Estimates has been running for a day already but you wouldn’t know it from the press coverage, where only a couple of stories found their way into print. Perhaps things will heat up as the week goes on — they almost certainly will when Ken Henry appears before the Economics committee tomorrow — but the dearth of embarrassing stories for the Government is telling.

It could be that this government is SO diligent, thorough and proper that there is nothing embarrassing to reveal about its inner workings. But that’s rather unrealistic, if only because there are so many stories circulating of public servants and ministers’ offices being placed under pressure by Kevin Rudd that someone, somewhere, is bound to have cut a corner and probably on something big.

More likely, it’s because the Opposition is not doing the basics and that is bad for parliamentary democracy.

Estimates is pretty straightforward. The Government produces great wads of information about what it is doing and lets Senators interrogate its public servants for hours on end about it. Effective senators, backed by hard-working staff with an eye for forensic financial detail and a basic knowledge of governmental processes, can exploit this to embarrass the Government. This is also one of the critical aspects of federal Parliamentary democracy. If public servants and ministers know they are going to be scrutinised by the Parliament, it improves the quality of public administration and decision-making. Simple.

Not for the current Opposition. It’s hard to see any diligence or determination on the part of Opposition senators in trying to winnow information out of the Government. Some of them may fancy themselves are inquisitors, but they instil no fear of discovery in bureaucrats and agency officials. They’re all bark and no bite, and if witnesses don’t mind being yelled at or talked over, they’ve nothing to worry about.

The Coalition’s inability — or unwillingness — to exploit Estimates yesterday was perfectly demonstrated in the Finance and Public Affairs Committee just after 4pm. John Faulkner returned to his chair and executives from the Office of National Assessments — one of the key elements of the national intelligence analysis capability — joined him, ready to be interrogated. Their presence had been requested by West Australian Senator David Johnston, the Opposition Defence spokesman.

The chair, Helen Polley, looked around. Where was Senator Johnston? Michael Ronaldson, the only Coalition Senator present, didn’t know. Did the ALP’s Claire Moore, who was the only other Senator present, have any questions for the ONA? She shook her head. Did Senator Ronaldson? I don’t have the questions, he said, checking his laptop. Perhaps they could suspend proceedings for a bit while they tracked down Senator Johnston.

Faulkner couldn’t believe it. “Are we broadcasting?” he asked in amazement. They suspended briefly, but the search for Senator Johnston was evidently unsuccessful. ONA officers, who had probably spent in total a couple of hundred person hours preparing for Estimates, were excused without questions. The reason for Senator Johnston’s absence remains a mystery. His office didn’t return Crikey’s calls.

Later in the evening, Ron Boswell and Eric Abetz were giving officers from the Department of Climate Change a hard time, yelling at them and interrupting them because they didn’t like their answers about the Government’s ETS. Bluster and mockery are fine at Estimates if you have the factual basis for it. John Faulkner was not above yelling and carrying on at both Ministers and bureaucrats when he elevated Estimates to a fine art under the Howard Government, but he invariably had the factual basis for an attack.

You get the impression from senior Coalition senators that they’re not prepared to do the hard work of sifting through material and building a case in the search for embarrassing revelations. Maybe they don’t have enough staff to work through the vast amount of program material released as part of the Additional Estimates statements. And this round is a bit different because Helen Coonan, who as Finance shadow is now required to be inquisitor in chief, has only just got her feet under the desk in that portfolio. But their allocation of senators looks out of whack.

The Coalition had a heavy presence on Environment and Communications and Rural and Regional Affairs, with sometimes up to five or six Liberal and National senators in those committees, while Finance and Public Administration occupied only a couple at a time. Maybe they think they’ll get further with Stephen Conroy than John Faulkner, but Conroy seems to view Estimates as an opportunity for extended mockery of the Coalition and, for all his drivel on internet filtering, has never appeared less than relaxed at any committee he has fronted.

The Greens look better organised, using their limited number of senators to concentrate on select areas and patiently sit through hearings and then go to work on teasing out issues. When Senate processes are all you have, you tend to value them more. But the Opposition appears happy to wait for issues — and maybe government — to fall into their laps.

Peter Fray

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