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Verona Burgess: as a talent showcase, estimates sadly lacking

A clip of Queensland LNP senator Barry O’Sullivan at Senate additional estimates went viral last week, and not in a good way. He is not the only one.

O’Sullivan was caught on a live microphone muttering “he’s a rude prick”, evidently  referring to the chief executive of the Armidale-bound Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, Dr Chris Parker.

This was at the Senate rural and regional affairs and transport committee, which O’Sullivan chairs, just before the dinner break on February 27.

No prizes for imagining what Parker thinks of him, but we’ll never know, at least publicly.

O’Sullivan has form on bullying witnesses upfront — never mind sotto voce — as does his state colleague Ian Macdonald, while Labor has had plenty of its own serial offenders.

Labor senator Kim Carr (of last week’s “Hitler Youth” swipe at the education committee chair, Liberal James Paterson) also has form in badgering officials, while one of the memorably bad offenders was former fellow senator Stephen Conroy, who could work himself into a lather while poker-faced Treasury officers tried to decipher his questions on economics.

Not that public servants don’t have their own bags of tricks in dealing with over-zealous questioning. There is the classic passive-aggressive stonewalling that drives senators mad; the taking of questions on notice; the inability to provide crucial information because the relevant officers have moved to another agency; the ritual excuse of ministerial or commercial confidentiality; the bouncing of questions between departments and more.

No wonder eager young public servants might be fooled into thinking it is all a big game — and not only they, but also the latest mini crop of new senators who have taken their places thanks to the occasional resignations and the High Court dual-citizenship saga.

Experienced officials are always mindful of the serious burden of government — not to mention that today’s belligerent opposition senator might become tomorrow’s minister,­ although it is equally risky for any senator who becomes a minister after, in opposition, having put an entire department offside during estimates.

Far more terrifying than the bullies, though, are the forensic examiners. Who could forget Labor senator Penny Wong’s deadly calm voice as she eviscerated Jobs and Small Business Minister Michaelia Cash?

Making a mark, for right reasons

Estimates rarely showcase the talents of government senators, for Dorothy Dix-style reasons. Of the new non-government senators two in particular made their mark at this round of hearings.

Most obvious was former NSW Labor premier Kristina Keneally, who hit the ground running in a couple of committees.

Her systematic and cool-headed questioning of ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie and editorial director Alan Sunderland frankly left them floundering, unable to answer even some of the most basic queries about the clearly defective editorial processes involved in producing the controversial Emma Alberici pieces on corporate tax.

Her interrogation also provided an object lesson for public servants: the questions that matter are not the ones you think senators ought to ask, but those that they do ask.

For all that, it was perhaps the new Western Australian Greens senator, Jordon Steele-John, who made the strongest impression, also across a couple of committees.

Educated, articulate and intelligent, he had evidently prepared diligently for a wide range of issues, from video games and consumer protections to various information technology matters such as encryption, biometrics, cybersecurity and onwards to human rights and disability issues, such as captioning and audio descriptions on free-to-air multi-channels.

At only 23 years old, he put some of the old hands to shame. Here’s a lovely question he asked Home Affairs in the legal and constitutional affairs committee on biometrics on February 26: “What are the implications for individuals if this system is hacked or breached, considering — and you can correct me if I’m wrong here — an Australian citizen cannot simply be issued with a new face in the same way that they would be issued a Medicare card?”

You can go to the Hansard to find the answers, which are worth reading — not as entertainment but because they are important and are something with which the government and much of the Australian Public Service are grappling.

The mega blunder

Lastly, the blunder of the week came from Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, Bill Shorten’s captain’s pick in 2016 to replace Conroy.

She questioned Defence about the (bipartisan approved) addition to the RAAF’s Special Purpose aircraft fleet — a refitted Airbus KC-30A tanker that will serve as a VIP aircraft only when the prime minister or governor-general travels overseas with a delegation.

Afterwards, she burst into the Twittersphere to slam Malcolm Turnbull, apparently in shocking ignorance of the March, 2007 Garuda Air crash in Yogyakarta that claimed the lives of 21 people, including five Australians.

They included Australian embassy spokeswoman Liz O’Neill; The Australian Financial Review Jakarta correspondent Morgan Mellish; AusAid officer Allison Sudradjat; and Australian Federal Police officers Mark Scott and Brice Steele.

A second Australian journalist, Cynthia Banham, of The Sydney Morning Herald, survived against all odds with catastrophic life-changing injuries.

The Australians were only on that flight because the Howard government had deliberately reduced the size of the VIP aircraft used for overseas visits, forcing these members of the entourage onto a commercial flight.

All sides of politics as well as the public service and the media have, rightly, been determined to avoid such a tragedy ever happening again.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.