The Northern Territory government is running an impromptu experiment in open public accountability by inviting anyone to have a crack at scrutinising public servants in Budget Estimates hearings, after a group of politicians from the other side of the Legislative Assembly chamber decided to boycott the proceedings.
Independent MLAs Gerry Wood, Robyn Lambley, Kezia Purick and Terry Mills — a former chief minister who once led the opposition Country Liberal Party — joined the current CLP leader Gary Higgins and deputy leader Lisa Finocchiaro in the protest.
They refuse to turn up to the hearings, which are scheduled for June 19, 20 and 21, but will send written questions to ministers covering relevant subjects they would have brought up in person. Government MLA Natasha Fyles responded almost immediately by inviting any “territorians, territory businesses and community groups” to send their own questions by email, labelling the non-government MLAs “redundant”.
The group of MLAs attacked the government for a series of “unilateral decisions” which, they argue, fit a pattern of reducing transparency, evading accountability, and undermining the ability of independents and the CLP to question the new administration.
Along with changes to question time proceedings, they attack the government’s refusal to answer written questions they submitted in March within 30 days “as required by Parliament” and dispute the government’s assertion that these could only be answered after the Budget was handed down.
It seems the final straw was a decision to halve the time available for this year’s Budget Estimates hearings, from 60 to 30 hours, according an open letter published in the NT News yesterday. It is presented as an apology to public servants, acknowledging that putting in lots of written questions “will place an additional burden on the public service to prepare written responses to questions that could have been answered orally” in the hearings:
“Dear Northern Territory Public Servants,
“Thank you for your hard work in preparing for this year’s Estimates Committee hearings.
“Some of us have personal experience as public servants over many years. We are all well aware of the enormous amount of preparation that takes place at all levels of the public service to ensure that Estimates is an open and transparent process, which informs both politicians and the public about the important work that is being undertaken by government in the name of all Territorians.”
The group of MLAs say the government also wants to “dictate to the Opposition and Independents the time allotted for each witness” and they do not accept an additional 30 hours to scrutinise agency annual reports in November, after the Budget is passed, as a “legitimate substitute” for the missing part of the truncated Estimates process. They write:
“This decision has not been taken lightly and does not, in any way, reflect upon the immense respect that we have for the efforts of public servants to prepare for the hearings. Indeed, this decision is intended to ensure that the efforts of public servants in contributing to the openness of government are fully realised in the form of a full and fair Estimates process.”
In the letter, provided to The Mandarin by the opposition leader’s office, they pledge to keep their written questions “concise and limited in number” to minimise the burden on the bureaucracy. They are also willing to accept the 30-day timeframe will be tough to meet:
“We will also work with the government to ensure that, if the questions cannot be responded to within the 30 day period required by Parliament, a reasonable time for responses is negotiated. We expect that the responses to the vast majority of the written questions will be on topics that will already have been addressed in the course of Estimates preparation. We have called on the government to reinstate the 60 hours as agreed by their own Select Committee on Opening Parliament to the People. If they were to do so, we would fully participate.”
The government, meanwhile, promises to make sure all questions sent in by individuals, business owners and community groups are answered, and insists it has nothing to hide. So in the end, both the boycott and the government’s response seem to add up to the same thing: a mountain of questions of notice for agencies to answer.