Three times a year, the ordinary sittings of the Senate are suspended for the obscure but essential business of budget estimates hearings. For the next fortnight, the bleak theatre in the House of Representatives will continue as expected, but the Senate chamber will lie empty; the action on our side of the building playing out elsewhere.
Estimates takes the form of the Senate’s eight standing committees poring through the budget portfolio by portfolio, four in the first week and four in the second. Care for a melancholy pick through the smouldering wreckage of the NBN? See you at 5:45pm on Thursday 29th of May when the Environment and Communications Committee is in session. Want to know how the hell the Government can justify an obscenely expensive new freeway through the Beeliar wetlands in Perth? That would be Monday 26th at 10am. Care more for the Government’s unforgivable assault on Aboriginal people? That gets a look-in on Friday 6 June when cross-portfolio hearings take place.
What this looks like in practice is a panel of cross-party Senators grilling senior public servants on their areas of responsibility, with a Senator representing the Abbott executive sitting in the midst of the bureaucrats. Their job is to take on questions of policy and try to keep things as tranquilised as possible. The media is free to come and go, and as these are public hearings, so are you.
I’ve been an unapologetic estimates nerd for just on six years now, and we get good value out of every session, but the hearings this coming fortnight are different. The 2014/15 budget is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and if the top-line figures were horrific enough, there’s no telling what other acts of casual bastardry lie waiting in the detail. And estimates, done well, is all about the detail.
If your impression so far is of an epic clash of policy minutiae between opposing teams of privileged, middle aged, predominantly white people, then you are uncomfortably close to the truth. Estimates is not exactly a contact sport, but neither is it entirely a spectator sport. During these hearings, Parliament is a broadcasting platform – you can watch the committees live as they happen here. You can see the hearing schedules here, although these timetables have only occasional bearing on reality. The general rules of engagement and accumulated Senate practice are found here. An entertaining assemblage of transcripts from a previous session awaits you here.
During estimates hearings, twitter comes somewhat into its own and raucous real-time conversations are there to be had on facebook and reddit as well. Follow the hashtag #estimates with your strong opinions and you will find yourself in the company of a reasonable number of senators, press gallery journalists, bloggers, thought leaders, thinkfluencers and other trolls, and on a good day, this dismal business can actually be rather fun.
On Tuesday May 13, our carnivorous Prime Minister and his cigar-chomping Treasurer laid out their attack on our country in the form of several thousand pages of portfolio budget statements. This coming fortnight, we will take their measure. To be any good at it, we will need your help. See you in #estimates.