…so that was estimates

One of the few advantages of being new to this job is appreciating it’s strangeness with fresh eyes. Three times a year, while the Senate is in recess, an intriguing and largely overlooked ritual takes place in the airy committee rooms of Parliament House in Canberra. Senior public servants, heads of departments and a highly qualified army of advisers and minders converge for five days of cross-examination in front of the Senate’s eight standing committees.
Between them, the senior bureaucrats who will appear at the witness table over these five long days are expected to account for every dollar of the $292 billion that the Commonwealth Government will spend this year. They run the sprawling acronym factory of government departments responsible for translating the dreams of the executive into some approximation of reality day to day. Some of them are in charge of beginning the transition to a renewable economy, and some of them are in charge of making sure it never happens. Some of them hold in trust the lives of the uniformed men and women we’ve sent into harm’s way in Oruzgan, Timor L’este and Baghdad. And this is your chance to ask them a question, face to face, across a table. Senator, do you have any questions?

The first thing you need to know about estimates hearings is that for the most part, they are boring. There’s just no getting around it – one of our parliament’s most important accountability mechanisms looks to an outsider like five days of spirit-pulverising tedium. Imagine a poorly organised party with no beer that goes for seventy hours, where every conversation has to start with a reference to a Commonwealth budget line item.

Estimates provides the bland spectacle of urbane public servants being tormented for hours at a time by opposition backbenchers probing obscure lines of argument for no reason at all. Middle aged men who never quite had the nerve to join the armed forces get to play out adolescent fantasies in detailed conversations with polite Generals about the coming generation of lethal military hardware. A handful of Senators who I shouldn’t identify use estimates hearings as a backdrop for dismal, opportunistic theatrical performances at the expense of busy people with much better things to do.

Unless the news cycle’s withering searchlight randomly crosses paths with a hearing – as happened to our Treasury Secretary this week – the press gallery cheerfully ignores most of what happens in senate estimates, and the curious process unfolds out of sight out of mind to the vast majority of taxpayers.

The thing about budget estimates is, we’d really miss them if they weren’t there. Most of us experience ‘The Government’ under late capitalism as something massive, distant, faceless and unaccountable. Over these few precious days however, the internal apparatus of the whole machine is laid bare and open to careful scrutiny, whereupon you realise it’s all held together by human beings doing their best to keep their piece of this vast thing from coming off the rails.

To give you a taste, we’ve assembled a couple of transcripts from the sessions I participated in over the four days from October 20 to 23. It’s an eclectic set of conversations traversing a range of portfolio areas.

  • If you’re interested in who will shortly be deciding what you’re allowed to see on teh interwebs, start with this disturbing exchange I had with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy on mandatory internet filtering.
  • For a sense of the government’s shifting priorities in tackling the housing affordability crisis, we got an update on progress toward the homelessness white paper and a hint that the government’s National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS) could be substantially greened up on its way through the Senate – as long as the Australian Tax Office doesn’t inadvertently crash the scheme before it begins.
  • Late on Tuesday evening we joined the Australian Transport Safety Bureau for a glimpse into the white-knuckle half hour aboard QF72 as it passed within a hundred miles of the massive military transmitter at the Harold E. Holt communications base near Exmouth. Several people were seriously injured when a piece of navigation equipment on the Airbus a330-300 glitched and threw the aircraft into a steep dive. The professionalism of the pilots undoubtedly saved the lives of everybody on board; what is still unknown is whether electromagnetic signals from the base had anything to do with the near-catastrophe.
  • We’re starting to get a better sense of how high the stakes are with the Government’s new ‘Building Australia Fund’. With more than $15 billion set aside for large-scale infrastructure projects, we’re keen to know whether this precious resource will be used to prepare Australia for the renewable challenges of the 21st century or be used to entrench the waning dominance of fossil infrastructure and its’ governance structures.
  • For a hint as to the Government’s underlying priorities in this regard, there is this heartbreaking tract about the new international carbon capture and storage institute. Waiting for clean coal to save the climate? It’s not happening this decade, or the next, according to the experts.
  • In the later part of the week we heard from the people responsible for Australian deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. You might have thought Australian military involvement in that misguided invasion had ceased; perhaps then you’d be interested to know an Australian warship and it’s command staff are in charge of protecting Iraqi offshore oil terminals in the Persian Gulf. In Afghanistan we heard again – from people who ought to know – that the war is unwinnable, and that the only way out lies in diplomacy and political dialogue. Later in the day the good people at Ausaid gave a frank appraisal of just how hard their job is in Afghanistan, and then, in a brief exchange that was something of a highlight for the whole week, described the precious work they are doing in support of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security in our region.
  • Bringing the consequences of war closer to home, I was given a lengthy opportunity to cross examine Defence on the contamination of the derelict Belconnen Naval Transmission Station on the outskirts of Canberra, and the Department’s plans to move thousands of cubic metres of soil (much of it contaminated with asbestos, PCBs, lead and hydrocarbons) to an undisclosed location so that the former base can be subdivided for housing.

Anyone who knows me will understand that I have a bit of a thing about the nuclear industry, and so it was a rare and wonderful thing for the scraggly kid who pitched his tent on the outskirts of the Jabiluka blockade camp ten years ago to be able to get in front of some of the people who help this industry to do the things that it does.

  • There was this dialogue with the Office of the Supervising Scientist, responsible for ‘overseeing’ Rio Tinto’s massive expansion of the Ranger Uranium Mine in Kakadu and documenting the creeping contamination from former mines in the Alligator Rivers Region.
  • There was this somewhat defensive exchange with the ANSTO folk who have been left with the job of getting the expensive, dysfunctional and entirely unnecessary OPAL research reactor back on its feet in Sydney after a year of shutdowns and refits. Then there was this utterly frustrating conversation with Mr John Carlson, Australia’s chief apologist for uranium exports to nuclear weapons states.
  • Late on Thursday evening, in the last session of the week, I confronted the team who are preparing the ground for a National Radioactive Waste Dump in the Northern Territory. I won’t spoil the surprise here; suffice to say, this was the only flash of real aggression and hostility sent my way all week, and you’ll soon understand why. Anyone who thought the electoral demolition of the Howard Government meant the Territory was safe from this project needs to think again.

If you spot occasional flashes of rhetorical brilliance in any of these transcripts, it’s entirely the fault of the wonderful and dedicated staff who put in gruelling hours behind the scenes to prepare the senators for these brief snatches of dialogue. Tip of the hat to Flick in particular without whom I’d have been a nervous wreck this week.

Poorly organised. Seventy hours. No beer. What a party.