20 February 2024

APS bosses in a room with senators can be problematic, but it's vital to our democracy

| Chris Johnson
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Senator Sarah Henderson

Senator Sarah Henderson has proven herself one of the Opposition’s best performers at Estimates. Photo: Sarah Henderson Instagram.

No matter how senior they are, it’s not a pretty sight when a public servant argues with a senator during questioning in Senate Estimates.

It doesn’t happen very often and it didn’t really take place during the two weeks of hearings that have just concluded.

More often, however, is the non-compliance with Senate rules and the ignoring of senators’ questioning and instructions, when an APS chief is accompanied by a government minister running protection at the table.

An agency boss who feels shepherded might feel somewhat emboldened in an estimates hearing.

Some might feel a little bit of contempt for the whole process.

They might even take a little bit of wicked pride in pointing out the lousy syntax of a question or an obvious error in grammar from the questioner.

Petty stuff like that.

Other public service chiefs habitually take too many questions on notice and keep those questions on notice from one estimates season to the next.

Case in point: Secretary of the Education Department Tony Cook got a shellacking from Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson in this latest round of estimates for taking on notice what he had already taken on notice back in October.

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As reported by Region last week, the Secretary (in a non-argumentative way) said he had concerns about handing over some correspondence the Senator asked for at the last estimates’ hearings and was now asking for again.

It’s worth revisiting a few moments from the hearing, as these sorts of exchanges have become a semi-regular feature of Senate Estimates hearings. This one is by no means the first or worst example.

Mr Cook said he’d seek advice from the Minister over the correspondence and the Senator’s question.

But it had already been taken on notice in October.

“You may have concerns, but your response does not comply with Senate rules,” Senator Henderson said.

“You are required to provide a copy of that letter.”

A little further into the exchange: “Your issues are immaterial, Secretary, I’m sorry,” Senator Henderson said.

And then: “I asked for this letter in October last year. It’s been on notice for four months … This is very disappointing, Secretary.”

Histrionics from the Senator? Possibly.

Justified? Absolutely.

It’s worth APS bosses remembering that no one elected them to office, and whether they have a minister beside them or not, the senators asking questions of them are duly elected representatives of the people – and they have considerable powers.

To ignore their requests is to breach the rules of parliament.

To do so at the behest of a government minister is to cross the line of impartiality and the apolitical nature demanded of the public service.

Senate Estimates can be a test of integrity.

True, many senators, when in Opposition, will use estimates as a forum to score points against the government of the day and try for a scalp here and there.

Estimates offer a good outlet for some grandstanding and feigned indignation – particularly if an Opposition can’t seem to use parliamentary Question Time (in either chamber) to any particular advantage.

Estimates, then, can be a time to shine.

Some senators take that challenge to heart – and some are very good at it.

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Both sides of politics, when in Opposition, have been ruthless in their manipulation of estimates hearings.

Labor’s John Faulkner was a fearsome inquisitor during the years of John Howard’s Coalition government. Ministers and bureaucrats alike were scared.

Penny Wong, now Foreign Minister, was another of Labor’s skilled estimates performers during the latter part of Howard’s tenure and again when the ALP was thrust back into Opposition following the Rudd-Gillard years.

With Labor once again back in power, there are a number of Coalition senators who can strike a bit of fear in the hearts of the mandarins facing them across the room.

The Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie, for one, is dogged. So, too, the Liberals’ Michaelia Cash and Senator Henderson. There are others.

Unfortunately for the department bosses being questioned, they are the ones in the firing line during estimates when, in fact, the true targets are the ministers who occupy the treasury benches of parliament.

But in the firing line the APS bosses must be, which in turn sees them demand the very best of preparation from their underlings.

Eons of time and mountains of energy go into estimates preparations in the hope that all questions can be anticipated and suitable answers crafted.

But an answer that simply repeats “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to take that on notice” or “I’ll seek advice from the Minister” is not well-crafted.

Neither is it a suitable answer – not suitable for the Senate and not suitable for the public.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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