Derryn Hinch on Senate estimates

Fellow Crikey correspondent Senator Derryn Hinch reportedly expressed displeasure this week that senior departmental officials receive training in preparation for appearing before Senate estimates.

After asking a gaggle of public servants attending his Senate estimates committee to raise their hand if they’d had such training, and seeing that a number had indeed done so, Hinch claimed the activity was a lurk and would only help bureaucrats to avoid divulging the truth.

For the uninitiated, Senate estimates occurs three times each year, during which ministers and their departments are questioned by a committee of senators, ostensibly about the “estimates of government expenditure” in the most recent budget.

According to the Parliament’s website, this “opportunity to examine the operations of government plays a key role in the parliamentary scrutiny of the executive.”

That’s the theory at least. But Senate estimates has another — deeply political — dimension, for which bureaucrats are ill-equipped. According to some of the greatest gladiators of that unassuming political colosseum, it’s also a forum that favours non-government parties, providing them with the platform to pursue agendas, score cheap points, and settle political scores.

At an event held in 2010 to commemorate the first 40 years of Senate committees, then-Labor Senate president John Hogg, former Liberal defence minister Robert Hill, and former Labor defence minister Robert Ray presented at a session entitled “Throwing light into dark corners: Senate estimates and executive accountability”. (The three short speeches are well worth reading.)

Robert Hill argued that politicians are principally interested in politics, and when senators attend estimates “they may be interested in the structure of the Budget but generally there are also some political issues on their mind.”

Accordingly, Hill claimed estimates hearings offered parliamentarians a rare opportunity to question a minister and/or senior officials about “your particular issue, which you dress up in terms of a particular budget issue at some length … and in some depth”.

He conceded that important scrutiny was given by estimates during his time as minister to matters such as grants of public money under the National Heritage Trust and the defence procurement budget, but that “the extent which the public gain any greater knowledge or benefit from [estimates] is a debateable thing.”

“Basically, the public will generally only learn from the estimates committee what one or two journalists think is worth reporting,” said Hill, and that tends to be the “titillating bits” such as “Paul Keating’s dog kennel at the Lodge” and “the extent to which Mrs Howard influenced the paintwork in Kirribilli House”.

Robert Ray, who, along with Labor colleague John Faulkner, made a formidable inquisitorial team at Senate estimates, agreed with a comment made by Hill that the Senate and its committees were “for oppositions”.

Ray noted that governments get frustrated with estimates, and the process is demeaned by trivial questions, but such lines of questioning were often “political payback” for similarly inane interrogations when the other major party was in opposition.

Ray was also candid about the level of pressure that senators should be expected to exert on departmental officials during estimates, noting “they should be adversarial to the minister and inquisitorial to the public servant,” but that “if a public servant is dissembling, if you know the public servant is deliberately misleading or distorting the truth, you can then move over to adversarial.”

This can mean that any bureaucrat who appears before estimates is considered fair game by the non-government senators asking the questions. Public servants are seen as a potential weak spot in the government’s armour, and are poked and prodded accordingly.

Some, like the formidable David Hill when he was head of the ABC, gave the senators as good as they got. The head of the ACCC Allan Fels was another who did not suffer senatorial fools gladly.

The gladiatorial nature of estimates hearings undoubtedly has an important dividend. As Robert Ray noted, the implied threat of Senate estimates scrutiny hangs over the heads of every departmental official, ministerial adviser and minister.

“Somewhere, someplace in Canberra right now,” he remarked, “public servants are making an administrative or a policy decision and one of the key questions they are going to ask is this: will this survive scrutiny at estimates? This has happened day in and day out in Canberra for the last 25 years. What higher testament can a set of Senate committees have than that being in the minds of every public servant?

“I am sure that often arose when administrative decisions were made in a minister’s office, including Senator Hill’s office or mine. We wondered if we would be able to survive a cross-examination on this and if we would be able to justify it. How many billions of dollars do you think have been saved simply by having the threat of Senate estimates committees?”

But even though there are many fine policy brains and managers within the commonwealth public service, not every senior bureaucrat is naturally endowed with the skills needed to provide facts about the government’s work while responding to a line of questioning specifically designed to wrong-foot one’s minister. Given the jargonistic nature of bureaucracy, some are also incapable of doing so in plain English.

Instead of expressing faux horror at departmental officials being given training to prepare for estimates, Hinch should be grateful that bureaucrats have been given the skills to answer questions succinctly, with minimal jargon, and avoid being lured into a rhetorical quagmire by politicians who see them as little more than political cannon fodder.

Perhaps the Senator would prefer that officials didn’t have that skill set, but that wouldn’t necessarily make it any easier for him to scrutinise departmental expenditure.

*Paula Matthewson does not provide Senate estimates training.