Overestimated – Senate Estimates, Winter 2011

news-stories
15 Jun 2011 | Scott Ludlam
Democracy
Estimates2011

On some days, budget estimates committees feel broken. Picture this. A handful of opposition Senators who still haven't come to terms with being in opposition decide to tie up the committee on some faint hope of uncovering a scandal or shopping a 'gotcha' moment to the channel-hopping press gallery. These painfully banal cross-examinations can go on for hours. And. Hours.

Once, at serious risk of gnawing the furniture in frustration, I asked the chair of the committee - a Government Senator - why they allowed this time-sucking waste of oxygen to spool out day after day, and was told exactly why. As long as the opposition are using up endless hours grilling public servants into a state of semi-consciousness, no possibility of actual transparency, disclosure or accountability is likely to arise. I've waited days in this committee half-life to be able to grab a few minutes of actual time with the people we charge to spend billions of dollars on our behalf.

And that, according to the Chair, is the whole purpose. If the opposition is content to bore the committee into suspended animation, the Government is content for there to be nothing to report apart from the sound of highly paid public servants struggling to stay awake.

This dismal collusion between incompetence and laziness is the ground out of which estimates committees occasionally, truly shine.

There are also highly effective and fair chairs.  There are Committees that provide balanced time to all interested parties.  There are occasional breakthrough moments and honest exchanges between respectful human beings about issues of real importance.  They were a minority during this session but we've tried to pick out the transcripts below to give a sense of how useful these sessions can be.

With unreasonable amounts of coffee and staff working 16 hour days on both sides of the country, we did our best to make sense of a contradictory and opaque budget. Let us know what you think of the fortnight that was.


  • - I asked the Department for Prime Minister and Cabinet about the interdepartmental committee for managing fallout from WikiLeaks disclosures, and plans underway for the CHOGM meeting in Perth, including the extent to which the Federal government cared about the extreme and heavy handed laws being pushed through the WA Parliament.
  • - The Head of ASIO was very resistant to discussing Wikileaks, neither confirming nor denying anything. Mr Irvine hadn't read the submissions from legal experts into the Bill currently before the parliament that will dramatically expand his agency's ability to spy on civil society organisations like Wikileaks. In asking ASIO about the torture and imprisonment of Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib, we had a fascinating exchange about the circumstances and timing of a Government compensation payment to Mr Habib.
  • - The Australian Federal Police were frank about how quick their evaluation of the material around Wikileaks. It took 6 AFP officers a total of 18 days to conclude that Wikileaks had broken no Australian criminal offence and there was no basis for an investigation.
  • - At an ungodly hour I finally got the chance to ask the Defence Department about its investigation into the Iraq documents on the WikiLeaks site. I also asked the Defence Department about cluster bombs and why the government is so intent on undermining the treaty we signed to ban them.
  • - I asked the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security about progress on the Independent Review of the Intelligence Community announced last year at the government's favourite time for announcements - 23 December. I was surprised the IGIS was not familiar with the Intelligence Services Bill which the Law Council has said would "seriously undermine" her office.
  • - While I had asked ASIO, the AFP, the IGIS and Defence about Wikileaks, the Minister refused to allow the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or ASNO - the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office - to answer any questions arising from leaked documents, and did not provide a valid reason for this decision. The obvious reason is embarrassment - ASNO did confirm that selling uranium to India is contrary to Australian Government policy, but thanks to Wikileaks we know Minister Ferguson is pushing for just that. The officials were able to answer questions about Australia's preparation for the UN Secretary General's meeting on nuclear security on 22 September which I understand is making the nuclear weapons states very nervous indeed.
  • - I asked about the human rights of individuals and about the situations in China, Burma, Zimbabwe, Syria, Western Sahara, as well as Australia's cross border aid policy to Burma.
  • - Beleaguered nuclear agency ANSTO are being probed by four separate inquiries, independent and otherwise, into their health and safety practices. Those made public so far note huge improvement, which actually vindicate the courageous whistleblowers who have come forward, some of whom have had their careers put on hold while senior management deflect responsibility back onto their workforce.
  • - Officers from the Department of Resources revealed that taxpayers will spend about $1.2 million this year and $2.4 million next year on the Rum Jungle uranium mine which that closed 40 years ago. The funds will be spent not on cleaning up the mess, but just assessing the damage and establish how much it will cost to clean up. The Department is mysteriously confident that the Ranger mine, vastly larger than Rum Jungle, can be perfectly rehabilitated and tailings isolated for 10,000 years.
  • - The Office of the Supervising Scientist attempted to explain why the Ranger Uranium mine has been shut since January due to being inundated with water. The mining company ERA is facing serious questions by market analysts who are beginning to question the viability of the crippled operation. Expansion plans are under a thundercloud, but everyone knows the company still longs to develop the Jabiluka mine 20km to the north.
  • - I was able to follow up the great research conducted by ICAN about the Future Fund investing the pensions of politicians, public servants and judges into companies building or servicing nuclear weapons. We need to keep the pressure up for a good outcome - this exchange tested the major lines of argument.
  • - I asked ARPANSA - the Australian Radiation Protection Safety Authority - why they recommend that Australians keep 80km from Fukushima, a full 50km further than the Japanese government. ARPANSA updated us about the National Radiation Dose Register which is tracking the radiation exposure of uranium miners - except for the loophole that excludes the Northern Territory's Ranger Mine.
  • - The Northern Land Council made a special appearance on the last day of Estimates to explain documents that have been found in the National Archives that would appear to contradict views they have presented on the ownership of land they have nominated the government for use as a nuclear waste dump.
  • - The Uranium Industry Council continues to get funding from the government to help companies implement the Radiation Dose Monitor, and to develop strategies to communicate with Aboriginal people about uranium. I asked about an apparent reallocation of portfolios - with Resources Minister Martin Ferguson crowning himself the Minister for all nuclear policy in recent correspondence. This was presumably news to the Minister for the Environment, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
  • - The Extractive industry Transparency Initiative is a global initiative requiring mining, oil and gas companies to make public any payments made to state and territory governments and, in turn, the government will publish what it receives. This is an initiative the Australian government supports and even provides assistance for other countries to implement - yet progress at home has been slow.
  • - I asked the Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator when we might get an energy efficiency target (like we have a renewable energy target) which the PM's task group on energy efficiency recommended last year.
  • - It's a bleak time for Australian Heritage. While this budget saw a one-off injection of $8 million into the community grants program, the Heritage budget overall has been cut by 31 per cent. Last year the budget was cut by 18 per cent. The good news is that we should have a National Heritage Strategy by this time next year, and the emergency assessment of the Dampier Archipelago I called for has begun and will be out by September.
  • - The government released its National Urban Policy last month and this budget allocates $190m towards a mixed bag of new initiatives being spent across the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and the Department of Infrastructure. I have to admit it's hard to get excited about $10 million going towards the development of new sustainability indicators and $20m for urban demonstration projects when in the same budget the government wants to spend $60m on managed motorways "to bring mums and dads home from work faster" and has scrapped the Green Precincts Fund and the National Rainwater and Greywater initiative.
  • - Mark Scott of the ABC explained what is happening at the Perth ABC studios now that Can We Help? has been axed, and tried to answer the question of who is paying for the ABC's News 24 given that resources from all over the broadcaster are being pulled to bring the channel together.
  • - The SBS website receives 1 million hits per month, including quite a few from me. SBS is working hard on inadequate funding to avoid 'digital ghettos' in Australia ethnic communities. Instead of simply gathering content from overseas, it generates content that reflects Australia's multicultural society. The challenge the board faces in avoiding creeping commercialisation was well covered.
  • - I discovered the National Housing Supply Council is working on its third state of supply report. It has also been busy appointing new members, some of which are inspired and heartening (Professor Judy Yates and economist Saul Eslake), some of which are entirely ridiculous (McMansion-merchant Nigel Satterley). The most recent 'state of supply' report identified a gap of 493,000 affordable rental properties and it's time we saw funding tied to filling this gap rather than just reporting on it.
  • - Having said that, it was with great relief to confirm the original target of 50,000 incentives under the National Rental Affordability Scheme has been restored, with the funding for the remaining 15,000 dwellings to be allocated after 2015.
  • - I was disheartened but not surprised to hear there are no new announcements or funding for either social housing and homelessness, and there is no actual plan or strategy to fill the gap of 150,000 social housing dwellings by 2020. We are told to wait and see how the negotiations go with the new NAHA. Meanwhile the ABS has announced its intention to revise the widely respected methodology it uses for counting the homeless and has revised the figure for homelessness from 105,000 to 65,000.
  • With a $7 billion Infrastructure and Transport budget you'd think there would be at least a dollar or two for cycle paths. I asked the Department and was told there was nothing. Instead the government is proud to be pushing "the biggest road construction program in 40 years", with more than $5 billion for roads (compared to only just over $1 billion for passenger rail) in this budget. But not to worry, I was also told the massive spending on roads isn't at odds with peak oil.
  • There were a couple of glimmers of hope in an otherwise tragic transport budget. Infrastructure Australia gaining more funding and independence, and we also got a great update from the Major Cities Unit on the new National Urban Policy. I also confirmed $14m is being spent on a feasibility study to establish a Fast Rail Network on the east coast. The Very Fast Train was an initiative we took to the federal election and it's fantastic to see it being progressed. 
  • - Sometimes in Estimates I get to ask questions where I palpably feel like I'm shining a light into an incredibly dark corner of government. The exchanges I've had on EFIC over the past year are a perfect example. EFIC is hidden away in the Foreign Affairs department and "invests" about $500 million of taxpayers money every year into overseas (mostly mining) projects that are so risky or controversial that they can't otherwise get finance. I asked the Department to clarify how our national and strategic interests were furthered by providing $500m to Exxon Mobil for its PNG LNG project.
  • - Other highlights included asking our new Treasury Secretary about housing affordability, and the dark side of the mining boom.