SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG

LABOR SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA

MEDIA RELEASE

25 November 2013

SENATE ESTIMATES: THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS

Arrogance and incompetence

This week the Abbott Government started as it means to go on with a performance in Senate Estimates that ranged from arrogant to contemptuous.

‘All we need to know’

The Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Abetz, kicked off proceedings on Monday by telling Senators on the Finance and Public Administration Committee he was only prepared to tell them about things they “need to know”.  It set the standard for the week.

Centralisation of power

Senator Abetz confirmed the all-powerful Government Staffing Committee exercised a veto power over all appointments, including within his own office.  At least Senator Abetz could identify the members of the committee, including the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.  Poor Senator Cash had no idea who they are, even though they had to approve her own staff appointments.

Senate Estimates also revealed the new code of conduct for ministerial staff which bans staff from “expressing personal views which relate to either their Minister’s portfolio area or the general work of the Australian Government.”  If staff need “guidance” they are required to consult the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.

Fortunately Mr Abbott’s chief of staff is well supported, with the Department of Finance revealing the Prime Minister’s Office has 58 staff, the most staff ever engaged by a Prime Minister.

Hungry and thirsty work

Apparently government is hungry and thirsty work for the Coalition.

With 58 staff, maybe it’s no surprise the Prime Minister’s chief of staff is personally negotiating the upgrade of the PMO’s kitchens.

What is more surprising is the $22,000 spent stocking crockery and cutlery in the ministerial wing, and new plans to refurbish the Prime Minister’s personal dining room.

And what’s food without art?  We learned the Prime Minister’s chief of staff has arranged for a $140,000 portrait of The Queen to be transferred from the collection of the National Museum of Australia to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Shelves shelved

Officials revealed that plans by Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, to relocate his oversized $7,000 bookcase, purpose-built to display his $13,000 book collection, for the second time, hit a snag with the curved walls of his new office.  To rub salt into the wounds, the Department of Finance has refused to pay for another bookcase to be built in Senator Brandis’ new suite.

Mr Hockey’s no-doc loan application

Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson confirmed Australia’s debt requirements will not exceed $400 billion this financial year.  It’s time to release MYEFO, Joe.

Job cuts, and more to come

This week the Australian Tax Office announced plans to cut 900 jobs.

Labor Senators explored the operation of the Orwellian-sounding “Business Services Centre” in the Department of Health which is being set up to warehouse displaced staff, but few details were forthcoming.

The Finance Minister, Senator Cormann, walked away from the Abbott Government’s election commitment to cut 12,000 jobs from the public service by ‘natural attrition’ alone, blowing a further $5.2 billion hole in its election costings.  The Coalition also opened the door to more savage cuts to jobs and services by outsourcing its new budget problem to the Commission of Cuts.

Everything under review

Officials revealed that all spending decisions made by the former Government are under review. Health and education are not excluded from the review.

No boat buy-backs

The failure of a key Coalition policy was confirmed by Lieutenant General Angus Campbell who revealed no boats have been bought by new the Government and boat buy-backs were not supported by the Indonesian Government.

Contradiction without clarification

The Assistant Treasurer, Senator Sinodinos, confirmed a $15 million FIRB threshold would apply to all foreign bids for agricultural land under the Coalition’s new foreign investment regime.  That must have been news to the Treasurer, Mr Hockey, who only last month said the $15 million threshold applies to those countries that have not signed the free trade agreement with Australia, and therefore we deal with those cases on a case by case basis.”

Twenty-four hours later trade officials could shed no light on the contradiction, nor offer a clear statement of policy on the foreign investment rules.

Part-time NBN Co stalls broadband roll-out

After stalling the rollout the NBN Co revealed that the Coalition’s second-rate broadband won’t be fully rolling out until the end of 2014.

Maybe this is not much of a surprise – after all, NBN Co’s new CEO and Chair is only working three and a half days a week.

FOI is not a ball sport

Questioned on the decision to release Labor incoming government briefs, but not Coalition incoming government briefs, the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department said: “I think the last two times we played softball and now we’re playing hardball – seriously”.

Advice ignored

The Rural and Regional Affairs Committee heard that Infrastructure Minister, Mr Truss, ignored the advice of the independent Infrastructure Australia over upgrades to South Road in Adelaide, choosing a pet project instead.  Not a good start.

Surprise package for Australia Post

It was revealed Australia Post was encouraged by the Government to bid for Centrelink work through a submission to the Commission of Cuts.  Australia Post’s CEO was “surprised’ by the request.  Not as surprised as Centrelink staff and clients who weren’t told about the Coalition’s plans before the election.

DonateLife Week left in limbo

Among the many victims of the Government’s grant freeze are organisations planning to participate in DonateLife Week in February 2014.  This is the response Senator Cash provided when questioned about the delay to funding for this critical awareness-raising program:

There are a number of different processes being undertaken at the moment so there is no simple answer in terms of how the processes work, there are the broader whole of government approaches to things, there are those individual grants that are of a timely nature certainly the committee can be assured that those things that are of a timely nature will be attended to in a very, um, appropriate manner.

Cold comfort.

Sitting pretty

Fans of comfy couches can rest easy with the revelation that Prime Minister Howard’s green leather chesterfield lounge suite isn’t sitting neglected in the bowels of Parliament House – Mr Andrews inherited the suite six years ago and now it’s on the move to his ministerial digs.