COVID ate-it: Public servants front a tough fortnight at Senate Estimates

By Matthew Elmas

Thursday October 29, 2020

Senate Estimates
(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

A Senate Estimates like no other enters the final stretch today.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still foremost in the minds of public servants and several administrative scandals hanging over the heads of some agencies; it’s been a roller coaster couple of weeks as Senators of all political persuasions probed the operations of government.

A host of officials have displayed calm under pressure and in some cases have thought on their feet, treating at times tense lines of questioning with the diligence and care appropriate for matters of national importance.

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We’ve collated some of the highlights for those who’ve had more pressing matters occupying their evenings.

Clean-up-crews front tough questioning

In a fortnight marred by disturbing revelations about procurement, remuneration and executive perks within government departments, regulators and taxpayer-owned entities; several senior leaders have taken the short-straw in stride, fronting tough lines of inquiry about scandalous activities that didn’t even occur on their watch.

Department of Infrastructure Secretary Simon Atkinson adopted the role of clean-up-crew-in-chief during estimates hearings last week, responsible for a mea culpa over the Leppington Triangle land purchase and the public scrutiny that comes with explaining what’s being done to reform processes.

Atkinson was upfront with Senators during at-times tense exchanges about the 2018 deal, despite having only joined the department in February, following a mega-merger that combined infrastructure with communications.

Atkinson’s predecessor Steven Kennedy, now secretary of the Treasury, was subject to a comparatively terse line of questioning about the deal earlier this week, revealing he signed off on departmental financial statements before the auditor-general had completed its inquiries into the purchase because he didn’t want to leave the job to his successor.

It was, at least, one job Atkinson was saved.

There was a moment of déjà vu on Monday, when ASIC showed up for a three-hour please explain on Monday evening, just days after boss James Shipton stepped aside amid a remuneration scandal related to his relocation expenses, and taxpayer subsidised rent for now-resigned deputy chair Daniel Crennan.

Facing somewhat of a leadership vacuum, commission member Karen Chester has stepped into the top job as acting chair, but was not spared a grilling from Senators, who proceeded with a bipartisan probe into the source of ASIC’s failings, drawing a series of admissions that repeatedly laid responsibility at Shipton’s feet:

“If the auditor-general tells ASIC during its audit process that a payment being made to your deputy chair is potentially not within the guidelines, why was it not immediately ceased?” Senator James Patterson asked.

“You are asking me a question that should be put to Mr Shipton,” Chester answered.

“Unfortunately I can’t do that,” Patterson responded.

It certainly did not appear as though absence from estimates, however appropriate, worked in Shipton’s favor.

Diligent under pressure

Estimates is full of surprises, but spare a thought for Attorney General’s Department secretary Chris Moraitis, who turned up last Thursday to answer questions about the Aged Care Royal Commission, only for Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee chair Amanda Stoker to spring a series of tweets on officials.

Stoker raised the issue of a communications director within the royal commission making a series of disparaging posts about the Liberal Party and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, inquiring whether it was appropriate, from the perspective of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct, for the social media activity to stand.

(As readers will recall, these issues have been parsed in detail and were the subject of a High Court ruling that led to public service policies being updated earlier this year.)

But Moraitis and official secretary James Popple were not aware of the posts and were forced to think on their feet, a fine balance when trying to answer a Senator’s questions while also not prejudicing a possible future investigation, as Moraitis explained.

“I’ll have to take advice on this, but, on the face of what you’ve described in estimates, it’s something I would like to look at. But I don’t want to say anything here that may affect any future decision-maker’s approach to both the facts of the case—making a decision on breach of the code—and, were there to be a breach, a decision on sanction,” Moraitis said.

These are, of course, serious issues, and treating matters of national importance with care has distinguished several senior public servants over the last two weeks; case in point being Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) officials, who were pressed on the situation in Xinjiang, China by Liberal Senator Eric Abetz yesterday.

Abetz and independent Senator Rex Patrick probed whether the treatment of Uighur peoples in China amounted to genocide, as has recently been parsed by the Canadian Parliament; leaving the door open to all manner of responses.

Officials outlined in detail Australia’s efforts on the issue in international fora, treading carefully around charged terminology.

“We believe then that the crime of genocide is a matter appropriate for courts … regardless of the label applied here we continue to urge respect for those fundamental freedoms,” first assistant secretary Simon Newnham said.

COVID ate-it

The COVID-19 pandemic has been, as expected, a constant theme in estimates hearings this year.

As departments moved to address coronavirus this year all manner of programs have been put on the back burner, and estimates really is the perfect place for all those bread crumbs to float their way back to the surface.

Such was the case in DFAT estimates last night, when Labor Senator Penny Wong queried what happened with the department’s multi-year soft power review. The short answer? Coronavirus ate it.

“We have decided to discontinue work on the soft power review,” DFAT secretary Frances Adamson said.

“Ha, wow.” Wong responded.

“… The world changed around us very dramatically in ways that frankly made it inevitable that we would need to do this…” Adamson said.

“Need to do what? Junk it?” Wong retorted.

“Yeah, effectively,” Adamson replied.

DFAT were not the only ones with a report waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. In its late night hearing on Tuesday, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) was asked by Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie why a report into water trading, which was supposed to be published next month, had been pushed back to next year.

Chair Rod Sim’s response was muted, but in inquiring as to why the report had been delayed, McKenzie delivered a dazzling display of irony.

“Don’t tell me COVID,” McKenzie said. “We’ve all got Zoom even out in regional areas for consultation.”

Wisdom which may have come in handy during Attorney General’s estimates.

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