As public servants and ministers are hauled before Senate committees this week to answer questions, the news often comes thick and fast. Here is what we have learned over the past day as senators grill those in the know in government.

1. DHS’ privacy breach

Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim is making inquiries over the Department of Human Services’ decision to publicly release private details about a blogger who spoke out about the Centrelink robo debt notices to The Canberra Times. Human Services Minister Alan Tudge had previously defended the decision to put Andie Fox’s information out in the public domain, stating that the law allowed the department to override its privacy obligations in order to correct the record in the media. Pilgrim told a Senate estimates committee hearing yesterday that this was true, but his agency would be looking into whether Human Services had the appropriate authorisation to do it.

2. Barnaby Joyce’s grand plan for regional Australia has public servants working from Macca’s

Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, in seeming defiance of all logic, is forcing the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to move from Canberra to Armidale, and it is going about as well as could be expected. There is no current office block suitable for APVMA in Armidale, so construction will need to take place, according to APVMA boss Kareena Arthy. The new building, the move and inducing employees to up stumps from Canberra to Armidale will cost around $25.6 million. It had been tough going to convince many staff to move to Armidale, and Arthy also admitted that, in the interim, while a suitable office was not available, staff on the ground in Armidale were working out of the local McDonald’s.

3. Guthrie defends axing short-wave radio

ABC estimates are often a fiery display of partisan politics, but for the majority of ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie’s appearance at estimates yesterday, there was largely consensus across the various parties that the ABC’s decision to axe its short-wave broadcast was the wrong one. ABC execs defended the decision, arguing that there weren’t many complaints when the decision was announced (although there have been many more to the committee since) and that when the service has had an outage, not many listeners have complained. Senators were not too impressed that Guthrie said she wasn’t available for committee hearings on the matter next week, saying her diary was already full up.

4. Abetz trying to find a rainbow connection

Liberal Senator Eric Abetz may have inadvertently become the first government member to officially acknowledge the war between the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands and Australia. The self-declared micronation has been at war with Australia since John Howard last amended the Marriage Act without holding a plebiscite in 2004. This came up because the rainbow flag — also referred to as the pride flag — was seen flying in the lobby of the Department of Finance in Canberra, and the flag also happens to be the flag of the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom. A snowflake in the department was so triggered by the sight of a flag for LGBTI Australians that they complained to Abetz. Abetz claimed the rainbow flag was an activist flag and suggested that the right-wing group Marriage Alliance should be allowed to fly its banner. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has promised a “flag inquiry”, but as of yesterday, the flag was still flying in the lobby. Crikey understands that some Finance staffers weren’t even aware there was a flag until yesterday’s dramas.

5. ACL ‘bomber’ not motivated by ideology 

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin yesterday said that the man who blew up his van outside the Australian Christian Lobby’s headquarters late last year knew it was the ACL’s headquarters, but his actions were not motivated by anything the ACL does. The man suffered from mental illness and was attempting suicide, Colvin said. Under questioning from senators, Colvin indicated police had looked into the man’s background and nothing from the investigation suggested it was a targeted attack. This, somehow, was interpreted by ACL managing director Lyle Shelton as proof that the man “chose” the ACL’s office. A rather selective reading of the text.

6. Where is the plebiscite funding? 

One of the members of the “Deplorable” text message group, Abetz, allegedly sent a text to the other members asking whether the plebiscite remained government policy because it had been taken out of the budget in MYEFO after the legislation failed. When Greens senator Janet Rice asked about this “on behalf of the deplorables”, Attorney-General George Brandis insisted it was just something Finance would do after legislation had failed to pass, and that the plebiscite remains the policy of the government.

7. Brandis diary no-show

Brandis still hasn’t handed over his diary, but he got very, very upset at the suggestion that his failure to provide the diary months after a court ordered him to process the FOI request constituted contempt of court.

8. Bernardi gets extra staff

Now that Senator Cory Bernardi has left the Liberal Party, he has been given funding for three extra staff as per the general allowance given to the Senate crossbench. Seems like a better deal to be able to speak out than George Christensen receives. The MP took a significant pay cut yesterday in giving up his job as Nationals whip in order to be able to speak him mind more.

9. Roberts doesn’t know the questions he is asking

Although One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts was up front that he wasn’t across the detail of the NBN, it appeared at times during his brief questioning of NBN executives that he wasn’t even aware of the questions he was asking. He asked CEO Bill Morrow if the NBN board would pay Morrow more once NBN was no longer making a loss. It was a bizarre suggestion that a company constructing a network would be making a profit right away, and after asking the question, Roberts admitted he realised it was a hypothetical question. Other questions, such as the claim that users would pay $43 more per month to access the NBN (which is just taking the average revenue per user cost and claiming it is how much more users would pay), appear to have been taken from blogs or were perhaps sent from constituents without properly assessing them for accuracy.

Peter Fray

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