• Attorney-General George Brandis has released plans to change current racial vilification laws. (AAP)
Over the years, Senate Estimates has strayed from its founding purpose as a financial accountability mechanism into a policy communications channel, writes Mark Fletcher.
Mark Fletcher

20 Nov 2013 - 3:03 PM  UPDATED 20 Nov 2013 - 3:03 PM

This week, senior public servants will haul themselves over to Parliament House to face Senate Estimates. Our best and brightest bureaucrats – whose skills and insights have been sharpened by years of understanding the machinery of government – will be compelled to answer the sort of questions you would expect from people whose authority derives from getting the first spot on their party’s senate ticket.

It’s a fabulously expensive affair. If you tallied the salary time of every person in the room, it easily costs Australian taxpayers millions of dollars a day to host.  Is it worth it?

Prior to the 1970s, ministers (or their representatives in the Senate) would be grilled by the entire Senate sitting at once. The point of these sessions was to oversee the financial management of the public service, but Ministers – understandably – were not always across the administrative details of their departments. Even with senior public servants sitting in the adviser box, ministers would routinely have to take questions on notice and report back to the Senate at a later time. The process was as clumsy as it was stupid, thus the shift over time to public servants responding directly to legislative committees about the use of taxpayer funds.

Although the modern process is still nominally a financial accountability measure, Senate Estimates rarely confine themselves to budget questions. Although public servants do not advocate or defend policy issues, they can be expected to explain how policies are being implemented or the factual issues related to policy advice. On Monday, for example, senior officials from the Human Rights Commission were interrogated about the political persuasion of the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane.

Senate Estimates have also become a mechanism for the Opposition and minor parties to ask questions about their own policies. Back in 2011, officials from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (as it was then) explained the factual background on why the LNP’s proposal to tow back Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEVs) would not be a successful asylum seeker strategy. And in 2010, a Senate committee was able to quiz Treasury about the real role played by the mining industry in Australia’s economic recovery.

These examples show the desire of Parliament to obtain greater information about the activities of the public service. Although it would be foolish to think that this desire was entirely altruistic – indeed, the questions are almost always partisan – it should make us wonder whether hijacking a financial accountability mechanism is the best way of getting information out of the government.

Last week, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection refused to answer questions posed by Parliament about Operation Sovereign Borders. Even though our system of checks and balances makes the executive branch of government accountable to the legislative, the Minister was entitled not to answer questions.

In the same week, the Treasurer refused to release the information relating to the Government’s introduction of a bill to raise the debt ceiling. While we might think it somewhat desirable – if not necessary – for Parliament to have sufficient information to make good legislative decisions, there is in fact no binding requirement for the Executive to provide this background information.

Senate Estimates is being used to fill this gap in the checks and balances framework. A few times a year, senators can bypass the ministry and access public servants directly for apolitical information. The question is why Parliament can’t get this information all year round. Legislative decisions need to be made more rapidly than the Senate Estimates cycle, and it seems insufficient that Parliament should have to wait for the next round of hearings to find information about what government is doing today. Freedom of Information laws provide some avenues for obtaining information, but nobody would claim that was an efficient process.

There are alternatives that we could consider. Last year, the Parliamentary Budget Office was established as part of parliamentary reforms. Its function is to operate like a mini-Treasury, providing independent and non-partisan analysis of the budget cycle, fiscal policy, and the financial implications of proposals. Importantly, the PBO is able to make arrangements to obtain information from other Commonwealth agencies and to obtain this information confidentially. This means that the PBO can provide accurate briefings to parliamentarians without necessarily breaching the trust between the Government and the Public Service.

There’s no reason why a similar body couldn’t be developed for non-economic information. It could be like a mini-Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. A ‘Parliamentary Policy Office’. Staffed by suitably senior members of the public service from across the major portfolios, it could allow parliamentarians to access important, apolitical information about policy options throughout the legislative cycle and in response to government proposals. It might not replace Senate Estimates, but it would be a good way to return the focus to the financial accountability of the public service.

Having a well-informed Parliament should be considered a necessary feature of a vibrant democracy. Allowing the Executive to withhold information when it’s politically convenient and forcing Parliament to MacGuyver a policy information channel out of a financial accountability mechanism, should make us uncomfortable. A Parliamentary Policy Office would be an efficient and effective way to improve the quality of both Parliament and Senate Estimates.