Typically, the most interesting parts of Senate Estimates across the bureaucracy focus on government reform efforts, wasteful spending and poor implementation. In the immigration portfolio, we get all three.
However, a tendency to take tough questions on notice – which has always happened to a certain extent – appears to be increasing. On the most contentious aspects of asylum policy, such as the use of Manus Island, there is a large degree of bipartisanship. Unfortunately, this means 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 is sad. If Senate Estimates becomes a political proxy war, its function — drawing out important bureaucratic processes and information — is hampered.
For example, Liberal Senator Zed Seselja asked Department Secretary of Immigration and Border Protection, Martin Bowles, about LGBTI matters in Papua New Guinea
Seselja: “Just to be clear, the matters about LGBTI policy which Senators are asking questions about, were they raised by the previous government when negotiating the PNG solution?”
Bowles: “I can’t recall exactly but I don’t believe so.”
This short question perfectly highlighted the bind the ALP is caught in. The PNG policy was rushed to the election and is little more than a piece of paper saying PNG will process and resettle asylum seekers.
Estimates provides an opportunity to explore these issues. ALP Senator Lisa Singh raised a recent Amnesty International report, which claimed three unaccompanied minors were on Manus Island. She also noted that distributing condoms is illegal in PNG.
But given the ALP introduced this policy, they are boxed in. Probing valid areas of enquiry leads the Liberal Senators to respond with political rhetoric in the form of questions. This is taking the sting out of many ALP questions. It makes it hard to build a case against the the government based on the PNG policy.
As an ALP member, I am extremely disappointed by the continued poor performance in Estimates of Senator Kim Carr. He barraged Lieutenant-General David Campbell with questions on the similarities of Afghanistan and Operation Sovereign Borders. While I am partial to further highlighting the media blackout, surely the ALP knows that the incident on Manus Island is the central point for these hearings.
Things are different for the Greens, but for a person calling for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to resign, Sarah Hanson-Young can sometimes be her own worst enemy.
She is extremely good at occasionally picking up important contextual information. Her questioning led Bowles to say "nobody had been made aware until Saturday" of a credible source about where exactly the death of the young Iranian man occurred.
And when Bowles said people were not claiming asylum because of sexual orientation, Hanson-Young questioned how this could be known, given the claims for asylum have not been processed – an important detail.
However, she is not as good at following up these important findings. She often leaves questions on the table. After learning it took so long for a credible source, it would have been good to know what is classified as a credible source, given the media didn't have much trouble finding accounts of what occurred (this was later addressed in further questions).
Her questions also sometimes lead her into the mud of moral considerations. Bureaucrats avoid this stuff like the plague and easily deflect questions.
One line of questioning I think should be pursued more is how public expenditure relates to Operation Sovereign Borders. Carr asked a series of questions about the procurement and use of the orange lifeboats, one of which was discovered yesterday.
The CEO of Customs, Michael Pezzullo, said it is his judgement these questions fall within the public interest immunity criteria relating to Operation Sovereign Borders as the lifeboats are operational employment.
There is undoubtedly a public interest claim regarding parts of military operations. For example, routes and procedures used by Navy ships should probably not be advertised. But to claim that this extends to the number of lifeboats on hand, or their contractual obligations, is a breach of public accountability.
These lifeboats were purchased with public funds. Reports (neither confirmed or denied by Operation Sovereign Borders command) suggest 11-12 have been purchased at a price of approximately $500,000.
“Is it your intention to purchase more?” Carr asked.
“Possibly.”Pezzullo replied, before saying he is willing to purchase as many as required. Another 20? 50? 100? That this detail is classified is a sickness in our political system.
Further, given the serious political implications for our relationship with Indonesia, the fact this is being covered up threatens ongoing tension. How many orange boats are going to wash up on the shore of Java? How does the Navy comply with Australia’s obligations under the Law of the Sea?
These are valid questions which fall outside of the public interest immunity claim by the government.
Similarly, Senator Stephen Conroy got into hot water by accusing Campbell of being involved in a cover-up.
''I mean seriously, you can't tell us the truth, you can't tell the Australian public the truth because you might upset an international neighbour. That's called a political cover-up," Conroy said.
“I take extreme offence at the statement you have just made,” Campbell replied. The committee was suspended and Prime Minister Tony Abbott called Conroy's remark a "brain snap".
Normally I am wary of these types of statements. Poor civil discourse is not typically a good sign for public policy outcomes.
But the complete lack of transparency around particular matters specifically relating to Operation Sovereign Borders raises important considerations, including the use of aggressive questioning.
But yesterday's hearings did indicate one thing: it's time the Greens and the ALP worked out how to use their Senate majority effectively before it disappears. Further senate hearings should be held as often as possible, repeating similar lines of questioning in order to uncover more information about particular incidents. This is especially the case after the initial departmental inquiry has concluded into the events on Manus Island.
They have about four months to force as much information out of the government as possible. Narrowing the scope of the public immunity criteria should be a priority.
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