View from The Hill: Senate committees are one of the few bright spots in the battle to hold government to account

It mightn’t sound much, but it had big consequences. Fifty years ago this week, the Senate voted to set up a system of committees to scrutinise government legislation, activity and spending.

As it has evolved, this network has given teeth to a parliament that in many other ways has declined, even atrophied over the decades.

Question time in the House of Representatives has become a charade (at least, thanks to COVID-19, MPs are now behaving somewhat better during it).

It rarely extracts information. Occasionally - but less often than in earlier years - an opposition can apply the heat to the feet of a minister in trouble. We saw this with the pressure on energy minister Angus Taylor over his use of an apparently doctored document, though he stonewalled and has avoided telling the full story.

The idea that misleading parliament matters has gone out the window long ago.

Outside parliament itself, holding government to account has become more difficult. Freedom of information legislation is of only limited help, with officials and ministers often obstructing rather than fulfilling its spirit. The government has an army of “spinners”, paid for by the taxpayers to manage messages and act as “gatekeepers”. They have bred prolifically.

Public servants, who once were much more accessible to assist journalists on a “background”, non-attributable basis to understand complicated policy, have been locked away from the media by governments anxious to centralise control.

The media itself says more but arguably informs less, despite the 24-hour news cycle. And with the ever-squeezed business models of news organisations as well as around-the-clock filing, journalistic specialisation in particular policy areas has declined while overall work has increased.

While there are significant committees with representation from both houses – the joint committee on intelligence and security is the most important example – in the main it’s the Senate committees that are the real parliamentary watchdogs.

They are where the bureaucrats are regularly grilled, with officials sometimes finding themselves asked to account for what they told their Senate inquisitors previously.

Treasury has just had a particularly searing experience of this. A day after it informed the committee looking at the government’s COVID response that more than six million people were on JobKeeper, it and the Tax Office publicly confessed to a huge error. The latest estimates indicated JobKeeper would only have some 3.5 million recipients and its cost would be $70 billion not $130 billion.

The existence of the COVID committee meant Treasury could be quickly called back for a please explain.

This committee is ranging widely and seeking to interview the main players across the health and economic responses. Predictably, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declined its invitation – following the convention for lower house ministers - but Finance Minister Mathias Cormann fronted.

The COVID committee has questioned government officials on topics such as fraud being perpetrated on people’s superannuation accounts through the early access to super scheme, the working of the COVIDSafe App, the Ruby Princess debacle, the future of JobKeeper, and much else.

Its presence was especially useful given that at one stage, the parliament was sitting only for the odd single day.

The Senate committees vary in type: permanent or set up to investigate a specific matter, focused on legislation or dealing with more general references in a broad policy area, “estimates” hearings to look at spending.

Estimates hearings, held three times a year, give an opportunity to probe public servants about budgetary items and numbers. A great deal of information, trivial or important, some of it embarrassing to the government of the day, is extracted.

The effectiveness of the estimates committees is reflected in the “estimates test” some public servants are said to apply to their actions: “if we do this, how will it play out at estimates?”

But it’s a two-way game. The government and officials are, according to Labor, pushing back, with public servants increasingly asking to take questions on notice, to be answered later. This gains, at the least, breathing space.

Many public servants look a little jelly-like as they face their senator questioners, but a few mandarins enjoy the challenge. The appearances of the secretary of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, who seems to relish matching wits with the senators, are always keenly anticipated.

Some hearings can be fiery, clashes among senators at times spectacular and unseemly, and reports from inquiries simply statements of partisan positions. But other times, the work can be constructive and cooperative, especially behind the scenes, and the outcomes influential in highlighting wrongs and leading to policy change.

Senate president Scott Ryan this week said Senate committees had produced some 120 reports in the 69 years before the new system and more than 5500 in the 50 years since. Public hearings increased from 500 before the change to more than 7000 since.

Good interrogators make reputations at Senate committees that are remembered long after they leave the parliament. Former Labor senators John Faulkner and Robert Ray operated as a tag team that put the fear of god into witnesses from the public service.

Occasionally a senator can effect more lasting reform through committee work than many of their ministerial colleagues do. Former Nationals senator John “Wacka” Williams pursued malfeasance by the banks and other financial institutions with unrelenting tenacity, and was a major player in having these institutions brought to account.

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