Additional estimates committee meetings so surreal, they’re fodder for Utopia

By Verona Burgess

Thursday March 12, 2020

Penny Wong and Mathias Cormann. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

THE OBSERVER: What do you get when you combine the politics of fear with a complex set of crises, and garnish the mix with stupidity, greed and distrust of government? A populace that is far more alarmed than alert and neither relaxed nor comfortable, writes Verona Burgess.

Fights in supermarket aisles over toilet paper and thefts of surgical masks from hospitals might be just the beginning.

Back in 1996, John Howard wanted the Australian people to be “relaxed and comfortable”.  After the planes went into the World Trade Centre in September, 2001, he wanted us to be “alert, not alarmed”.

Sale ends Monday

Save $220. Our best offer

It appears that Australians are nowadays feeling far more alarmed than alert and neither relaxed nor comfortable.

People also appear less and less willing to suspend their disbelief (to misappropriate Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of poetic faith) in government’s ability and intention to do the right thing.

It may be a sign of the times that senior federal officials such as the auditor-general, Grant Hehir, the chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy and the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Philip Lowe, seem to inspire more respect and trust than the government leadership does.

Last week’s Senate additional estimates hearings were, even by the standards of estimates hearings, exceptionally acrimonious, especially on the sports rorts affair, which continues to undermine the government’s credibility as it wrestles with the covid-19 outbreak and its economic consequences, as well the fallout from the bushfires.

As reported, it emerged that the caretaker conventions had been broken by not one but two reworked versions of funding decisions in the hours after the House of Representatives was dissolved on April 11 last year.  Former sports minister Bridget McKenzie subsequently claimed this had happened without her knowledge; her office had characterised the changes to Sports Australia as merely correcting “errors” in the now infamous spreadsheet attached to her signed April 4 brief. 

Then there was the continuing mystery of how some 136 emails about prospective grant recipients that went back and forth between her office and that of the prime minister could possibly mean that the PMO was somehow an innocent bystander. 

Quite apart from the still-bubbling issue of legal authority, these revelations make a mockery of the government’s refusal to adopt recommendations in the Thodey review of the Australian Public Service that were aimed at helping to rein in unregulated cowboy activities of ministerial staffers.

Parts of last week’s additional estimates were also so surreal as to provide terrific script opportunities for a future season of the ABC’s satire Utopia.

Take the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, for example, announced by Morrison on January 6 and headed not by comedian Rob Sitch but by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin. Colvin appeared at the Senate Finance and Public Administration committee on March 2 to field answers on how the expenditure of the $2 billion Bushfire Recovery Fund, also announced by Morrison, was going.

In due course, senators arrived at the question of when an agency is not an agency, the answer in this case being when it is a division of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and therefore not an independent body. Or not yet, at any rate.

Opposition Senate leader Penny Wong: Mr Colvin, I’m not trying to get you into the middle of a political argument. You’re not an agency, as you have said yourself; you’re a division of PM&C at this stage. There’s no separate entity that’s been gazetted. There’s no separate appropriation in the additional estimate statements. Was it the prime minister’s announcement where he decided that you’d be called an agency, even if you weren’t one? 

Colvin: I think that is the policy intent of the Prime Minister and the government. 

Wong: Is that right? 

Colvin: That is my understanding, that it’s the policy intent of the government, yes. 

Wong: That you’re going to become an agency? 

Colvin: I have been asked to consider, and I am considering, what the future construct of this agency should be in relation to statutory independence or the independence of the head of the agency in future. But, given that my focus has clearly been on trying to get measures out the door and funding to communities, that has not been the pressing nature of what I have wanted to do so far.

Eventually someone showed her the “agency” was listed on the latest PM&C organisational chart.

Wong: I’ve just been told that you actually do appear in the [PM&C] org chart. So I apologise for that. 

Colvin: Thank you — I exist.

He said he had 64 staff so far. Only 18 were funded by the NBRA; the other 48 by their “home agencies.” Eventually, the total average staffing level would be 80.5.

He gave a good run down its first eight weeks of operation, saying more than $380 million had been rolled out in a range of measures. However, on further questioning it turned out only $205 million came from the $2 billion BRF.

Then there was the fund itself. It hadn’t appeared in the additional estimates — so was it actually a fund, several senators wondered. If so, where was the money?

Colvin told Wong the payments were being made out of departments’ existing appropriations that would be reconciled in the budget process. As a former Minister for Finance, she accepted this and didn’t pursue it.

However, NSW Senator Tim Ayres and SA Senator Alex Gallacher took it up the next day, much to the frustration of Finance minister Mathias Cormann.

Cormann: It’s a policy decision to allocate $2 billion and it is going to be taken to book. Because it’s a decision that was taken after the half-yearly budget update, the earliest opportunity to reflect the fiscal impact of that in an official budget document will be the 2020-21 budget. Of course, as money is actually spent, there’ll be further updates in subsequent budgets and budget updates.

After some more to-ing and fro-ing:

Ayres: Some of these other fund announcements actually have a fund attached to them, don’t they? This is a notional allocation, isn’t it? 

Cormann: There is nothing notional about it. This is a specific policy decision of government.

Gallagher: Mr Colvin yesterday said it was a notional fund.

Cormann: There is nothing notional about it. It is a policy decision of government to allocate an initial $2 billion, which is available to the Bushfire Recovery Agency and other relevant agencies across government, to support the bushfire recovery effort. It is a firm policy decision. It is a measure adopted through the [National Security Committee of Cabinet].

Obviously, the agency and the fund are a work in progress with multiple difficult moving parts. Colvin said he was trying to remove red tape as fast as he could, to deliver the help where it’s needed urgently by the bushfire victims. This is no mean feat.

Let’s hope the $2 billion fund, along with the forthcoming multi-billion-dollar public health and economic stimulus packages, all gets spent in an accountable manner that involves no political sleight of hand and keeps ministerial and ministerial staffers’ fingers well out of the respective cookie jars.

One can only hope the auditor-general will be keeping a very close eye on it all. Poetic faith, especially these days, is not enough.

Sale ends Monday. Save 50%

For two weeks only, we’re making all our Premium content completely free. Sample then subscribe to Premium with our best offer and save 50% ($220). 

Offer ends midnight 2 August 2021. 50% discount available on an annual subscription only.

Chris Johnson
Managing Editor

Subscribe today
About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals