More Committee Inquiries

People have differing views about how useful Senate Committee inquiries are these days. I can only say that I hope they are useful, because they’re chewing up a lot of my time at the moment, almost all of it away from Queensland.

Last Friday I had a hearing in Sydney for the inquiry into National Parks. This will be followed up with further hearings in Melbourne and Adelaide next month. The evidence provided in Sydney was quite good, although the question are where resources should best come from continues to be vexed. We had people there representing horse riders and four wheel drivers. I had expected them to be fairly aggressive and blunt (which shows my prejudices no doubt), but I actually found them to be fairly constructive. There as some good material from the Environmental Defenders Office too.

Tomorrow I’m in Adelaide for another hearing for the inquiry into petrol sniffing in remote indigenous communities, which I’ve written about previously. There is an interesting list of witnesses, which will be the final public hearings, followed by a visit to Balgo in WA, before the Committee reports next month. I’m a bit unsure what the government will make out of this inquiry. They did allocate some extra money in the Budget for further rolling out of non-sniffable petrol, which is good, but I feel there are bigger aspects than this which need more attention.

As well as these inquiries, the following two weeks sees Senate Estimates Committees examining the Budget and other government activities. In the Government’s latest display of serial contempt, and as part of their ongoing efforts to slowly throttle the Senate’s ability to scrutinise the actions of government, the Coalition last week removed two days from the Estimates Committees’ schedules. For as long as I can recall, almost every week which holds Estimates hearings has set aside the Friday as a ‘spill over day’ for those areas where there are a lot of questions. Last week, the Government took these extra days away, further reducing avenues for scrutiny. For further details on this, and how aggravating I find it, you can check out my speech to the Senate on the topic by clicking here.

This is on top of their actions at the last Estimates Committee hearings in refusing to allow and public servants to answer any questions relating to the AWB scandal, on the spurious and unprecedented grounds that this might prejudice the Royal Commission being conducted into the issue (something I also wrote about at the time – click here to read that entry). As the Royal Commission is still going, I suspect that the Government will maintain the gag at next week’s Estimates too.

I reckon it’s a fair bet they will also try to dodge any questions on what was done by Government Ministers and officials following the death of Private Kovco in Iraq, using the excuse that there is an inquiry under way.

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  1. Of more interest to me, given that the post was supposed to be about senate enquiries, is the last paragraph. Given that the uneducated masses might reasonably be expected to assume that the purpose of Senate estimates committees is to enquire inot and hold the govenemrnet accountable for the expenditure of estimates provided for in the appropriation bills of parliament, what would be the point of the last paragraph.

  2. Hmmm – sounds identical to the regular complaints by Government Senators, Ken.

    I’d actually be highly surprised if “the uneducated masses” thought that the only purpose of Estimates Committees was to look at the Appropriation Bills. I’d expect most people wouldn’t know what an Estimates Committee was at all.

    For those few that actually follow Senate precedent and procedure, I would be surprised if they didn’t already know that Estimates Committees are able to examine any area of government expenditure, not just Budget Appropriation Bills.

    However, for anyone who wants to know more, they could look at this section of Odger’s Senate Practice – click here.

    In short, “As the Estimates represent departments’ and agencies’ claims on the Commonwealth for funds, any questions going to the operations or financial positions of the departments and agencies which shape those claims are relevant.”

    Any action by a government officer or department is relevant “to the operation of … departments or agencies” have a claim in Commonwelath funds.

  3. Well I’m certainly not a govt senator thats fro sure.

    Point taken in par 2 – those of us around the political process tend to forget (more correclty are immune0 from the gernal populatoins thoughts.

    I was relying mroe on Senate practice note 5 – 2005 which is more direct in outlining the purposeof estiamtes , althoguh it does stray off at the end to inlcude fishing expiditions as accepted practice.

    I suppose its like a lot of things the language abnd the reality are never quite in sync – why not rename them “committees with the aim of attempting to expose poor performacne and poltical scandal with the sole purpose of raising the profile and gaining political advantage of those in oppositon or minor parties” and I’d be happy that that is an accurate assessment.

    Of course incumbency makes no differecne to this defintion.

  4. I reckon senate committees should have two functions (at least) The first is as part of a system of checks and balances which, so the theory goes, makes our democratic system work for the people instead of entrenched elites. All over the place, especially with civil liberties we seem to forgotton about checks and balances and tried to trim all the fat to allow governments to operate as lean, mean, independent business machines whose sole function is to administer without hindrance.

    the second role is of innovation, to be the governments eyes and ears to look for good ideas for the future and/or how and why things aren’t working properly now. The committee may not necessarily identify policy frameworks but it does give parliamentarians a perspective other than the parliament or their own party to explore and consider to assist policy and legislation development.

    It is easy to say that these committees are a waste of time and just waffle venues. I agree with this criticism but it is a question of the level of political debate amongst politicians, not a problem linked to committees, question time, petitions or any other function of the parliament. The ultimate value in the parliaments today is not cutting edge policy debate nor is it loyalty to the will of constituents. The ultimate value is numbers in the factional game be it internal party politics or the drama of the chamber. checks and balances and accountability and innovation are no longer relevent, it would seem.

    One of the committees Andrew mentioned is petrol sniffing and opal fuel business. How detatched have the checks and balances and intelegent analysis been from the perspective of Aboriginal elders in those affected communities? How accessible are the committees, petitions and politicians to Aboriginal will and what accountability to Aboriginal authorities is there in the policy and law process? If, as I suggest, the “democratic” process has become alien to mainstream community will, how relevent is it to the discussions and wisdom of Aboriginal people and customary law?

    Even Royal commissions are useless in Aboriginal policy. $50,000,000 afterwards, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody has not succeeded in addressing core problems including those identified as priorities in the reccomendations. For all the smart lawyers, it was an irrelevent waste of time in terms of real change that affects the lives of citizens.

  5. I’m for scruity and accountability of government, no matter who they are and whatever they call it (though perhaps in the interests of transparency, they should be renamed to more accurately reflect their function).

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