It’s a big day for Senate Estimates - seriously
This week heralds another parliamentary bout of Senate Estimates. Government ministers see estimates as a necessary evil that comes with ministerial territory. Some opposition members rub their hands in glee as estimates approach. Others probably reckon they should get a life. But tragic as it may seem, estimates can be about as good as life gets in opposition.
The quaint title comes from ‘estimates’ of government expenditure being referred to Senate committees in the annual budget cycle, for opposition parties to examine the operations of government. Some public servants relish the approaching prospect of being grilled by the Senate; some see it as grist for the mill; others barely tolerate it. And some just don’t show.
This bout of Senate estimates is no different from many before – but for one thing. For the first time ever, the boss of the nation’s workplace umpire Fair Work Australia will show.
(Geoffrey Giudice is due to face Senate Estimates from approximately 10.30am today)
Sadly for accountability and transparency of government, Fair Work President Giudice is not alone in never having fronted estimates. Thankfully, the number of agency heads who habitually don’t show for estimates is pretty small.
Within the specialised parliamentary community of those who ‘care’, the identity of serial ‘no-show-ers’ is both an open secret and weeping wound. They include some pretty important people, like Secretaries of the Departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the head of Australia Post. History also notes notorious non-attendees from times past, such as the head of Telstra and a previous Secretary of the Department of Transport.
More often than not, parliamentary heads nod knowingly in recognition of the ‘populist’ yet odd reasons attributed to some senior public office holders not being accountable in the same way as their colleagues. Maybe some of them really are busier. And have deputies who are somehow better equipped than others’ deputies, to do their boss’ job at estimates.
As if their showing at estimates would somehow taint their office with disrespect not befitting. After all, most of us are god-fearing, judge-respecting creatures of habit. And many of us are kept at bay by a person in lofty office.
It’s as if the ‘serial no-show-ers’ are somehow ‘different’ from everybody else – they don’t have to front, because they have never fronted. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Wise heads said ‘but the boss of the workplace umpire is a judge, he’s never come before, we’ll never get him to come.’ The government-controlled Senate workplace relations committee invited him to come, then noted he’d never come before, then told him he didn’t have to come, and that his second-in-command would do just fine.
Someone in Opposition said whilst he may well be a judge of a real court, he doesn’t wear that wig as boss of the workplace umpire, because it’s not a court, and that if he wants a job as a judge, he should get another gig.
The then clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, said that past practice alone doesn’t bind either a senate committee, or the Senate itself, and that the committee could require him to show.
The Senate pulled the final punch, firing a rarely used salvo to order Justice Giudice to front estimates, from this week on.
Justice Giudice says he’ll show, no doubt salivating the prospect.
There are important reasons why the boss of the nation’s workplace tribunal should front estimates, not only this Wednesday, but for the future.
The workplace umpire influences the everyday lives of most Australians, sorting industrial strikes and workplace fights, setting minimum wages and overhauling the nation’s workplace awards. Its boss is responsible for managing it efficiently; and Australians are entitled to know how he’s going about it.
How will he run the show, to quieten emboldened unions and soothe industrial argy-bargy; to set fair wages that protect people’s jobs; to make workplace awards that leave no-one worse off; and to sort unfair dismissal claims without signalling ‘go away money’ is renewed currency?
Until today, the boss of the workplace umpire has dealt with estimates differently from almost all his colleagues in senior public office. From today, the Senate treats him differently, by ‘ordering’ him to attend estimates – an order which if breached, has considerable consequence.
It need not have been so. Indeed, thus far, it’s not so, for the President’s serial ‘no-showing’ colleagues. But maybe they’re thinking carefully about what they’ve wished for. Interestingly, the new boss of Australia Post says he’ll attend estimates. The sometimes sleeping Senate giant moves pretty quickly once awakened.
The ‘no-show-ers’ shouldn’t lie awake estimating how long before the Senate looks their way. They should get a good kip, readying to relish the prospect of spruiking their agency’s wares at estimates.
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