Blog: Senate Estimates - democracy in action?
Blog by Senator Lee Rhiannon
For two weeks in May at the Senate Budget Estimates all Senators had the opportunity to question Ministers and the public sector workers in their departments. The big challenge is not the duration - sessions go from 9 am to 11 pm each day - but to ask the right questions.
Below is a quick tour of Estimate highlights and here you can review all my sessions.
AusAID Estimates are usually informative and sometimes revealing. This was the first Estimates appearance of the new Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr.
I had a series of questions on Australia's overseas assistance for sexual and reproductive health programs. The response of AusAID Director Peter Baxter reflected the worrying habit of some aid workers to interpret sexual and reproductive health programs in terms of maternal health.
In response to one of my questions Mr Baxter stated: "Family planning would be covered by the commitments that we have made to maternal and child health. It is a subset of maternal and child health."
Maternal health is obviosly very important but it is not a subset of sexual and reproductive health. If anything the reverse is the case.
The Director's response reveals a serious misunderstanding of the importance of sexual and reproductive health programs. If unwanted pregnancies are prevented, data suggests that between 25 to 40 per cent of maternal deaths could be prevented. The leading cause of death for girls aged between 15 and 19 in developing countries is pregnancy. Achieving universal access to reproductive health is fundamental to the achievement of all the Millenium Development Goals such as Gender Equality (MDG 3), Child Health (MDG 4), Environmental Sustainability (7) and the goals relating to hunger, poverty and education. Reducing maternal mortality remains the least likely of all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be achieved by the target date of 2015. Key to reducing maternal mortality is ensuring universal access to reproductive health, yet unmet need for contraception remains incredibly high. It is estimated that more than 215 million women worldwide want to use contraceptives but don't have access.
Afghanistan - aid withdraws
One of the most revealing responses in the Estimates fortnight was on Australia's involvement in Afghanistan. In response to my question about how the security of AusAID people working in Afghanistan would be secured and our aid programs to that country will function after Australian troops are withdrawn Mr Baxter responded "... we will run our programs from Kabul rather than retain a physical presence in Oruzgan province".
The AusAID Director laid it out, what the Prime Minister has failed to admit. After a decade of war and despite Prime Minister Gillard's statements that the training of Afghan military and police is on target so they can take over from Australian troops, we now know that the management of Australian aid programs will be run out of the nation's capital.
Greg Sheridan wrote this up in the Australian.
Aid to Africa - mining expansion
My questions on the Africa Mining Vision aid project was another reminder that when we campaign to increase the aid budget we also need to ensure that it is spent on programs that benefit people and their environment. Millions of dollars of Australia's aid money is assisting the mining industry in Africa. Australia-Africa Partnerships Facility (AAPF), funded by AusAID, has contracted a private company Cardno to carry out the Africa Mining Vision project.
FOI - changing the culture
My session with the Australian Information Commissioner, Professor McMillan was informative. In response to one of my questions the Commissioner emphasised that under the reformed FOI Act brought in by the Labor government the possibility of "embarrassment, confusion or uncertainty" is no longer relevant in determining what information should be released. The Commissioner noted that FOI does not apply to security intelligence agencies in Australia, but that the US FOI Act does apply to the CIA. Interestingly he made this comment in response to my question about possible changes to the legislation, and finished off by saying this "... is a major issue, obviously. I am sure it will come up."
EFIC under a cloud
I asked questions about two controversial projects backed by Australia's export credit agency. Export Finance and Insurance Corporation uses public money to provide finance and insurance assistance for Australian exporters developing their business overseas.
EFIC gave a US $350 million loan to support the Papua New Guinea LNG project - the biggest extractive project in PNG's history. It has been plagued with controversy ever since, including a fatal January mudslide near the Tumbi quarry in the PNG Highlands which killed about 60 people. In March last year independent consultant D'Appolonia found that Exxon's quarrying operations did not meet the environmental and social standards expected by the project financiers. My Estimate questions reveal that EFIC has not undertaken any investigations to confirm whether the Australian backed PNG LNG project was responsible or partly responsible. The PNG government is conducting an investigation into that landslide and will report its findings. EFIC has made no contact with the PNG government about this mudslide.
Tenix Defence, Australia's biggest defence contractor has a $109 million guarantee from EFIC for a deal to supply six search and rescue vessels to the Philippines coast guard. The Australian Federal Police informed EFIC of possible corruption linked to this project. I was surprised that in response to my questions about how EFIC is handling these allegations the EFIC staff admitted that nothing has changed with regard to their management of this EFIC guarantee as they are awaiting the outcome of the AFP investigation.
US-Australia sharing law enforcement
My questions to the Attorney General's Department about the recently announced joint US-Australia agreement to share law-enforcement data were stone walled. Department Secretary Roger Wilkins failed to detail what type of information would be handed over to the US and how individuals could find out if information was being collected about them.
Australian Federal Police outsourcing
I again asked the AFP about their outsourcing contract with NOSIC, a Melbourne firm that specialises in gathering intelligence on activist groups from social networks and the web. The one-year, $92,400 contract, targets groups or protestors mostly by monitoring activist websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter to provide analysis of protest activities. In response to earlier questions I had put to AFP they said they had not put the contract out to tender because no other company does what NOSIC does - something I find hard to believe. The AFP declined to answer many of my questions on the grounds that they cannot talk about "operational activities". This is the AFP and ASIO equivalent of "commercial in confidence" that Treasury and Infrastructure departments often trot out to stonewall. In response to my question about conducting audits to check the veracity of the information NOSIC collects AFP said no audits are conducted, that they "accept the information on face value" and check it against other information.