When I arrived in the federal parliament back in July 2011 I was told that the Estimates process was probably the best thing about the Senate. “Democracy in action” is how some describe this exhaustive process whereby Senators can ask endless questions of Ministers and senior public servants.
Having just finished my second week of Estimate hearings I do think they are excellent, although frustrating at times. Some Ministers and their bureaucrats are adept at side stepping the questions we pose. But then the challenge is with us to ask the right questions.
So I thought I would step you through some of my Estimate adventures. This session ran from 13 to 17 February with each Estimates Committee meeting from 9 am to 11 pm.
I questioned Brett Walker, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, about his role as he has just taken up the job. Mr Walker identified that he will focus on the extraordinary powers, the ASIO questioning warrants, detention warrants and control orders. The Prime Minister has the power to refer matters to the Monitor but this has not yet happened.
Mr Walker undertakes this massive job with only two part time staff. So I was not surprised that when questioned about resources he clearly identified the need for staff hours to be increased.
I was also interested to question Mr Walker about the association his office has with the promised COAG review of federal and state counterterrorism laws. In the Estimate hearing in October last year Roger Wilkins, Chief of Staff for the Attorney General’s Department, in attempting to explain why the review was nearly a year overdue blamed the delay on appointing the Monitor.
At the time I thought this sounded farfetched and then at the most recent Estimate hearings Mr Walker was quite clear that the Review and the role of Monitor are not related. Mr Walker stated “(I) would not regard it appropriate in my functions, as it were, to become in any way an adjunct or annex to the COAG review.”
Mr Wilkins is quite masterful at dodging questions. I first came across his talent for avoiding questions and dodging pesky reviews when he was the head of the Cabinet Office under the then NSW premier Morris lemma and I was a NSW Upper House MP. At an Estimates hearing in 2005, I attempted to pin him down about why the NSW FOI Act had been operating for 16 years but had never been reviewed. He scoffed that the Act “is constantly being reviewed”.
My questioning of the Deputy National Security Adviser, Dr McCarthy, on the National Counterterrorism Committee that should have been set up at the end of 2010, promoted Minister Chris Evans to utter possibly the classic quote for these Estimates. Dr McCarthy stated that the Committee "will commence in the near future" and when I asked what that means the Minister helpfully explained this meant "It is longer than 'very shortly' and not as long as 'in the fullness of time'".
Minister Joe Ludwig’s performance showed how the "I'll take it on notice" answer, often a legitimate response when details are not at hand, is used by some to avoid sticky questions. I questioned the Minister and his advisers about their recent trip in January to the Middle East to study the regulation of exporters involved in the live export trade.
The Minister said that at the two abattoirs the delegation visited they saw only one sheep and one goat slaughtered. When I asked questions about the restraint methods used the Minister said he would take it on notice. I was surprised at the Minister's inability to answer considering it was only a few weeks since he and his colleagues were in these abattoirs. When I asked if the others who had accompanied the Minister might remember the details the Minister again used the cover of "I'll take it on notice".
Minister Ludwig also had no satisfactory explanation about why the delegation was made up of only industry and government representatives. This official visit was a direct response to the scandal that broke last year when Four Corners aired the program about live exports but no animal welfare representatives were included.
I also asked about the missing report on the live export trade. The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service releases regular investigation reports. Report numbers 38 and 40 have been publicly released but number 39 is yet to be made public. I have heard that it may contain some worrying statistics about live exports.
Minister Ludwig was also found wanting when I asked him about the government’s plans to establish the national independent animal welfare office. The last ALP national conference passed a resolution backing this office but the best the Minister could offer when I asked about the powers of the new office and when it will be established was to say “We will continue to look at that issue”.
The response to my questions about exit assistance for loggers in Tasmania who have then moved their operations to the mainland was worrying. I was told that there were no referrals to the Federal Police as a result of the department’s investigations of the $17 million exit package. One company Kasun has taken its logging operations to the southeast of NSW.
It is worth reading Senator Christine Milne’s examination of the Tasmanian and federal forest departments and the dubious way they assist the industry. Her years of work should be given wide coverage.
The Australian Electoral Commission told us that the online electoral returns have proved “extremely popular” with political parties, candidates and donors. With most political parties and large corporations doing online returns we are moving towards greater transparency about political donations. It is good news that the AEC systems are on track to manage the change to regular online disclosure. While this is a significant development it does not negate the need for bans on political donations from corporations and other organisations.
Australian Federal Police
I asked Commissioner Tony Negus for his response to the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report that found the AFP has been taking more than one year to address many serious complaints from the public. The AFP took the question on notice to supply figures so we can compare current trends with what the Ombudsman found. I was left wondering why the AFP took this question on notice considering they should have anticipated questions about the Ombudsman report. Those police officers giving evidence gave emphasis to how seriously they take complaints so it will be interesting to determine if their concerns have made a difference for the people making the complaints.
Senator Scott Ludlam and I asked a series of questions about the AFP’s association with NOSIC, a private company that provides daily reports to the AFP about what they call “areas of concern for law enforcement looking at protecting high office holders and foreign dignitaries and anticipating where criminal offences may occur”. In other words this private company is trawling to prepare briefs of legitimate protest groups for the AFP. The AFP could not answer if NOSIC uses aliases to befriend people on Facebook or if the AFP uses aliases to check on the veracity of NOSIC’s information. All these issues were taken as questions on notice. NOSIC has been employed for ten years by the AFP. The current $97,000 contract is currently being renegotiated. Interestingly when I asked Mr Negus if “renegotiated” meant the contract did not go out to tender he declined to answer and said he would take the question on notice. When we follow this up it would be interesting to learn who else is buying this information from NOSIC?
Minister Chris Evans angrily rejected my line of questioning that the federal government has reduced its funding for TAFE. I was asking him about a Productivity Commission report that found the average per-hour government funding rate across the country had declined from $13.33 in 2009 to $12.61 in 2010. The department Associate Secretary Robert Griew came in to assist the Minister arguing that these figures reflected more on state than commonwealth VET funding. It certainly seemed like a case of the Minister “doth protest too much”. We will pursue this issue further.
I also asked about how Vocational Education and Training programs are being managed following the numerous reports about kickbacks for enrolment, the fast-tracked diplomas and other dubious practices that have surfaced in Victoria. Ms Maryann Quagliata, with the Skills Quality Branch in the department, did not provide enough detail in her answers to dispel concerns that private VET operators are not being forced to change their ways. It is still not clear from those responsible for the new regulatory framework if fast-tracked diplomas and kickbacks will be regarded as regulatory breaches. Problems with the VET scheme are obvious, but the government’s actions do not inspire confidence that they are genuine about maintaining quality in this sector.
Trade and aid
DFAT's response to my questions on the negotiations to deliver a free trade agreement with Pacific nations revealed an interesting take on promoting Australia's national interest with our neighbours. After much twisting and turning about what they call MFN (most favoured nation) DFAT Deputy Secretary Bruce Gosper stated that the Australian government's "primary consideration is to promote the economic development of the Pacific countries", adding that some Australian businesses could be disadvantaged. This is one we will be tracking closely as DFAT’s comments on PACER, the Pacific free trade agreement, appear to be out of step with other free trade agreements.
I also asked a series of questions about the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation. Our examination of the 2010-11 EFIC annual report reveals a new category of "non-projects" that are not screened for environmental and human rights standards. Millions of dollars of public money is involved in these projects. The answers of the EFIC team provided very little insight into so-called non-projects and how they justify not screening them. EFIC has also been putting money into the live export trade. A bond of $8 million has been provided to Wellard Rural Exports for cattle destined for Russia and Turkey. I'm sure if Australians knew that public money is being used to promote this cruel trade most would be opposed to such a policy.
When I asked AusAID about funding for sexual and reproductive health the first figures the AusAID Director supplied were for maternal and child health. I will be following up with AusAID to determine the proportion of the aid budget allocated for family planning and sexual health programs. Programs for mothers and children make a huge contribution but in terms of policy discussions I do notice that they are often used to avoid talking about family planning and sexual and reproductive health projects. AusAID has made a huge shift in this area but at times the clock seems to turn back.
I was surprised how AusAID Director Peter Baxter responded to my questions about compensation to those Cambodians who have had their lives disrupted and seen the value of their land crash because of a major rail project. When I asked the direct question “does AusAID intend to pay compensation” Mr Baxter replied “No, it is not our responsibility to deal with that issue.” He went on to attempt to deflect responsibility onto the Asian Development Bank. But that does not mean Australia can wash its hands of responsibility. Not only is AusAID a partner in the project but also Australian aid money goes direct to the ADB. After further questioning Mr Baxter did say that AusAID “have a responsibility to help”.
One of my last blocks of questions after 10 pm on the last day of Estimates was on the Australian Mining for Development Initiative. This is a $127 million project that AusAID argues is designed to assist low income countries to wisely develop their natural resources. Mr Baxter explained that both BHP and Rio Tinto are involved in the project. Interestingly on the day of Estimates workers at BHP mines in Australia were on strike over safety issues. So I questioned Mr Baxter if AusAID would reassess BHP’s involvement with the Australian Mining for Development Initiative as surely it is not appropriate to involve companies that are under a cloud with their own occupational health and safety programs. We will follow this project closely as for all the fine words it could well be mining companies that gain the upper hand and exploit low income countries thanks to Australian aid dollars.
Estimate hearings are back on in May. You can see the table of contents for February 2012 estimates hearings transcripts.