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#estimates wrap up - 2013 Election Eve Estimates

Tempers were high during this session, as evidenced by unusually corrosive contempt from Foreign Minister Carr, as well as Senator Bishop’s spectacular tantrum which put Senator Doug Cameron’s tea in extreme danger. 

A strange sense of inevitability hung over proceedings, with all involved aware that this would be the last session with the present set of Government Ministers. 

We had excellent sessions on housing and transport in WA, internet filtering, drones, the cost of US marines being based in Darwin and much more.  I have written up our various exchanges on the shadowy side of the communications portfolio on my blog.

Please enjoy these bite sized intros to the video clips and transcripts, and let me know if you have any further questions – I’m happy to follow up.



Housing and Affordability Truly one of the worst sessions on Housing in the five years I’ve been doing this. The department deferred on even the most basic questions and the mood was like a funeral. Nothing in the budget to improve the housing affordability crisis – check the video and cringe as I did when the highest authorities in the land on this problem refuse to even use those three words.

Public Housing and Homelessness The recent Commonwealth Auditor-General's report into the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness was damning and stark: the number of homeless people is rising and that there is no transparency to show how the states and territories are contributing or how they are actually meeting the goals. The Greens have a clear and proud policy against income management and look forward to debating this bill on the floor of the House and Senate when it’s introduced in a few weeks.  

Infrastructure Australia and Nation Building   In a sea of cuts and disappointment there it was:  $500 million allocated over 10 years for the Perth Public Transport package. Our collective and massive win - half a billion dollars for good instead of evil for once, and a great result after so many years campaigning on Perth Light Rail.  I also had a refreshingly constructive exchange around two of the main criticisms of Infrastructure Australia: its opaque and outdated cost benefit analysis and its focus on single projects rather than precincts or integrated proposals. I also got to confirm the federal government has finally received a submission from the state government on the Wiluna to Meekatharra Road - as the last section of unsealed state highway between Kalgoorlie and the Pilbara.

The Major Cities Unit  is responsible for the National Urban Policy (which has three priorities: sustainability, livability, and productivity) yet was not aware of the proposal by the Barnett government to trash Point Peron or that the entire region of Perth and Peel is under strategic environmental assessment. I also got to raise the point that major cities are failing to reach their infill targets and spruik our Transforming Perth report, which found all of Perth’s growth to 2031 could be easily accommodated in just 7 of our 18 future transit corridors.

Heritage  More savage cuts to staff, grants and programs, and still no sign of the National Heritage Strategy after three years. I’m told the delay is because the government is asking itself “what does national leadership in heritage actually mean…” You could safely wager the answer is the opposite of year on year cuts and the legacy of a record number of heritage places without management plans and a long list of nominations the department can’t even get to. Speaking of which, the World Heritage Listing of the Burrup is still stalling, despite the government receiving the Australian Heritage Council report over a year ago that showed conclusively it met two universal world heritage criteria.  I was also sad to confirm the Heritage department isn’t doing any work to bring the glut of empty and abandoned places back to life for affordable residential or commercial uses.

The Department of Foreign Affairs Defence While the Minister appeared to have no idea, the Department informed me that government representatives were monitoring the Bradley Manning trial.  The Minister denied recent reports that he had been a protected source for the US government for four decades and was spectacularly cavalier in his refusal to act on behalf of Australian citizen Julian Assange. The Minister used the phrase ‘consular over-servicing’, which I think is diplomat speak for ‘hung out to dry’.

Burma will be visited by Minister Carr in July.  He informed me that all travel bans and sanctions on Burma have been lifted, despite the horrendous violence being perpetrated by the regime there against the Rohingas, which Human Rights Watch have called ethnic cleansing.

Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are countries in conflict or post conflict on the Security Council agenda in which Australian mining companies are present.  Despite a recent question on notice, and our role on the Security Council, officers took all of my questions on notice.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is responsible for cyber-policy coordination for the federal government, yet it was only tangentially aware of ASIC blocking two websites under the Telecommunications Act that led to the blocking of 1200 unrelated sites and did not attend a recent inter-departmental meeting on the situation.  The Department had also never heard of the world’s leading anonymising software, TOR, and acknowledged that while there has been cable traffic on the Bradley Manning case, took my questions on this trial and Julian Assange on notice.

Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) representatives did attend the inter-departmental meeting on the inadvertent blocking of over 1000 websites on 22 May 2013 but refused to provide any information about it because it was not organised by ACMA.

The Attorney General’s Department was initially reticent to acknowledge that it has been engaged with industry on the idea of retaining all data on Australian citizens for up to 2 years, but conceded that unofficial consultations had taken place.  It also acknowledged that the public discussion paper on the data retention proposal was poor, vague and canvassed so sketchily as to not really be canvassed at all.

ASIO’s Chief David Irvine did not mention the public release of the floor plans of the new ASIO building that has cost the tax payer $631 million, but in response to questions assured us that he is satisfied that security is of a very high standard.  Despite his building plans being as vulnerable as other data collected, he continues to support the retaining of data on all Australians for up to two years.

The Australian Federal Police blocks websites listed on the Interpol black list but also has powers under section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to demand that ISPs block certain sites.   The AFP assured me that it does not do so, but does use that part of the Act to require ISPs to cooperate with law enforcement on criminal investigations.

The Department of Communications indicated that the AFP, ASIC and a third agency in the Attorney General’s Department (but would not specify which) have previously used Section 313 to block websites and listed the agencies to attend the 22 May 2013 meeting to discuss the ASIC blocking of 1000 websites. The Department did acknowledge that many dozens of state and territory entities, an indeterminate number that are able to knock out online content.  The Minister has asked for “transparency measures” for its use. 

ASIC tabled an explanatory document by way of an opening statement and acknowledged that it has blocked internet content 10 times, requesting that ISPs do so by fax. ASIC wins the prize for gratuitous over-blocking, wiping out 250,000 web addresses in a keystroke last March.

ANSTO whistleblowers have revealed of serious health and safety culture issues at the site of Australia’s only nuclear reactor, which I do not believe have been resolved.  I sought out information about how recommendations from 4 separate inquiries into ANSTO’s problems are being implemented and the number of cases before ComCare from ANSTO staff.

ARPANSA informed the Committee about the public consultation process on nuclear waste being stored at Lucas Heights and indicated progress on the difference of believe between ARPANSA (the regulator) and ANSTO (the regulated) after receiving correspondence from ANSTO that there were deficiencies in the health and safety culture at ANSTO since 2007 and a belief that safety issues have improved at ANSTO.   

Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office – an update on the status of negotiations on uranium sales to India, after a meeting in March in New Delhi, with a second session planned in July in Canberra.   Once the government goes into caretaker mode, no commitments can be made, although discussions can continue.  I also asked why Australia had been entirely mute at the Oslo Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons.  Minister Carr reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to use of nuclear weapons in our security policy through supporting the US nuclear umbrella. 

The Department for Resources and Energy indicated that the Northern Land Council (NLC) has corresponded with the Minister on a second site for dumping nuclear waste on the Muckaty Land Trust.  The previous site identified by the NLC is the subject of a Federal Court challenge. 

The Office of the Supervising Scientist regulates the mining of uranium at Ranger in Kakadu National Park and believes that the new 3-Deeps project to extract more ore will not affect the 2021 closure date of the mine.  The OSS has also been advising the WA government on its approvals processes around the Wiluna uranium project of Toro.

The Environment Assessment and Compliance Division  were under the impression that Toro was required to line the floor of tailings cells of their uranium deposit to prevent radioactive water seepage straight through the dam and into the groundwater – they are not. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs continues its neglect of nuclear veterans who are not provided with the Gold Card for serious medical consequences of being exposed to British nuclear weapons blasts at the Montebello Islands and Maralinga.  While officers were aware of 290 individuals and families taking a challenge to Australian Human Rights Commission due to Australian government complicity. 

The Department for Defence pretty much dismissed my concern that climate security is not being taken as seriously in Australia as it should be, and that the US, UK and many other militaries from likeminded countries are not ignoring the security implications of climate change.  The Department continued to insist that the US marines are not being “based” Darwin but refuse to say who will pay for their deployment.  While the Department is aware that a global campaign has started calling on a moratorium and ban on autonomous killing machines, it will not have a bearing on discussion about whether Australia should get weaponised UAVs or drones. 

The Department of Defence acknowledged that decisions about Australia’s role in Afghanistan post 2014 are being made in Brussels and agreed that Australia is responsible for cleaning up the toxic wastes we have generated in Afghanistan.  The Department for Defence also assured me that the HMAS Sydney being embedded with the US Navy 7th Fleet George Washington carrier strike group did not automatically involve Australia in any hostile actions the US navy may take. 

Civil Aviation Assessment Authority (CASA) is struggling with the explosion of the use of civilian drones in Australia and is not keeping up with its regulatory role and acknowledged that for every Unmanned Aerial system we know exists there are most probably two that we do not know of.

The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) informed the Committee that 1.2 million people are enjoying National Indigenous TV now that it is broadcast over one of the SBS channels.  The 43 NITV staff are doing a terrific job. 

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has recently been the subject of a conservative campaign to privatise the national broadcaster.  Mr. Scott explained the significance of recent amendments to the ABC Charter that defend its excellent online activity and how it provides many services, diversity of content and independent news and current affairs reporting that the private sector simply cannot provide. 

NBN Co explained the trends of their take up rate in Tasmania and took my questions about the use of overseas labourers on 457 visas on notice.  I requested that the work speed up in Western Australia and invited the NBN Truck to visit.

Australian Bureau of Statistics Environmental accounting in practice: ABS measures that go straight to the heart how the government counts and values our remaining environmental assets, from minerals under the ground to ecosystems on top. I specifically covered the discrepancy between the way remaining mineral resources and depreciation is treated by the ABS compared with the Mining Tax. I also discovered the ABS does not have an accurate measure for what’s actually left.

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