In Senate estimates week, the weeks are long the hearings often incredibly dry as senators seek to draw out even the minutest slivers of information from the public service and their ministers.

Three days into a two-week estimates schedule, this is some of what we know so far:

Immigration gets things wrong and won’t chase Bolt

The department that has a page devoted to “correcting the record” when it believes the media has got something wrong has not posted on its site that the Immigration Department was wrong about its initial claims about what happened on Manus Island on Good Friday this year. The department initially claimed that no one was injured in the incident and shots had been merely fired into the air, but on Monday, the department clarified that nine personnel including five service providers, a PNG defence officer, an Immigration officer and two detainees were injured in the incident. The department has used the John Howard/Tony Blair defence that it was relying on the best information available at the time.

Contrary to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s claims on Sky News that “about half” of the men on Manus Island were not genuine refugees, the department said that 723 men were given refugee status on Manus Island, and just 187 were determined to not be refugees.

While the department has previously chased leaks to journalists, it expressed little interest in how conservative commentator Andrew Bolt might have known what was in CCTV footage of a young boy being brought into the camp, which Dutton claims sparked the Good Friday incident. Dutton’s claim is contradicted by the PNG police and locals on the ground. The department has been reluctant to discuss it at length due to the ongoing PNG police investigation.

Snowy Hydro 2.0 

In opposition, Malcolm Turnbull criticised the Labor government for what he claimed was designing the NBN on the back of a beer coaster on a flight, but estimates revealed that the PM’s great big new Snowy Hydro plan was pretty rushed on its own. Prime Minister and Cabinet officials said on Tuesday that the first they became aware of the proposal was on March 7, after an adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office called the department to prepare for taking the policy to cabinet. The policy was then announced to the public on March 16. 

The officials claimed that there had been a wide variety of discussions around energy policy, but refused to specify whether an expansion of the Snowy Hydro scheme was proposed.

In Environment estimates hearings, Snowy Hydro CEO Paul Broad revealed that the expansion of tunnels in Snowy Hydro could cost way more than the $2 billion estimated and take more than the four years claimed by Turnbull at the announcement. If only we could find old quotes of Turnbull complaining about an infrastructure project taking longer and costing more than originally planned. If only.

It’s not a wall, it’s a fence

Construction for a 2.6-metre fence in front of the grass on either side of the front of Parliament is underway. We still don’t know how much the fence will actually cost. The total security upgrade costs $126.7 million, but Senate President Stephen Parry declined to say how much the fence was because it might “highlight vulnerabilities” during its construction. Got to make sure you leave out that exhaust port vulnerability.

David Gillespie has advice he won’t be like Bob Day

Concern had been raised that Liberal MP David Gillespie might be ousted from the Parliament similar to former Senator Bob Day — which would remove the government’s razor-slim majority. This was because Gillespie has an interest in a company that leases an office to Australia Post and under section 44 of the constitution, an elected representative can’t have a contract like that with the Commonwealth. That’s what brought down Day. Attorney-General George Brandis said Gillespie received advice from top Sydney silk Guy Reynolds that suggested there was not another Bob Day case here because the “indirectness” of the interest. Brandis refused to release the advice because it wasn’t advice to government, but said he and the PM were both confident it was right.

Departments hit by ATO scandal

Contractors for a number of government agencies, including nine ICT contractors working for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet were using Plutus Payroll — the company now at the centre of a $165 million tax fraud scandal.

Advance Australia Fair is ‘saved’

News reports on Tuesday that there was a push to change the lyrics of Advance Australia Fair to modernise Australia’s national song horrified backbench Liberal Senator Eric Abetz. Attorney-General George Brandis sought to placate Abetz by telling the Senator that changing the lyrics of Advance Australia Fair was not on the agenda for the government.

Abetz then put out a press release praising the government for not changing the anthem: 

“Many Australians will be pleased to know that the government isn’t contemplating these politically correct changes to our national anthem,” Abetz said.

Advance Australia Fair was selected by the Australian people at a plebiscite and should not be changed by stealth by a small group of PC elites.”

This is what Gerard Henderson would call a howler, however. As Crikey has previously reported, yes, Australians overwhelmingly supported the tune for Advance Australia Fair at the plebiscite, but the lyrics were not in the question. In fact, when the song eventually became Australia’s national anthem years after the plebiscite was held, then-prime minister Bob Hawke changed some of the lyrics and removed an entire verse about England as a decision of cabinet. At the time, that was greeted with outrage about political correctness gone mad.

Can you bear it?

No selfie officer

For some reason, Labor devoted a portion of time questioning PM&C officials about “the Human Ken Doll” Justin Jedlica attending a budget night event and getting a selfie with the PM and foreign minister Julie Bishop. PM&C did not vet who attended the function, and there is no protocol in place to determine who can and can’t get a selfie with the PM. Brandis explained:

“From my observation of the Prime Minister’s interaction at community events, which may involve hundreds or more than hundreds of people, I have always observed, as has already been said, that the Prime Minister is very happy to allow people to take selfies with him. So I would be surprised if there were any thing as structured and formal as a protocol.”

Liberal Senator James Paterson came up with a more direct term for it:

“So what you are saying, Senator Brandis, is that there is no ‘selfie officer’ in the Prime Minister’s Office?”

London Calling

It is widely expected now that Attorney-General George Brandis will be headed to replace Alexander Downer as Australia’s high commissioner in the UK, it’s just a question of when. Last year Brandis was clear with his denial that he had had any conversation with the PM or anyone else regarding a diplomatic posting to London, but in hearings last night, Brandis was much more cagey, suggesting he never reveals private conversations with his ministerial colleagues. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey