Charles and
Camilla haven’t got their wedding gift from their loyal objects in the
antipodes yet? OK, it’s a novelty story – but it shows the depth and
detail of investigations by Senate Committees.

Another issue
running strongly today is ABC bullying. “ABC managing director Russell
Balding will investigate complaints of workplace bullying, despite
stating that he does not believe the corporation has a problem,”
reports The Age.

The
almighty Estimates – the committees that make minister’s knees knock,
not to mention the bureaucrats. Estimates are not like other Senate Committees. Estimates, strictly speaking, is part of the Senate debate on the Appropriation Bills – the Budget, in other words.

A
piece of legislation has three readings. The first reading simply
announces the introduction of the Bill and is formal. The second
reading is the traditional “debate” stage, when parliamentarians make
speeches of up to 20 minutes outlining their positions on the Bill. The
third reading is again formal – although Parliamentarians can speak to
the Bill again.

But the real action takes place between the second and third readings –
the committee stage, where amendments are debated, Ministers questioned
and other exchanges occur. This is where Estimates slots in.

Estimates
was established in 1969 because Ministers could not adequately answer
questions over details in the budget. The committees were established
to allow senators to grill public servants and ministers on all budget
allocations.

Rather than running off the text of the
Appropriation Bills, which are still being debated in the House of
Representatives, the core material for Estimates is the various Budget
Papers, including the Portfolio Budget Statements containing detail of
government programs which all departments release as part of the budget
process.

Estimates can be agonising for ministers, their staff
and bureaucrats – a detailed forensic examination of programs that can
stretch on and on and on as senators pick through the minutiae of the
Government’s programs.

Will
the Government try to curtail Estimates? If they do, they run the risk
of filibustering in the Senate during the debate on the Budget if
non-Government senators feel they have not had the chance to really
examine the detail.

We’ve asked Opposition Leader in the Senate, Chris Evans, for his views on the brave new world that begins on July 1.

“In
just the last few months we’ve had the increased commitment in Iraq and
the outright deceit on the Medicare ‘safety net’,” he says. “The recent
referral of the Rau and Alvarez/Solon immigration scandals to the
secret Palmer inquiry is further evidence of the Government’s aversion
to transparency and accountability. So it’s deeply worrying that as of
July 1, John Howard and his ministers will be in control of the
scrutiny and accountability mechanisms of the Senate.”

And Evans
points to the Senate’s investigative role: “It was a Senate enquiry
which confirmed that the Government knew that the Children Overboard
allegations were false but chose not to correct the record before the
2001 election. And there’s currently a Senate Committee inquiring into
the Nationals’ use of the $408 million Regional Partnerships Program as
a re-election slush fund. The Senate can also order governments to
produce documents, it can disallow regulations made by Ministers and it
demands the publication of details of every government contract in
excess of $100,000.”

He’s afraid of what might happen to the
Senate Committee system now: “John Howard’s majority in the Senate
gives him command of its powers. The committee system exists because of
a vote by the majority of senators. It only takes another vote to trim
Committee powers or get rid of them completely. For example, the
government could move to restrict estimates questioning to specific
expenditure items outlined in the budget papers. This would put an end
to estimates as we know it.

“The Coalition is the new
housekeeper of Parliament’s main mechanisms of scrutiny and
accountability. The Coalition, and the Coalition alone, will decide
whether those mechanisms survive. Given its record, the Senate’s
accountability role is under serious threat.’

And what about John Howard’s warnings about “hubris”?

“We’re
beginning to get a clearer picture of the Howard Government’s radical
legislative agenda after July,” says Evans. “There’s Telstra,
industrial relations, VSU, even changing the way the Senate is elected.
Add to that the latest reports on making secret election donations
bigger and easier to slip through and the attacks on the States over
control of ports, it all adds up to a radical right-wing agenda facing
the Senate and the people of Australia in the second half of this year.”

Peter Fray

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