“Beware the Ides of March” was the Shakespearean warning. In Canberra, at this time of year, it’s more a case of beware the Senate estimates committee hearings.

Talk about “expect the unexpected” — as we used to say on the old HINCH program. Anything can come up when ministers, their department secretaries and public service honchos trudge up the Hill to umpteen public hearing rooms.

For a crossbencher, it’s a triathlon trying to juggle five or six committees a day (between 9am and up to 11pm) and trying to anticipate when a Kim Carr or an Ian Macdonald will run out of filibustering puff so you can get a turn.

The Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is always a gold star event with the curmudgeonly, aforementioned Macdonald in the chair. On Tuesday, he abruptly adjourned the hearing for several “cooling off” periods as the government members tried to delay the heralded interrogation of Attorney-General George Brandis over allegations he misled the Senate last November about the WA/Bond/Bell/ATO/$300 million scandal.

When the questions finally came (mainly from senators Watt, Wong and Hinch) Brandis adopted the Sinodinos “I don’t recall” defence.

[Total Recall: Brandis puts the English language to the rack again]

On that one, the fat lady has not yet sung.

***

I said “expect the unexpected”, and that’s why I was quoting Weary Dunlop and Gough Whitlam at the Foreign Affairs and Defence Department committee hearing.

At a time when our veterans are killing themselves at an alarming rate and PTSD is rampant, it is worth remembering that Weary once said: “Get men working at arts and crafts in the hospital thereby helping them acquire an interest in life.”

And Gough? Well, the former prime minister, as Flt. Lt. E.G. Whitlam, was the last military veteran PM. And he once said: “Of all the objectives of my government, none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts, the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage.”

The estimates connection? I recently discovered a Diggers’ group called the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum.

For about three years, they have been trying to acquire a Defence Department building on St Kilda Road in Melbourne. It’s an amazing Art Deco building that is part of the Queen Victoria Barracks’ “footprint” and just across from The Shrine. It is heritage listed.

It was built in 1937 as a vital rehab centre for World War I veterans and has been vacant for 20 years. Yep, 20 years.

The vets have been in talks with Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, and Brendon Nelson from the Australian War Museum.

Promisingly, Labor made its acquisition a federal election promise last year and pledged $10 million.

Guess what? The government has decided “it is no longer needed” and put it up for commercial sale. The department wants it sold in the next 10 months. The sale has to be stopped.

[Hinch’s Senate Diary: scandal, rumour and scurrilous accusation edition]

***

An estimates scandal, courtesy of blogger Alice Workman. She was watching the much-anticipated appearance of the $5 million postie, Ahmed Fahour, and tweeted: “After all of One Nation’s criticism of the Australia Post CEO’s $5.6 million salary, no one from PHON is in the room #estimates.” And she posted a pic to prove it.

It prompted this response from Senator Malcolm Roberts, apparently stung by the pictorial empirical evidence: “As much as we would have loved to be there to grill Board on #auspost salaries, Australians have us working on more important issues today.”

One Nation’s organ grinder, James Ashby, obviously had other ideas. The “more important issues” were put on hold, and Roberts popped up in a committee room several hours later.

His NSW colleague, Senator Brian Burston, looking decidedly out-of-sorts, was also spotted in Aussies Cafe after a quick flight from Sydney. No Pauline, though.

***

Hoisted by his own petard.

A couple of diary entries ago I poked fun at Liberal Senator Jane Hume, who got confused and wandered absent-mindedly into my Senate office. Hers is a floor above.

I wrote: “No names, no pack drill (oh, OK, it was Senator Hume). Let me just say that I wouldn’t let this Hume navigate you down a highway.”

And that reminds me: after one late-night estimates session, I met a fresh-faced young bloke named Luke. In my office.

We shook hands and, just as I was about to ask what he was doing there, it dawned on me: I’d walked out of the lift into the wrong office. Senator Hume’s office. One floor above mine.

Welcome to estimates week.

Peter Fray

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