Year

2012

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Accounting and Finance

Abstract

This thesis is based on exploring and challenging one of the key accountability processes of the Australian Federal Parliament, the budget estimates hearings of the Senate Legislation Committees. The scrutiny of the budget estimates by these committees allows the Senate to assess the operational and financial performance of public service organisations as well as their administration of government policy and programs. In light of the recent public sector reforms and the shift in focus from administration of service delivery to management in the public sector this examination is timely. Like many government processes the Senate Legislation Committee hearings of the budget estimates is generally accepted as an appropriate accountability process, however this thesis will examine whether the estimates hearings do actually contribute to public sector financial accountability.

The methodological approach adopted in this study is based on the application of three complementary research methods, content analysis, thematic analysis and critical discourse analysis, which flow from one to the other to construct a qualitative analysis of the research data, (Hansard transcripts of selected budget estimates hearing of one Senate Legislation Committee over the period 2001-02 to 2007-08). The findings of this analysis are discussed based on a theoretical framework shaped by the key components of two political economy theories: institutional theory and the theory of legitimation. The perspective of the theory of legitimation taken in this study is the social-constructionalist perspective which views processes as being continuously developed through interactions in society (Richardson 1987). In addition to the above, the research data will be reviewed using a Benthamite lens which reflects 18th century social commentator Jeremy Bentham’s thoughts on good public administration particularly in the areas of reporting and the (mis)use of language. The inclusion of the Benthamite lens supports the analysis undertaken through critical discourse analysis as both have a keen focus on the (mis)use of language to reinforce the dominance of those in control.

The exploration of the Senate Legislation Committee estimates hearings in this thesis through the application of the research methods demonstrates that these hearings do contribute to public sector financial accountability. However some of the participants, especially the Parliamentarians, did use their time on the Committees to push their own political agendas. Yet this did not prevent the Committees from achieving their stated objective of scrutinising the expenditure proposals, operations and activities of government organisations to some extent.

The primary contribution this research makes is to the academic literature on public sector accountability. This contribution is made in a number of specific areas including accountability literature and public sector financial reform literature. The academic literature specifically on the accountability process of the estimates hearings is extremely limited.

The importance of public sector accountability, the associated disclosures and an understanding of the language used in these disclosures provides a fertile ground for future research. This future research could be based on the joint application of critical discourse analysis and the Benthamite lens developed in this study. In addition future research could focus on those programs for which government organisations received funds but which were not discussed in the hearings. The identification of these silent topics and the exploration of why they weren’t discussed in the estimates hearings may also provide valuable insight into the public sector accountability processes.

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