When Prime Minister Scott Morrison was forced to spend much of his recent National Press Club address batting away questions about the "sports rorts" affair, the source of his angst was not far away.
The Australian National Audit Office, whose report into the Community Sport Infrastructure Program exploded in federal politics like a hand grenade last month, works out of an unassuming premises in a quiet corner of Forrest.
But its low-key approach - Auditor-General Grant Hehir and other ANAO staff refused requests for an interview for this story - belies its occasionally seismic impact on the political scene.
The "sports rorts" saga, which has claimed the scalp of one minister and embroiled Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet head Phil Gaetjens in controversy, is but the latest instance of the Auditor-General's ability to lift the lid on abuses and rorting with deep and lasting political consequences.
The Audit Office is awkwardly placed.
By the very nature of his charter, the Auditor-General's job is to needle the government, picking holes in how it manages spending and telling it how it should do it better, while being simultaneously dependent on the government for funding.
Former NSW auditor-general Tony Harris reckons that to do the job properly (and ensure it has public support) the audit office needs to pick fights.
"If you avoid controversy, then you avoid the important issues," he said at a Parliament and the Public Interest event in 2001.
"If you write your reports in ways that can be easily disseminated or understood, then the public will support you-and having the public behind you is a hell of a lot better than having most ministers."
The Auditor-General is answerable to parliament, not the government, and is overseen by a committee (the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit) rather than a minister.
The arrangement is intended to protect the Auditor-General's independence and ensure that the public, via parliament, has access to expert advice on how the government is spending taxpayer money.
Amir Ghandar, Reporting and Assurance Leader for Chartered Accountants Australia New Zealand, says auditors-general are, for good reason, zealous guardians of their independence.
Government members see their job as looking after the government rather more than they should.Tony Harris
"Their independence is critical," Mr Ghandar says.
"Their role is underpinned by independence. You have to safeguard and defend independence at all costs to ensure that you maintain trust and integrity in the role."
But they, like many other areas of government, are finding the executive arm of government trying to encroach on their role.
The most blatant example of this was Scott Morrison's recruitment of Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens to produce a report whose conclusions directly contradicted the Auditor-General's findings.
The government has refused to disclose the report, but on Friday Mr Gaetjens, a former chief of staff to Mr Morrison, publicly released his submission to a Senate inquiry into the administration of sports grants.
In his submission, the PM&C head said that "careful analysis" had led him to conclude that projects in marginal or targeted electorates were no more successful at winning funding than those in other electorates - a finding directly at odds with that of the ANAO.
Though he did find a lack of transparency in the process and criteria used by the-then sports minister Bridget McKenzie in deciding who would get grants, Mr Gaetjens said that his advice to the Prime Minister was that although there were shortcomings in the administration of the scheme, Senator McKenzie acted within the "remit" of the guidelines.
"Further, the evidence I have reviewed does not support the suggestion that political considerations were the primary determining factor in the Minister's decisions to approve the grants," he said.
A day earlier, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz was left stony-faced at the Senate inquiry when he tried to get the Audit Office to publicly back the government's claim that all the projects that received funding under the now-infamous $100 million Community Sport Infrastructure Program were eligible.
When Senator Abetz asked the executive director of ANAO's Performance Audit Services Group, Brian Boyd, that "you found that no ineligible project or application was funded?", he obviously expected an answer in the affirmative.
Instead, Mr Boyd replied bluntly that: "No, that's not what we found".
The ANAO official then went on to detail that 43 per cent of projects awarded funding were ineligible by the time funding agreements were signed, either because work had already started or been completed, or applications were late or had been amended.
Tellingly, the government has not refuted Audit Office revelations that there were "comfortably dozens" of emails between the Prime Minister's office and Senator McKenzie's office regarding the assessment of applications, including "dozens of versions" of a spreadsheet identifying approved projects.
So far the government's clumsy attempts to undermine the audit report have fallen flat, and may have even served to enhance the ANAO's authority and reputation.
But the office has often faced more subtle attacks on its standing, such as through constraints on its budget.
In 2008 it sounded the alarm on the government's efficiency dividend, an annual cut to Commonwealth agency budgets. Meeting it would force it to cut the number of audits it undertook, it warned.
Last year, it had to go cap in hand to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann for approval to report an operating loss of $4.778 million for 2018-19.
This came after the ANAO's appropriation dropped to $69.7 million in last year's budget, down from almost $73 million in 2016-17, as the efficiency dividend and other savings measures continued to bite.
The audit office's finances went into deficit as it tried to fulfill its obligations while implementing a plan to recruit and retain staff to reduce its reliance on contractors, and to boost its productivity by investing in IT.
There are other emerging threats to the office's independence.
In 2018 Mr Hehir prompted a parliamentary committee inquiry after drawing attention to the first-ever use by a government of powers to affect the conclusion of an audit report.
Attorney-General Christian Porter had issued a certificate under the laws governing the Auditor-General to stop him disclosing information in an audit of a Defence Department contract with defence company Thales for armoured vehicles.
In the ANAO's annual report, Mr Hehir said the issuing of the certificate was "the most significant issue in my time as Auditor-General".
He said he was prevented from reaching a full conclusion on whether or not the $1.3 billion Defence acquisition was effective and value for money.
"My primary concern regarding this matter was that the parliament could not be fully informed of the audit's findings and conclusion," Mr Hehir said.
"The possibility that further work of the auditor-general is subject to certification of this nature poses an ongoing risk to the work of the ANAO and the independence of the Auditor-General."
At a public hearing in October 2018, Mr Hehir told the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit the government had adopted an "unexpectedly broad" view of the legislation, which prevented the disclosure of not only information but also the audit office's analysis and conclusions.
In its report on the episode, the committee said it would be "extremely concerned" if the Attorney-General's actions "established a precedent that prevents future robust scrutiny of defence acquisition".
The matter might sound arcane, but committee deputy chair, Labor MP Julian Hill, said the government's actions were concerning, and the Attorney-General Christian Porter had never "explained his actions sufficiently".
Committee member Senator Rex Patrick, who is embroiled in a legal battle with the Prime Minister's office to obtain the full report, has revealed plans to have Mr Porter explain his decision in court.
Mr Hill, a former senior Victorian public servant, said the auditor-general's role was "critical for democracy [and] parliament must ensure he has the necessary power and resources to undertake his work".
He is calling for the government to review the Auditor-General Act in light of the controversy.
A former Australian National Audit Office official, who does not want to be identified, says it is crucial for the agency and its work to get the full support of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, and Senate committees.
The audit office needs enough resources to carry out its responsibilities and to attract highly professional, experienced and committed staff, the official says.
Both these requirements would enhance the respect of, and support provided by, the rest of the public service and parts of the private sector involved in advisory or service delivery roles.
"There is really only one way that the ANAO can be effective and that is by delivering timely, relevant, high quality and informative reports," the official says.
"One would also hope that this would get the support of many on the government side, who might have an influence on government decision-making now or in the future."
Mr Harris says auditors-general need to play a larger role in protecting the government from overt, expensive and ineffective political actions aimed at re-election.
In some ways, the auditor-general has to be more confrontational in their choice of programs audited, scrutinising the ones ministers are running as politicians, rather than members of executive government.
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Once the ANAO delivers a report, it is then up to other parts of government and society, including the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, to do with them what they should, he says.
Mr Harris says there is a flaw built into the set-up.
"The problem with that is [that the Joint Committee] is dominated by government members," he says.
"Government members see their job as looking after the government rather more than they should.
"You can fix the latter but it would be nice if they took a proper view about the responsibilities of backbenchers to hold the government to account rather than to look after their own careers."
The parliament should be more protective of auditors-general and more assertive against any government attempts to waylay their work and resources, Mr Harris says.
"In recent times, the executive arm has grown in strength compared to parliament. This suggests the accountability function of parliament needs all the help we can give it."