Blogging Senate #Estimates (Feb 2014) (Part 3)

Martin Bowles (Secretary of Immigration and Border Protection) mentions that the interim KPMG audit report into the asylum data breach will be done later this week. After the violence on Manus Island, this incident has gone relatively quiet. The report will make its way public at some stage and it will be interesting to see how the data breach occurred.

Bowles is a fantastic public servant but surely he must be under a lot of pressure at the moment. When I was at immigration, he was very affable and also seemed well-regarded for management matters. Interesting he is the first Secretary at the department who has come from outside, previously working elsewhere in state and federal public service roles. Traditionally the secretary for the immigration department has had a long history within the department, such as Bill Farmer and Andrew Metcalfe. Bowles is also excellent at answering questions with the minimum amount of information necessary, a rare skill.

There are two emerging themes from the morning session so far.

“You have 7 minutes remaining”.¬†Senator Kim Carr is incredulous about the division of time to ask questions for estimates. The chair of the committee, Ian McDonald, refuses to allow the ALP and Greens unlimited time and provides opportunity for various Liberal senators to ask puff questions, akin to Dorothy Dixers. This is deliberate to waste time and remove opportunity to ask further questions, termed the filibuster by Kim Carr. I’m unsure what the long-term impact will be but the Liberals do seem pretty keen on reducing the amount of time spent by ALP and Greens questions.

Second, there is a tendency to take tough questions on notice. While this has always happened to a certain extent, it appears to be increasing. This is especially the case in regards to the politics of matters. We just saw a back and forth attempting to establish if the department had provided senate estimates briefing packs and responses to questions on notice to the government. These questions were relatively straight-forward but studiously avoided.

One sad aspect of this. As there is a large degree of bipartisanship on the most contentious aspects of asylum policy, the department seems to wear more and more of the blame as the political parties refuse to lay into each other in a way they would in other portfolios. This comes out in taking questions on notice, as the questions get ever more specific and detailed. In addition, public servants are drawn ever closer to the boundary of information and advice and political implications.

While this is a broad generalisation perhaps only relevant to parts of the immigration portfolio, this is not the purpose of the Senate Estimates hearings. This is sad, as becoming a political proxy battle often hampers actually drawing out important bureaucratic processes and information.

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