Send In The Clowns


Additional Estimates hearings have been taking place all week in Canberra. In Estimates, Senators have the opportunity to ask public servants questions relating to government expenditure and about the "objectives, operational procedures and efficiency" of the programs for which they are responsible. It can be slow going, with questions perpetually put on notice — but it’s as good an example of keeping the bastards honest as you’ll find in the parliamentary process. And there’s no doubt that there are plenty of senators whose tough questions work to promote transparency and accountability in government.

Eric Abetz is frequently lauded as the Dark Prince of Senate Estimates. It’s hard to tell whether is is the Senator himself or his staffers who so closely monitor the broadcasts of the ABC for pernicious imbalance and deviation from the Corporation’s statutory obligations. Other favourite Abetz topics include Kerry O’Brien’s pay packet and how the ABC staff budget is spent. But he examines all range of other matters, too. On Monday, for example, Abetz distinguished himself by posing tough questions about fox scats and bird baiting in his home state of Tasmania.

The achievements of Abetz in Estimates have earned him his own hashtag on Twitter, #abetztimates, and a bevy of reluctant admirers. Arguably, however, his probing style has drawn attention away from two of his comrades in Opposition, Senators Ian McDonald and Ron Boswell.

Queenslanders McDonald and Boswell were in form in the Environment and Communications Legislation hearing (pdf) when it dealt with climate change and energy efficiency on Monday, an event which roved from cyclones to carbon farming to fuel tax credits to Tim Flannery’s appointment to the Climate Commission.

It’s true that many Australians are confused by many aspects of climate policy. It’s also true that most Australians don’t have staff to brief them on its constituent elements. Nor do they have staff from the Department of Energy and Climate change to answer their questions.

Senator BOSWELL: Could someone give me an explanation of what carbon farming is and how it actually works?

Ms Thompson: We would be very happy to do that. The carbon farming initiative is a legislative scheme that was an election commitment at the time of the last election. It sets up a legislative framework for allowing farmers and other landholders to create what are known as carbon offsets from activity on their land.

Senator BOSWELL: Thank you. I understand.

Glad that’s cleared up.

Climate sceptics who are concerned that their views are not being expressed in the houses of government will find solace in the Estimates transcripts. Those who are concerned about the level of research which takes place in senatorial offices, possibly less so. Here’s McDonald making a case for Bob Carter being on the Climate Commission.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Do you know if your science advisers talk to or get their knowledge from scientists who do not actually comply with the most publicised view of scientists? For example, there are a couple of scientists at James Cook University in Townsville, a very good university with very good scientists. I mention no names, but one of them —

CHAIR: Senator Macdonald, is that sound from your laptop? It has now stopped.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes, I am sorry. Unfortunately, the government has not got enough money to repair my computer, so we have to put up with these sorts of —

CHAIR: It is all that googling you are doing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes, it is, indeed. I am sorry to Hansard, particularly, and to the committee. It has gone now.

McDonald does not release his prey easily and the Chair struggles to rein in his questions. Not so Senator Penny Wong, who is known for her disciplinary force. Like Abetz, she has earned her reputation as an impressive Estimates operator.

Senator WONG: Senator, your views on this are well known. You are someone who does not accept the reality of climate change; you are entitled to that view. That is not a view —

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Minister, please do not verbal me.

Senator WONG: Sorry, I thought that was —

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Every estimates you try to verbal me, and every estimates I make my position very clear, which I will do again as soon as you are finished.

Senator WONG: I think your position is that you do not accept any human contribution to climate change.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: As soon as you are finished I will tell you for the 15th time what my position is, which you continue —

CHAIR: Senator Macdonald, maybe if you let the minister finish you can get to that and then we can move on.

Senator WONG: The government does not share your view and, frankly, I would suggest to you that the consensus, or the majority of scientists with relevant expertise, do not either. I would make the point that my recollection — and obviously I am not in this portfolio anymore — is that the last decade was the warmest decade on record. Globally, I think January was the warmest January on record. It may be that in 20 years time people look back and say Senator Macdonald was right. It may be that the majority of scientists with relevant expertise who have been telling us this phenomenon is occurring are, in fact, right.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thanks, Minister. I have told you this many a time, but I do not expect you to put in the front of your mind my views on anything. My view has always been that of course the climate is changing. I have read about when the earth was covered in ice; so clearly the climate continues to change on our earth. Long before man had any impact on it, it was changing. I accept that the climate is changing. I also say that the majority of scientists seem to disagree with the IPCC —

Senator WONG: We do not agree with that.

Although Wong was not able to convince McDonald of the location of scientific consensus, she was able to help Senator Boswell make sure his views were on record.

Senator BOSWELL: I would like to look at trade-exposed industries, which would presumably be heavily impacted by the carbon price and an ETS. I note the European Union has 164 industry and agricultural sectors which have been designated as trade-exposed under the EU scheme; this compares with 35 sectors and activities that have been designated as emissions-intensive trade-exposed, or EITE, under Australia’s CPRS and renewable energy targets.

CHAIR: Sorry, I think everyone is having a real problem hearing you.

Senator BOSWELL: Okay, sorry.

Senator WONG: If you lift the piece of paper that you are reading from, it might be easier for you to read into the microphone.

The lines between experts and amateurs, Googlers and researchers are not always clearly marked. As he commended the Bureau of Meteorology for their online tracking of Cyclone Yasi, it was clear which side of the fence Ian McDonald stood on.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I have no scientific knowledge, but it seemed to me to be the most accurately tracked cyclone. Some say it is because it was so big and there was a high somewhere there that kept it on the straight and narrow, but it did seem to be the most accurate prediction I have had the misfortune to experience for a long period of time.

Everybody knows that Question Time is just a performance. Estimates is where you really get to know your politicians — and sometimes they put on a show. It’s a pity the House of Representatives doesn’t have a similarly revealing process.

You can read transcripts of Estimates online a few days after they take place (there’s a list of them here).


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