Which agencies got a break from Senate estimates hearings?

By Stephen Easton

Thursday April 11, 2019

With the beginning of caretaker period comes the end of Senate estimates, and non-government politicians were soon crying foul over their missed opportunities to quiz public servants.

Labor and the Greens and their supporters have led the charge in accusing the government of avoiding accountability, but the hearings could have continued if the opposition really wanted them to.

Some are strongly suggesting it, and others are outright accusing the Prime Minister of waiting just long enough for his government to give federal environmental approval to the controversial Adani coal mine — which was reportedly demanded by members of Queensland’s combined Liberal-National Party branch — then calling the election before senators could grill the relevant public servants in the CSIRO and the Department of the Environment and Energy about this.

However, another aggrieved senator who now finds his time in the spotlight cut down, Duncan Spender of the Liberal Democrats, has attacked the major parties for opposing his earlier motion for the hearings to continue even if caretaker period began in the middle of them.

The Senate could have voted to do this, as the Parliamentary Library recently observed, but Labor members may have judged their time was better spent on the campaign trail than in the committee rooms. Or maybe they just didn’t think this week’s hearings would even begin.

“It’s a bit rich for Labor to be complaining now when they had the chance to support my motion and ensure estimates would continue,” said Spender, who got his seat as a replacement for David Lleyonhelm and may have decided the hearings were his best shot at attracting votes.

Before the approval happened on Tuesday, the news outlets closest to the Coalition were reporting that the timing of the election had been influenced by Queenslanders in the Coalition, with reports that Resources Minister Matt Canavan threatened to quit and Senator James McGrath threatened to publicly campaign for Environment Minister Melissa Price’s resignation, if the Adani mine was not approved before the election.

On Monday, Senator Penny Wong (pictured) tried to confirm if these reports were true, and hence the minister’s decision had been improperly influenced, but she did not get far. Labor’s Kimberley Kitching called it a “surprise week” and said senators would be “on tenterhooks” wondering if the hearings would continue. “Accountability never sleeps,” observed Senate Clerk Richard Pye.

There also seemed to be more than the usual number of absent public servants in this round of estimates, including tax commissioner Chris Jordan, auditor-general Grant Hehir and Treasury secretary Phil Gaetjens.

There certainly would have been questions raised about DEE recommending the minister approve the Adani mine. One might concern why it did so several days before it received support from the CSIRO, which had previously found serious problems with the company’s plan to manage risks to groundwater, according to leaked advice reported in December.

A lot of pundits and politicians are out suggesting the government wanted to avoid accountability and there are plenty of other controversial issues besides the Adani approval that could have seen sparks fly.

So, who else missed out?

The Department of Social Services was scheduled to appear on Thursday, with the National Disability Insurance Agency appearing in the morning.

Assuming no delays, the plan was for the Department of Human Services to take the stand from 7.30pm.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was also expecting to come back and talk about non-trade programs on Thursday, with portfolio agencies the Australian Trade and Investment Commission and the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation on the late-night bill.

Time was also allocated to the Department of Education and Training with a spot for the Australian Research Council.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and Australian Energy Regulator were also pencilled in for Thursday, followed by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.

Next was the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science followed by some of its portfolio colleagues from the Anti-Dumping Commission, Office of the Chief Scientist, and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.

If the schedule was kept, it would have been CSIRO’s turn at 7.30pm followed by Innovation and Science Australia, with the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority scheduled in for 10.30pm.

Friday was for cross-portfolio matters regarding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and Indigenous Affairs.

The former would have called up officials from three portfolios: Agriculture and Water Resources, which includes the MDBA, as well as Environment and Energy, and Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities.

In the latter we would have heard about the Northern Land Council, the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the government-owned retailer Outback Stores, with officials from the Departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Health at the table.

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