This week, Senators are conducting Supplementary Budget Estimates for the whole week, rather than sitting.

For the most part it’s a colossal waste of time and money.

There are three Estimates sessions a year, now. In the early ’90s, there were four, but the Keating government rationalised them as part of the move to May Budgets. As a concession to departmental and parliamentary public servants, the Howard government ended the famous practice of going all night, and they now end at 11pm. Supplementary Budget Estimates and Additional Estimates, in February, go for a week. The Budget Estimates in May and June go for a fortnight.

For several reasons, this session has been particularly useless. Unlike the other two sessions, there are no new Budget documents to work off. As there’s only a week, there is a limited amount of time for each portfolio, which includes departmental officials and staff from portfolio agencies, of which there are now more than there were in the Keating era. Some important agencies such as ASIO haven’t even appeared because there has been no time. Senators are having to place questions on notice rather than ask them. That’s an important difference, because genuine accountability only comes from being able to spend an hour on a single topic, grilling officials there and then.

The timing is also poor. Helen Coonan, who has been left to do the heavy economic and budgetary lifting for the Coalition pretty much by herself, has been trying to discuss economic and fiscal issues with Treasury but was repeatedly told that answers were dependent on the mid-year forecasts, which are currently in preparation. There’s little point in having “supplementary Budget estimates” if the May figures are hopelessly out of date, which has been a particular problem this year.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam pointed out that some committees are well-run and others are a free-for-all. Rural and Regional Affairs, chaired by Glenn Sterle, has run smoothly and the time allocated between parties and Senators has worked well. The Legal and Constitutional Committee, chaired on an acting basis by Gavin Marshall (regular chair Trish Crossin is on a study trip and copping a fearful bollocking from the NT News for it), has been a free-for-all.

And as other Coalition sources privately admit, the Opposition still hasn’t worked out how best to use the time they’re allotted. This is still, after two years, an Opposition on training wheels at Estimates. A repeat offender in this regard is Barnaby Joyce, who has a tendency to sidetrack questioning by exploring his own pet topics. Anyone watching Economics Committee hearings over the past year will have seen Joyce regularly disrupt potentially fruitful lines of inquiry by Coalition senators by asking questions about the basics of economics, or irrelevant theories. Treasury officials are only too happy to waste valuable time humouring Joyce, knowing the more time they spending humouring him, the less time they’ll have to answer real questions.

It isn’t just officials who do that. Government ministers are happy to get into slanging matches with Coalition senators, conscious it chews up time. Stephen Conroy is by turns subtle and sledgehammer-like, luring Nick Minchin into pointless, and running blatant interference if officials might stray into inconvenient areas.

And government senators can be divided into those primarily there to make life difficult for non-government parties, such as Doug Cameron, and those such as  Kate Lundy, who have a consistent set of issues in which they are genuinely interested. So much time was wasted in the Environment and Communications Committee on Monday that Lundy, a veteran of that committee, was forced to put most of her regular questions on notice

But as Ludlam noted, the government doesn’t mind at all if the Opposition wastes its time in arguing with ministers.

The result is minimal accountability and mind-numbing tedium for all involved.

It doesn’t come cost-free to the taxpayer. Every department and agency prepares extensive briefing on every possible question they or their minister might receive. Given the level of resources involved, you’re probably looking at tens of thousands of dollars in staff time spent preparing and clearing briefs in a medium-sized department. Replicate that across 19 departments, large and small, and dozens of portfolio agencies and the bill quickly climbs toward a million dollars. And then there’s the further cost of having hundreds of middle-managers and senior executives — men and women paid $600 a day and upwards — spending an entire day sitting at Parliament House, often without ever actually appearing.

Liberal senator Simon Birmingham would prefer to see a merging of Additional and Supplementary Budget Estimates, so that there’s no increase in Estimates committee time but two weeks can be spent on departments and agencies rather than one. He’d also like them to be held in non-sitting weeks — partly so the media can pay more attention — but also to enable House of Representatives ministers to appear, to end the practice of ministers deflecting questions by offering to take them on notice or talk to the office of the portfolio minister.

In that, he has Buckley’s. Helen Coonan acknowledges the Coalition is hamstrung by the way it performed in government. She’d like to end the practice of Department of Finance and Treasury officials batting questions between them, and get officials of both agencies to appear together to discuss the Budget, but says it’s not the sort of request the Coalition would have accepted when it was in government.

Given the government is unlikely to come at extending Supplementary and Additional Estimates by a week — and there’s not too many Senators who’d be happy to spend an extra fortnight a year in Canberra — there’s much to be said for moving the week currently given over to Supplementary Budget Estimates to Additional Estimates, which at least ensures the MYEFO numbers can be used, and Senators can devote two full days to grilling officials rather than one. It would also reduce the practice of hordes of bureaucrats labouring to produce inches of briefing three times a year for the net result, usually, of a bunch of questions provided on notice that can be answered at leisure over the ensuing months.

Otherwise, there’ll be a steady decline of Estimates to the state of Question Time — boring, pointless and lacking in any benefit in terms of accountability given a government utterly dominant and an Opposition still unable to get its act together.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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