the election – as well as wild claims that close to 100,000 Territorians would be infected with COVID-19 at a cost of $200 million if it weren’t for him – have been found to be “misleading” by the Auditor General.
After delaying the NT budget until after the election, and not producing a pre-election fiscal outlook, Mr Gunner and Treasurer Nicole Manison released a “COVID-19 Financial Report” on July 29 – one day before entering caretaker mode that was billed as providing Territorians with a look at the NT’s true financial position.
But Auditor General Julie Crisp found the figures were misleading, incorrect and were likely to be “misinterpreted” by those who read it.
She also found corrections were not provided until three days before the election – which was never publicly announced.
The report also contained unsubstantiated claims that if Mr Gunner had not brought in “health measures such as border controls and business restrictions” that 92,500 Territorians – nearly 38 per cent of the population – could have been infected with COVID-19 and 5400 Territorians hospitalised, costing taxpayers $200 million.
Ms Crisp found the government could not back up those figures with facts.
“The report references the Commonwealth information [used to make the claims] and provides a link to the relevant webpage, however clicking on the link at the time of my review returned an error message stating ‘page not found’,” she wrote.
“Whilst the formula for deriving the numbers is explained, there is no source to support the calculations of the estimated impact on the Northern Territory.
“Thus I determined that the content contravenes [the Information Act] in that the information fails to specify the source, or a means for identifying a source, of any facts …”
Ms Crisp found many misleading figures in the report, including that total expenses listed by agency were incorrect, that the overspend-underspend figures were not sourced and that the “outcomes” reported did not take into account unbudgeted changes to own-source revenue.
“An attempt to confirm the financial balances reported in the COVID-19 Financial Report – July 2020 to the actual financial information confirmed with all NTG agencies on 27 July 2020 was not successful for four of the 23 entities reported … as adjustments had been made to other expenditure items,” she wrote.
“As the ‘preliminary outcome’ does not take into account any unbudgeted movements in own-source revenue, a number of agencies reported as overspent were in surplus and a number reported as underspent were in deficit at the date the report was prepared.”
Ms Crisp concluded the information presented in the report contravened the Information Act by including “statements that are misleading”.
She also found the report led to confusion around the actual debt figure for the Northern Territory Government. While net debt was projected at $8.2 billion, the actual debt was more likely closer to $11 billion.
“Disclosure in the COVID‑19 Financial Report July 2020 equivalent to that in the Mid-Year Report would demonstrate that actual debt (being Deposits held + Advances received + Borrowings) as at 30 June 2020 (unaudited) was $8.5 billion and estimated to reach $10.9 billion by the end of the 2020-2021 financial year.
“The absence of a Glossary of Terms exacerbates the risk that the published information will be misinterpreted.
“Thus I determined that the content contravenes part 2, section 6(2)(b) in that the information includes statements that are misleading.”
Ms Crisp recommended that Treasury fix the figures and provide more information to the public about how they were determined, including all the figures contributing to net debt and actual expenditures.
Her report, that was tabled in Parliament on Friday evening, revealed that under-treasurer Craig Graham was forced to release a supplement to the COVID-19 Financial Report on the department’s website, which Ms Crisp found “has largely addressed the matters raised and thus, addressed the contraventions of the Act…”
But that information was not released until August 19 – three days before the election and was not publicly announced by Mr Gunner, Ms Manison or any government employee.
Mr Gunner’s office did not respond to questions about the Auditor General’s report, including why he would mislead Territorians with incorrect figures before the election.