The first Estimates hearings of the new Government was always going to have a surreal air. New Ministers took their seats before their former committees, next to bureaucrats they had interrogated only months ago. New chairmen and women, like freshly-appointed prefects, struggled to assert their authority. Labor senators repeatedly did a Wayne and forgot they were now the Government. Opposition senators railed against the unfairness of it all, and struggled.

With little to go on against a new regime and no staff to do the detail work, the Coalition had to stick to the high level and the topical. The Finance and Public Administration committee laboured over the Prime Minister’s errant staffers. Wage restraint got an extensive run in the Communications committee.

George Brandis, belying the high opinion he has of himself, appeared to draw most of his questions in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee from old copies of The Australian. Maybe that annoyed head Keystone Cop Mick Keelty, who insisted that the AFP hadn’t finished with Mohammed Haneef yet. Evidently Keelty is determined to get some return on the $7.5m wasted on this fiasco, money perhaps better spent on a finger-print machine for David Hicks that actually works.

About the only time the little yellow Portfolio Additional Estimates books – ostensibly the basis for the hearings – were opened was when discussion turned to Lindsay Tanner’s recent savings hors d’oeuvres. Coalition Senators picked up their pristine copies and looked at them like they were written in Swahili, instead of just the refined dialect of Bureaucratese employed by Canberra budget types.

In the Communications committee, the recent tradition of the vile Connie Fierravanti-Wells and Michael Ronaldson maligning ABC and SBS journalists appeared to have ended – Fierravanti-Wells was last spotted chasing Kevin Rudd’s dog through the grounds of the Lodge. Coalition senators, perhaps forgetting that it was no longer Their ABC, or that there’d been an election in recent months, barely mentioned their usual obsessions of bias and left-wing influence. Instead, they spent most of their time inviting Stephen Conroy to elaborate on his plans for an independent ABC board appointment process.

Indeed, the whole day was a colossal waste of time for government agencies, many of whose highly-paid CEOs sat and doodled while Ministers fielded questions more apt for Question Time than an Estimates grilling. Only Western Australia’s David Johnston appeared to remember what he was there for. Johnston, best known for his hatred of native title and his conspiracy theories about the WA Police Force, was outraged that the Australian Communications and Media Authority had granted a Perth community broadcasting licence to — quelle horreur — an Aboriginal group, instead of Western Sports Media, a sports broadcaster.

Johnston demanded to know how this blatant miscarriage of justice had occurred, but didn’t bother complaining that the sports group had also missed out on a licence given to a seniors community group. It was unsavoury stuff – though it at least it resembled normal Estimates questioning.

“That’s the easiest Estimates we’ll get,” declared one minister afterward.

But if the Coalition’s senators don’t get down into the numbers and start grilling agencies and bureaucrats about administrative detail, it’s unlikely to get much harder.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey