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Insights into the boredom, melodrama and art of Estimates

Each of the vignettes below gives you a window into a specific piece of the gargantuan and incomprehensible puzzle that is the Commonwealth Government. There are some good wins hidden here – the Perth Light Rail project may be on the threshold of a breakthrough, there are some pleasant surprises in the early uptake figures for the NBN, and SBS are over the moon at the funding boost we’ve been advocating for. On the other hand, there is just a yawning vacancy where the debate on housing tax policy should be, we’re being slow-baked on the issue of US military expansion into Australia, and funding has been cancelled for a great local music project – we’ll have to work fast to get it back.
The highest profile sessions were a couple of run-ins with new Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who slips seamlessly between condescension, bluster and verbal anaesthetic depending on how confident he is on his subject matter. On WikiLeaks, we had an edgy stand-off that danced around the subject of how much the Australian Government knows about US intentions to prosecute Julian Assange. On the extractive investment stampede into Burma, the debate quickly descended into farce, but at least got picked up by Radio Australia.
#Estimates really is a funny blend of boredom, melodrama and art. Let us know what you think, and remember we’re always in the market for good questions for the next turn of the wheel. Enjoy.

DFAT on Wikileaks: It was Senator Bob Carr’s first session at the table for budget estimates, so we got right down to it: how complicit is the Australian Government on a US Government prosecution of Julian Assange? Senator Carr appeared confused as to his, role, firing wayward questions back across the table instead of providing answers. How complicit? You be the judge. 

PM&C on Wikileaks and Cyber Policy: I asked the Department how they juggle conflicts of interest when it comes to FOI requests.  My recent request about Wikileaks was rejected by an information officer who was the author of many of the document he was refusing to release.  I also asked whether the PM intended to apologise to Wikileaks for falsely stating it’s activities were illegal and whether she has signed a written agreement with President Obama regarding the stationing of US marines in Darwin.

Australian Federal Police: The AFP had provided four blank forms used to record requests for information and surveillance warrants to monitor Australians online. I also asked whether the assassination threats directed towards Julian Assange might register on the AFP’s radar and whether he might be afforded protection when in transit given his prominence.

ASIO: The new building ASIO will soon occupy in Canberra is second only in size to the parliament and has continually blown its construction budget. It’s quite the fortress: and at last count the building will cost Australians $631 million. 

Defence: The new Defence White Paper will unfortunately not canvas the opinions of Australians as the 2000 and 2009 White Papers did.  The Department expanded on the announcement that Australia is transitioning out of Afghanistan, the treatment of detainees captured by Australians, submarines and the deployment of US marines in Darwin.
Office of the Supervising Scientist: I asked the OSS about the extension of the Ranger Uranium Mine to an underground operation. Watch this space – the company is planning a creeping expansion of uranium mining in Kakadu.

ANSTO: I discussed the storage, transportation and disposal of nuclear material and the latest scandals with workplace bullying and subsequent investigations and mistreatment of whistleblowers. It has become very difficult to established whether the Government has sought to delay the return of Australian obligated nuclear waste from France for a few years while Australia gets its house in order.
DRET: The National Radioactive Dump was raised and the negotiations between Australia, the United Kingdom and France regarding the return of long-lived intermediate waste and the reprocessing of spent fuel.
ASNO: Our non-proliferation regulator was not aware of reports of coercion and harassment of workers at a uranium mine operated by Paladin, an Australian uranium company whose operation was recently disrupted by a strike due to poor pay and conditions.  The government has not yet begun the process of discussing uranium sales to India and I assured ASNO that delaying this forever was preferable than selling uranium to a nuclear weapon state who acquired nuclear weapons from its so-called peaceful nuclear program. 
ARPANSA: Within a month the radiation safety regulator ARPANSA’s work on the transportation and storage of nuclear waste will be open for public consultation, which will take place via submissions rather than public meetings or hearings.  The draft guidance provided by ARPANSA will be general and will not specify a location.  I also received an update on the work of monitoring Fukushima and was told a large data base of information will be public in September. 
DFAT on Burma: I expressed concern to the Foreign Minister that changes to trade and investment arrangements between Australia and Burma were not as reversible as other sanctions should reforms not progress.  I put it to Senator Carr that a potential investment stampede in sectors that would benefit the military rather than the people, a concern also expressed by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma.  I did not receive much detail on the forthcoming Australian business delegation – it seems to have been deferred.
AUSAID: AusAID provides important support to people in Burma through the UN and non-government organisations. I asked about discussions underway to filter some of that aid through the government.  I also drew attention to the fact that much of the aid going into the country through Rangoon does not get to those in the conflict zones on the Thai-Burma border, which is why targeted funding for training and capacity building for cross-border aid workers is so important. 

Australian Trade Commission: I asked AusTrade about the extremely troubling Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a negotiation among 13 countries taking place under conditions of secrecy that will have far reaching consequences for intellectual property, agribusiness, food, medicines and deregulation of the financial sector.  A recent round of meetings were held in Melbourne and cost the taxpayer $600,000. The government has not done a cost-benefit analysis and so cannot quantify the benefits of Australia’s participation.  It doesn’t prevent the relentless optimism that these deals are universally positive for everybody.

IP Australia: I asked about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and why Australia would join it if the claim that nothing would change about Australian law is correct.  IP Australia outlined what it viewed to be the benefits of ACTA, in a session that veered between combative and utterly soporific.   

Commonwealth Grants Commission: I asked Minister Wong some questions on the impact on Tasmanian businesses of Bass Straight making it hard for firms to compete.

Sustainable Communities: I asked for an update on the $45m Sustainable Jobs program (cut from $100m) and whether anyone in the Department is looking at the current gap of affordable commercial space across Australia. This is to recognise that rents for commercial space are rising about 15% a year and if left unchecked will make it impossible to regain a diverse and vibrant business and community sector in our suburbs and regional centres. I asked for an update on the $10m Biodiversity Indicators program – a year after funding was announced we’re yet to see a thing. I also raised the disturbing level of land clearing in Perth and will continue to press this important issue of clearing urban bushland across our cities.

Housing:   I asked again about the lack of a national strategy for affordable housing for an ageing population, and had an unusual victory when the department admitted it believes the National Rental Affordability scheme is successful - the government promised they’d release another 50,000 incentives in 2012 if the first round was successful, and getting them to acknowledge the scheme’s evident success has been like pulling teeth.

Defence Housing: Heritage houses on Queen Victoria Street in Fremantle, owned by the Department of Defence, have been left derelict for some years now. I asked Defence about the condition of the properties and their plans for them and discovered that they are currently negotiating a sale to Defence Housing Australia, with a view to refurbish them and house defence personnel once more. It makes you wonder why they stopped using them and let them fall into disrepair in the first place…

Treasury on Housing and Taxation: Spoiler alert: I have become a tax nerd since realising Australia’s asset inequality is at least ten times worse than income equality – largely a product of the massive taxation benefits enjoyed by property investors and owners. The Henry Tax Review looked at these issues and made 25 recommendations relating to housing taxation. In this session, the acknowledgement that the agenda is simply dead in the water: no recommendations are being progressed, and it seems nor will they be.

COAG reform Council: I asked about the detailed and quite constructive Capital Cities Planning systems review report released in April and when to expect a response from COAG. We have great priorities in our new National Urban Policy for liveable, sustainable cities that are not being considered much in federal budget decision making.
Special Broadcasting Service: SBS received a large budget boost this year but unfortunately confirmed that the invasive ads won’t be wound back just yet. Thanks to everyone who helped work towards this outcome – it was a year in the making and the staff and producers at the station are over the moon.

NBN Co: The fireworks promised by the Coalition tabling a long list of questions to Mr. Quigley of NBN Co, the company building our National Broadband Network, turned out to be a damp fizzer. I was able to put some questions on the uptake so far – which shows a huge number of people opting for the fastest broadband speeds. On a more alarming note, we had an interesting exchange on what happens if the Coalition wins Government and moves to dismantle the project.

Minister for Communications: The Australia Music Radio Airplay Project is a key community broadcasting program for the promotion of Australian music on community radio nation-wide. It was also defunded in the last budget and I urged the Minister to take it back into his portfolio and apply urgent financial resuscitation
Future Fund: We returned to the question of why the Future Fund invests in companies that manufacture nuclear weapons. Most of Canberra’s superannuation obligations are tied up in the Fund, which has extensive holdings in tobacco and nuclear weapons stocks. This transcript wins my vote for empty bureaucratic doublespeak, standing head and shoulders above a pretty rich field.
The fight for a container deposit scheme: Australians throw away 13 billion drink containers used by Australians each year.  Despite the fact that most state  governments have agreed, the federal government is dragging its feet on establishing a national container deposit scheme. At least the federal environment minister has finally pledged to advance the idea.
Transport and Infrastructure Policy and Research: I asked (again) about how the department is preparing us for peak oil and discovered they have not even read the May 2012 IMF report The future of oil: geology versus technology which predicts the price of oil will double over the next decade. While petrol prices rise for everyone else, the bureaucracy seems entirely comfortable with the onset of peak oil.  

Infrastructure Australia: I asked about the ratio of spending on infrastructure such as ports and rail to support private interests (mining) over public goods. I also confirmed the Departments’ most senior figure representing IA had also not read the May 2012 IMF report-  but in some good news they are using the newly released Australian Green Infrastructure Council's national infrastructure sustainability rating scheme.

Nation Building Australia: I asked about the welcome appearance of $4m for planning Perth Light Rail in the federal budget. I look forward to hearing back on the questions I asked on how an unfunded national strategy to double cycling by 2016 will achieve its goals. In one of the most comically bizarre exchanges, I asked the department to confirm whether this budget featured a roads to rail spending ratio of 12:1 dollars (last year it was 5:1). Momentarily, the chair of the committee wigged out and accused me of wanting to transport butter by balloons. Don’t ask me why, I only work here.
Airservices Australia: I asked Airservices Australia about their trials of a navigation technology that will give air traffic controllers much greater flexibility in planning flight paths. It’s too soon to get over-optimistic, but there may be a way to relieve some of the stress of aircraft noise on affected communities, an issue that’s become particularly acute in Perth with the massive growth in fly-in fly-out traffic.
Australian Transport Safety Bureau: I sought an update on the implementation of recommendations by ATSB following two derailments on the line that will carry a massively increased load of uranium should the expansion of the mine at Olympic Dam and various Western Australian projects get the go ahead.  
Australian Bureau of Statistics: In an intense few minutes I quizzed Australia’s chief statisticians on the work they are doing to expand the way in which we measure and gauge the state of the nation’s wellbeing, specifically to include environmental factors if not happiness. I also asked them whether the CPI adequately reflected housing inflation.

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