Three good old dust-ups from the first day of estimates

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday October 24, 2017

As usual there were plenty of dust-ups between the Dorothy Dixers on the first day of the Senate’s supplementary estimates hearings yesterday. Here’s a run-down of some of the clashes, claims and counter-claims.

  • Michael Pezzullo spent a long day being quizzed forensically by Labor’s Kim Carr and facing accusations of “torture” as well as the implication — swiftly withdrawn — that he has “fascist tendencies” from Nick McKim of the Greens.
  • Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd was asked to explain how much work time he and his staff spend helping out his mates at the Institute of Public Affairs.
  • The Department of Parliamentary Services found itself on the back foot once again, over a draft manual for future security arrangements at the House on the hill that was lost by a contractor working on the building’s security upgrade.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection secretary responded to his all-day grilling mostly with good humour — too good for McKim, who took umbrage at Pezzullo joking that it was the estimates hearing, not the experience of being detained offshore by his department, that amounted to torture. The pair later found common ground in a mutual affection for The Lord of the Rings, which the DIBP boss mentioned in a recent speech.

Some of the key issues drilled into were the imminent closure of the Manus Island detention centre and what will become of hundreds of detainees who refuse to leave, and the contract for running the Nauru centre going to civil engineering firm Canstruct, the only bidder after the department’s first and second preferences, Broadspectrum and Serco, both declined. The public servants told Carr they had no idea the company was a donor to the Liberal party’s Queensland branch but suggested that was not a concern under procurement rules. They admitted the company had no experience in providing welfare services or using some level of force against detainees, and said it would have to learn quickly from the previous contractor, Broadspectrum, during a hand-over period.

Carr probed the big-spending department’s struggles to achieve value for money and was also shocked to discover its former chief medical officer Dr John Brayley, who resigned in September, was replaced by first assistant secretary Elizabeth Hampton. She isn’t a medical practitioner, but the committee heard she has 12 of them to advise her.

Pezzullo also confirmed the erstwhile Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg is still under investigation by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, while DIBP is itself investigating an incident where someone “briefly” took over the commissioner’s Twitter account and clicked the love-heart symbol on a pornographic post. This part of the session came with a salutary reminder for all federal bureaucrats that every keystroke on office computers is being logged.

Lloyd’s light lashing

John Lloyd’s run-in with Labor senators centred around an FOI release from July  that seems to suggest the hyper-partisan think tank has received some special help from the commissioner. It’s no secret where he sits on the ideological spectrum or that Labor believes he is too biased on the subject of industrial relations — which after all is central to the divide between the two major parties — to uphold public service values of being apolitical and impartial.

Lloyd explained the information he provided was all factual material gleaned from publicly available enterprise agreements, but to Labor his emails basically amount to free research services that the IPA could and should have done themselves. Like nearly all think tanks, the IPA claims to be independent but it is clearly very strongly aligned with the Coalition side of politics. The argument is not unlike the government campaign against GetUp!

Opposition senator Kimberley Kitching was a fairly gentle interrogator, but the commissioner then found himself on the receiving end of Penny Wong’s high dudgeon over remarks to his IPA friend about her “taking a swipe” at the organisation in a press conference.

Lloyd said he didn’t generally use his work email to communicate with the IPA’s representatives in a personal capacity — apart from his very brief comments about Wong and about being described as the group’s “pin-up boy” — but Labor is not happy he sent the organisation plenty of detailed information for the cause.

This included 13 pages on “Examples of ‘soft’ arrangements in Commonwealth enterprise agreements” seen in the FOI release, which fed directly into materials like the IPA’s report Driving a soft bargain and its evidence to this year’s Senate inquiry into APS enterprise bargaining. Lloyd has now been asked to provide the opposition senators more information on notice, including some of his phone records.

The commissioner also confirmed a new APS enterprise bargaining policy will be released soon, and that he believes APS pay and conditions should “neither lead, nor lag” within the wider workforce.

The curse of Capital Hill strikes DPS again

The Department of Parliamentary Services always seems to get extremely prickly questions in estimates, especially when one considers its role does not really involve implementing a whole lot of contentious policy.

Parliament House security upgrades are a small exception, as decisions to bring in the Australian Federal Police with long rifles and to build a large new security fence across the lawns have plenty of detractors. Yesterday, DPS had an ally in Senate president Stephen Parry when it faced questions from Senator Kitching over a security manual that was lost.

Kitching asked why the department hired a private eye to look into it and first assistant secretary Paul Cooper suggested she was overestimating the “seriousness” of the situation. Parry also defended this decision, saying there was no need to trouble the AFP or ASIO.

“We’re comfortable at the moment that there’s no compromise to the security arrangements at Parliament House,” said Parry, although he wanted the committee to talk about it privately to avoid nefarious characters “looking in areas we don’t want people to go looking”.

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