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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2909

Senator MacGIBBON(5.44) —This is the ninth year I have served on an Estimates committee. At the start of consideration of the estimates of every department appearing before Estimates Committee E this year I asked a specific question because I am concerned about the amount of time involved in the demands being put on departments by the committee system of the Parliament. I do not resile from the proposition that it is the function of the Parliament to know what is going on. I think on many things we could know more than we do, but at the same time I think there has to be an air of reasonableness about it. When I see 50 or 60 people coming in here, or even worse than that waiting for a couple of days in the corridor before they come in here, I get concerned. I asked every department how much time it put into preparing its estimates and also how many people it brought in from interstate for the purpose of those estimates. I will quote the answers I got from the Department which appeared before the Department of Defence, from the Department of Defence and from the Department that appeared after the Department of Defence. The Department of Resources and Energy answered in four lines the question of how much time was put into preparing for their estimates. It said:

About 480 man hours was put into preparing for the Committee hearing. This includes the time taken in writing the ``Explanatory Notes'' publication, the time spent at the Committee hearing and the time taken to answer questions on notice.

That is a lot of time, 480 hours, but the answer is succinct and clear. I accept that it is an estimate, but it was given in only four lines. The Attorney-General's Department answer to the question took about half a page. It said that 64 officers were involved. I will not read the whole answer, but the Department gave a costing as follows:


Pre-hearing preparation and attendance ...


Preparation of Booklet ``Estimates of Receipts and Expenditure with Explanations''...


Fares, Travelling Allowance, Overtime and Tea money, where applicable...


Follow-up work and attendance at Committee Report to the Senate and at House of Representatives Appropriations Debate...


That came to an amount of $37,000. Again, it is a reasonably concise and clear answer. Then we come to the Department of Defence and we find that there is an answer covering three-quarters of a page that tells us nothing at all. Madam Temporary Chairman, I seek leave to have the response from the Department of Defence incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The answer read as follows-

All officers representing the Department would have spent time preparing for the meeting as part of their responsibilities. It is confirmed that no officers came from outside Canberra.

On 8 September 1986 all officers attended a meeting (duration 1 hour) aimed at informing representatives, particularly new representatives, of Senate Estimates Committee requirements and outlining the general approach necessary to ensure that the Committee hearing flow as smoothly as possible.

The time taken by officers in preparing for the Senate examination would vary considerably depending upon the magnitude and complexity of the area of responsibility relative to each officer attending and of course the extent of knowledge, experience etc. held by respective officers. Where officers are generally well conversant with their areas of responsibilities, specific preparation would only require `refresher' or review activity and the time spent in actual preparation could equate to mere hours. Conversely, it may take some officers days, perhaps weeks to prepare themselves for Senate Estimates examination.

Several officers attending the examination would have spent some weeks in preparation by virtue of their involvement in:

a. finalisation of the Budget Estimates figuring;

b. preparation of Budget documentation e.g. Statement No. 3 Budget Paper No. 1, Budget Paper No. 6; and

c. preparation of Defence Explanatory Notes (Volumes 1 and 2).

The preparation for Senate Estimates examination is not confined to officers attending the meeting as most officers involved have some support staff who would be required to prepare briefing material.

Senator MacGIBBON —I will not go through it, but it is just so woolly and inconsequential that it could be in a debate about a railway timetable. Regrettably, this is one of the reasons why people such as Senator Sir John Carrick with his dissertation on Cobar a few moments ago have worries about the Department of Defence. It is very hard to find anyone there who knows what is going on and can give a concise answer or even a reasonable estimate. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for a number of people within the Department, in both the civilian and the Service elements. However, being quite unemotional about it, if that answer had been given to me by an employee of mine I would have fired him on the spot. It does not help us at all. I think there is an obligation on the Department to shape up. If the Department of Resources and Energy and the Attorney- General's Department can come up with a figure, I do not see why the Department of Defence cannot.

I want to come back to where I started; that is, to the large number of people attending Estimates committee hearings. I do not see why we cannot get three or four people from a department to come in and answer the questions asked because, by and large, the questions are of a general nature. I do not see the need for 50 or 60 employees to spend weeks preparing for the hearings and then to come in here. I think that is a waste of resources. My personal view is that questions should be restricted to those senators who are members of a committee but, even if that exclusion is not accepted, I think detailed questions should be submitted in writing before the Estimates committee meets and that we should have a restricted number of officers from the department come in.

I find it very hard to believe that senior people such as deputy secretaries and first assistant secretaries-people who are very highly paid and have been in a department for years-cannot answer elementary questions about that department. Yet when we have a first assistant secretary or a deputy secretary at the end of the table and ask a general question the first thing that the person does is turn around and look for one of his minions to answer what is really a general question. I believe that there must be people in a department who have a general knowledge of that department. We are not running a legal inquiry here. We want to know the general drift of where money is going, where it is being spent, why decisions were taken to do such and such. Generally it is a broad inquiry that goes on. I am concerned at the criticisms I have received over the years from the departments about the great deal of effort they have to put into estimates committees, in the first case, and into parliamentary committees generally, in the second case. I think that is partly a smoke-screen, partly a political exercise, on the part of the departments. They want to cry poor mouth and say it is taking a great deal of their resources. Nevertheless, I think that behind it all there is some justification for their complaint. I think it is incumbent on the Senate not to make undue and unreasonable demands. I will leave it at that.