Last week’s Senate Estimates were unusually informative, particularly because of where we are in the electoral cycle.
It wasn’t that the hearings unearthed mass policy failures or a trove of scandal (although there was some of that), but it was most enlightening as to how the parties approached the sessions so soon after a federal election and an off-schedule budget.
Budget Estimates provide an envious opportunity for the Opposition to embarrass the government of the day.
Public service agencies prepare for estimates weeks and months ahead of the event; anticipating what might be asked of them about the portfolios they manage; workshopping scenarios and rehearsing how it might all play out consumes the time and focus of APS leaders long before any appearances in parliamentary committee rooms.
Bureaucrats in the main dread senate estimates. Some live in mortal fear of what should simply be being asked to account for responsibilities and spending, but often morphs into a full-scale grilling.
And to be fair, the public service leadership often has to take the brunt of frustration from campaigning senators who can’t seem to effectively call the responsible ministers to account.
It’s always worth remembering that it’s the government those senators are really attacking.
For the bigger portfolio areas, there is often a government minister sitting beside the bureaucrats to run interference for them. That’s in addition to government senators helping out on the questioning panel.
Sometimes the more interesting viewing is watching the senators argue with each other, leaving bemused bureaucrats some time to catch their breath and gather their thoughts.
However, this latest round of estimates was a little light on when it came to the Opposition holding anyone to account.
Instead, we saw them engage in silly fights with the likes of the ABC’s managing director David Anderson over journalist salaries and a book read on Play School by a drag queen about a girl who wore pants.
Defence secretary Greg Moriarty and his team were placed under a bit of pressure about how many former Aussie defence personnel had been approached to train the Chinese military.
But seasoned leaders like Moriarty and Anderson know how to push back and even evade questions they don’t want to answer.
Such tactics could place a less experienced manager in hot water, but Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson had nowhere to go when Anderson refused to tell her what his staff were earning.
“I just want to remind you that you’re in Senate Estimates,” she said.
“You’re required to answer all questions in relation to the expenditure and operations of the ABC. I am seeking these details. Are you able to provide them?”
Anderson replied that he didn’t believe it was appropriate and so he didn’t provide those details.
Someone else might have buckled.
But such is the impotence of an opposition so freshly out of government that they can be comfortably countered by an experienced public sector leader.
There wasn’t much Coalition senators could do by way of critiquing policies because the vast majority were what they had put in place while so recently in office.
There was more than one account this time round of over-prepared officials whose appearances kept being delayed until late in the night only to be asked, well, pretty much nothing.
The Acting Director of Commonwealth Public Prosecutions, Scott Bruckard, for example, had his call delayed until 10:25 pm and was basically asked two questions – one of them was about how long he would be acting in the role.
There was very little in the Opposition’s armoury throughout the entire week-long process.
For Labor’s part, it deflected any uncertain outcomes by blaming the former government.
“It was their policy and we’re just as shocked by what went down,” and “I want an urgent briefing about that” seemed to be the Albanese Government’s collective approach to any discomfort to have emerged from Budget Estimates.
The timing of these estimates allowed Labor to get away with it. They won’t have that luxury next time.
There was some impressive scrutinising by the Greens in these hearings, however.
That’s how we learned about the urinator at the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.
The mild-mannered but dogged line of questioning from Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson uncovered something that CEO Lisa Croft so obviously wanted left buried.
That one exchange made the otherwise unbearably dull week of estimates hearings worth the effort – and a success for some.