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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Department of the Senate

Department of the Senate


CHAIR: I welcome the President of the Senate, Senator the Hon. John Hogg; the Clerk of the Senate, Dr Laing; and officers of the Department of the Senate. I thank the department for again providing the committee with updated information on Senate committee activities. Senator Hogg, do you wish to make an opening statement?

The PRESIDENT: Thank you, Chair, I do. The opening statement I make will go across the three departments that I will appear with today and refers to ICT. I think that each department may have something to say; some may not. As I have previously informed the committee, following the transfer of responsibility for electorate office information technology from the Department of Finance and Deregulation to DPS, the Speaker and I initiated a review of information and communication technology for the parliament. The report of the review, undertaken by Mr Michael Roche, has now been finalised, and I table a copy for the committee's information. Chair, as it is more likely to be the subject of discussion when DPS come, there will be multiple copies made available when DPS arrive.

CHAIR: Thank you.

The PRESIDENT: Mr Roche has provided a comprehensive examination of the issues faced by the parliament in providing ICT services to senators, members and the parliamentary departments in an efficient and effective manner. The report includes 11 recommendations with three key themes: (1) the adoption of a strategic plan for parliament itself, with a parliament-wide approach to the provision of parliamentary ICT, with governance arrangements that include the parliamentary stakeholders and all four parliamentary departments; (2) the adoption of a one-stop-shop approach to the delivery of ICT to reduce overlap and duplication and to simplify access for users of the Parliamentary Computing Network; and (3) the adoption of a more flexible approach to the selection and delivery of ICT for parliamentarians and to the introduction of new technology.

The Speaker and I have agreed in principle to the recommendations that Mr Roche has made, and we have instructed the parliamentary departments to facilitate their implementation. We have also agreed on a governance structure for the delivery of parliament-wide ICT services. The governance structure will be as follows. The Presiding Officers will retain overall responsibility. There will be a joint appropriations and staffing committee with oversight of the delivery of parliament-wide ICT services by DPS. And, for the first time, there will be a chief information officer for the parliament. The position has been created and is currently being filled.

A parliamentary ICT advisory board is being established. The board will oversee the development of the strategic plan for parliamentary ICT. It will be chaired by the Secretary of DPS and will comprise one senior representative from each of the other parliamentary departments, the Parliamentary Service Commissioner or the Parliamentary Service Commissioner's nominee, one nominee from the government party, one nominee from the opposition party and one nominee from the minor parties and Independents. There will be user groups which will include a parliamentarians group, a members of parliament staff group and a parliamentary departments group, and these are in the process of being established. We believe this new government structure provides greater opportunity for input by senators and members into the type of ICT services they receive. Mr Roche noted that blackberries and multifunction devices are the only networked devices not included in the transfer of the electorate office IT from the Department of Finance and Deregulation. He recommended that these items also be transferred to DPS.

We have therefore begun discussions with the Special Minister of State in relation to the issues identified in the report and in particular the implementation of recommendation 7 relating to the transfer of blackberries and multifunction devices and recommendation 11 relating to the approval of the acquisition of new technology by senators and members through an amount to be sacrificed from their stationery and office requisites allowance. We have briefed POITAG, the joint House committee, other members and senators through the whips and the Senate appropriations and staffing and House appropriations and administration committees. And we have briefed the Minister for Finance and Deregulation and the Special Minister of State on the report of these changes.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Dr Laing, I invite you to make an opening statement.

Dr Laing : At the budget estimates hearing in May, I advised the committee that for some time the department's financial position has been contracting in real terms because income has been static while expenses, particularly staff costs, have been rising. The department's annual report for 2011-12, which was tabled last week, shows that again the department has recorded a loss of $1.3 million, and this is the fourth consecutive year that there has been a deficit.

I also mentioned at the last hearing that that in recent times the department has made a number of internal savings to address this issue, and obvious areas of expenditure have been targeted. However, as more than 80 per cent of our budget is allocated to employee costs, savings have also had to be made in this area as well. We have reduced staff numbers from the full-time equivalent at the last hearing of 160 to 153 this financial year to remain within budget.

Of course, this reduction in staff numbers does have some impact on senators. I am very conscious of this. But, as we have done over many years of shrinking budgets, the department has continued to explore ways to work smarter. This means looking at more efficient ways of serving the Senate rather than continuing to perform the same tasks in the same way because that is how things have always been done. Significant efficiencies have been made, particularly in relation to publishing and printing. Those savings are starting to materialise.

Throughout this process I have ensured that the Appropriations and Staffing Committee has been regularly briefed. I provide quarterly financial reports to that committee through the President and have briefed the committee on details of various savings measures. I have engaged with the committee and individual senators and groups of senators about specific concerns and have responded accordingly.

Clearly the situation is unsustainable in the longer term, however. I made some comments in the Clerk's review in the annual report about this and related matters of principle, including the need for greater autonomy for the Senate and parliament generally in setting its budget responsibly but independently of the executive.

Senator PARRY: Welcome, Mr President and Clerk. Clerk, can I go to you first on the budget. You mentioned in your opening remarks that the budget is static whilst expenses are rising. That probably is not an exact reflection because the budget in real terms is actually decreasing each year; is that correct?

Dr Laing : In real terms, that is so, yes.

Senator PARRY: Can you give us an indication of how much that has decreased over, say, the last 10 years or whatever parameters you would like to use.

Dr Laing : I can give you some figures about the impact of the efficiency dividend for a span of years. You know that at the moment and for the past three financial years we have been subject to an additional efficiency dividend on top of the normal efficiency dividend, as have all government departments. The impact of the efficiency dividend over eight financial years from 2008-09 to 2015-16, which is the third forward year from now, is that the department will lose $7 million. So it is a very significant impost on our budget and on our ability to perform the sorts of things we need to do to support the Senate and its committees.

Senator PARRY: You indicated that costs are rising and that, with that $7 million projected over that period of time, there are new ways of doing things to create these efficiencies, but there is only so much that you will be able to do with new ways. What is the overall impact once you have exhausted the modifications you can possibly make to the Senate?

Dr Laing : Once we have exhausted all the savings we can think of in our operational expenditure, which is only 20 per cent of our budget, we do have to look at our staff profile and work out how we can get by with fewer staff.

Senator PARRY: You mentioned that we should look at greater autonomy for the financing of the Department of the Senate. Do you have any models in mind? Is there any best practice or any other practice you can point to that we should look at?

Dr Laing : There are some best practice models. These are not unique to Australia. Throughout the Commonwealth, of course, there is a great community of nations who have systems of parliamentary democracy, and at one of the CHOGMs, in 2003, all the members of the Commonwealth signed up to a set of principles called the Latimer House principles. They comprise a set of guidelines about the relationship between the arms of government—parliament, executive and judiciary—and how that relationship is best cast in terms of practical working models. Those principles include a best practice guideline that houses of parliament should have the autonomy to set their budgets using an all-party committee to determine and administer a budget of the house without amendment by the executive. That is a Commonwealth-wide best practice model. It is something that we have the facility to achieve because of the Senate Appropriations and Staffing Committee, which is a high-level all-party committee with responsibility for determining the Senate budget, but in practice there are other forces at play that tend to modify the autonomy of the Appropriations and Staffing Committee. In other words, our budget, like any other budget across the Commonwealth, is effectively set by the department of finance and through the cabinet processes.

Senator FIFIELD: Do the Presiding Officers or the clerks of the parliamentary departments appear before the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet?

Dr Laing : It is a very rare thing. From time to time, Presiding Officers have appeared. My colleague and I appeared in the last round, which was the first occasion, in my recollection, of that having occurred. I do not think it was particularly appropriate for us to appear. I think it is not appropriate for a cabinet committee to be questioning parliamentary officials. I think the appropriate means of communication is with the Presiding Officers. But that was the way it was.

Senator FIFIELD: But that is not usual practice; it happens from time to time.

Dr Laing : Yes. It is not usual practice. I think one of the reasons is that there just really is not a recognition of the role of the Appropriations and Staffing Committee—and the House has an equivalent committee. It is really a matter of government negotiating with those committees.

Senator FIFIELD: Are you aware of any state or territory parliament in Australia that has the relationship with the executive government on budgetary matters that the CHOGM best practice suggested?

Dr Laing : I think all jurisdictions in Australia are struggling to achieve that, but recently the ACT Legislative Assembly passed an act which put the office of the Clerk, now the office of the Legislative Assembly, on a statutory footing, and it includes a provision for, I think, the Speaker—probably in consultation with members—to determine the budget of the assembly. If the determination is varied by the executive, then the legislation requires the Treasurer to front the assembly and explain the difference. That is a reasonable step forward, I think, and the ACT Assembly has—

Senator FIFIELD: You would rather see a Treasurer come before the parliament than the Clerks of the parliament come before the cabinet?

Dr Laing : That would be much more appropriate.

Senator FIFIELD: Thank you.

Senator PARRY: Mr President, in relation to the ICT advisory board, its composition and its relationship with the existing POITAG—the Presiding Officers Information Technology Advisory Group—could you explain the continuing role you foresee for POITAG and what interaction you foresee between POITAG and the ICT advisory board?

The President : The continuing role of POITAG is under consideration by the Speaker and me. We will be making some announcements on that very shortly.

Senator PARRY: The representation on the ICT advisory board consists of one House of Representatives member, one senator and—

The President : No, there is one member from the government, one from the opposition and one from the minor parties and Independents.

Senator PARRY: From either house?

The President : Yes. It is up to the government party to determine who their representative will be, as it is for the opposition and so on.

Senator PARRY: Thank you, Mr President.

CHAIR: Obviously we have not yet had the opportunity to read the report. But is there a time line for implementation of the recommendations?

The President : The only firm part of the time line, at this stage, is that we are about to appoint, I believe, an acting chief information officer so we can get the whole thing up and running. The idea is to try to get it moving as quickly as possible. I know that, when DPS come along, they should be able to give you details of the recruitment process taking place. But I think the fact that the Speaker and I have written to the government, the Independents, the minor parties and the opposition, seeking their nominations for the ICT board, shows that the process is definitely underway. But I cannot give you a definite time line.

Senator RYAN: You said that an announcement regarding POITAG is pending. How far away are you from a decision—or an announcement, if you have already made a decision?

The President : We will be writing to people in a matter of days rather than weeks.

Senator RYAN: Given that we are not going to have another chance to talk about this until February next year, what credence did you give to the—I think it was unanimous—recommendation of POITAG that the larger group be maintained in an advisory role. One of the many reasons was that the system seems to have improved quite dramatically because of the larger group providing a lot of feedback about their different experiences with the IT we have available and its reliability. The fear was that the smaller group may be perfectly appropriate for procurement and determining specific recommendations but that it would not benefit from that wide and varied experience of senators and members from regional Australia, from metropolitan Australia, from those who travel a great deal and from those who might not travel as much. Have you taken those concerns on board? It was a real fear that the small group would lose what POITAG has delivered, which is a wealth of experience that has helped inform some of the changes.

The President : I think you are looking at things the wrong way. The idea is to get greater consultation through the three named user groups. There is a parliamentarians users group, there is a user group for the staff of members of parliament and there is a departmental user group.

Senator RYAN: It has been a concern expressed in POITAG that the mobility of some was not taken sufficiently into account. That was one of the great concerns about IT—that a small subset of those groups is highly mobile, whereas the majority of users are hard-wired in this building or in our electorate offices.

The President : I think you will find the attitude will be different. I think you will find that, if you listen to the Secretary of DPS—and I do not want to put words into that person's mouth—the idea is to have an ICT environment which takes account of to the high mobility of people, particularly senators and members, right across Australia.

Senator RYAN: What I am trying to say, Mr President, is that the feedback of those members of POITAG, which has been well known within their own parties, was that that was the only forum where they could bring a litany of issues that have happened in the past, and that a smaller group, which is focused and outlined in attachment H to the report—the ICT advisory board—simply would not catch or provide a forum for all those issues to be addressed.

The President: There is a second string to that bow—that is, the Appropriations and Staffing Committee—which will oversee the work that is being done by the Department of Parliamentary Services and, in particular, the chief information officer. I would not underestimate the involvement and the role of that organisation.

Senator RYAN: With all due respect, one of the reasons POITAG has worked and had such an important role has been that IT is a small subset of the Appropriations and Staffing Committee's very large job. As we have just heard from the Clerk, it has a number of challenges on its plate. There seems to be a push and a resistance. This is nothing more than an advisory forum for the presiding officers, where a group of MPs who represent all their colleagues can bring to bear their experiences. What I have detected from the report, the discussion we have had and even now is that there seems to be an inexplicable push to get rid of that and have a smaller group, and we will be back to the same way, where people are calling people randomly in the department or the chief IT officer with all their issues, problems and concerns.

The President: I think that is a wrong characterisation. I think you should let the process proceed, and if we need to revisit this discussion and revisit what is happening, I am quite happy to do so.

Senator RYAN: Sure. That is all I have on the IT, but I have a couple of other questions. Can I talk about the bells not working on the first day back, Mr Hallett and Dr Laing. When we came back in August the bells did not work in all the offices. Every morning I hear the bells being tested regularly at about 7.25 or 7.30. Were they tested that morning and the fault not picked up or is it a DPS issue?

Mr Hallett : Senator, it is probably mainly a DPS issue. You are correct: the bells are tested regularly; we all hear them being tested. I was with the President, taking the President in that morning, when I noticed the bells were not ringing in Senator Hogg's office, so I asked for it to be investigated as quickly as possible. From memory, the advice I had back reasonably promptly was that a circuit board had burnt out. It was replaced fairly quickly, I think within the hour, and the bells were working. I think it was a problem with an old piece of hardware. I presume DPS could probably provide more information if you need it.

Senator RYAN: I was more concerned at the fact that we seem to have a test and the fault appeared not to have been picked up by the test, but I will check that with DPS.

Mr Hallett : My understanding is that it was a hardware failure; it was just that a circuit board burnt out.

Senator RYAN: Sure. The only other questions I had were with respect to the Senate occasional lectures. How far do they go back? Roughly when did they start?

Dr Laing : They started in 1989, from memory, as very occasional lectures. They were put on a more structured and systematic footing in 1990. Since then we have had hundreds and hundreds of people come and lecture.

Senator RYAN: Who chooses who do it? Is there a board or is it the Clerk or the Presiding Officer?

Dr Laing : No, it is an administrative function. Staff canvass ideas and put them to me for approval. We aim to get a mix of topics, interests, all with some connection to themes of parliamentary, government or constitutional matters or matters of interest. Our next one, this Friday, is actually a lecture about a political cartoonist from the earlier part of the 20th century. We have a huge range of topics. We have people from all sides of the political spectrum give lectures. We have had the Presiding Officers give lectures. We have had Senators give lectures—I think, Senator Faulkner, that you have done one in past years.

Senator FAULKNER: I hope that you found it satisfactory!

Dr Laing : It is memorable, Senator.

Senator RYAN: When you have people from interstate, does the department fly them in or do they come in under their own steam?

Dr Laing : Yes—usually. But it depends; they might be coming here for another—

Senator RYAN: for something else. I appreciate that.

Dr Laing : We try to do it on a very modest budget.

Senator RYAN: Is there a set cost, or is it funded out of general administrative costs?

Dr Laing : No, there is not a set budget for it. It is funded out of the Procedure Office's general research fund.

Senator MOORE: Very few of us get to go to those lectures regularly, because of the time frame. But, in the few I have attended, I have been deeply impressed by the number of members of the public who attend. I am interested in the way that the lectures are publicised in terms of the genuine interest that people in the community have—mainly in Canberra, of course, because of the nature of it. The couple I attended there had 70 or 80 people from the local community getting involved in Parliament House, which is—I imagine—one of the purposes of the whole process.

Dr Laing : Yes, that is exactly right. In fact, 70 or 80 is probably on the lower side of our usual audience, which is around that number to around 150. Some lecturers bring full houses, depending on their profile in the community. We have a broad mailing list. One of the very few pieces of newspaper advertising retain is our advertisement of the occasional lecture in the Saturday Canberra Times before the lecture. We find that we do have quite a community reach—there are people who put it in their calendars and come along and meet their friends and have lunch afterwards—so it is in that sense a community event.

Senator MOORE: Is there any particular link with the PEO process in terms of the community tours that sometimes the PEO runs for people in the wider community? Is there a link in the sense that there is some kind of cross-referencing there?

Dr Laing : It is actually a separate program. It has been going a lot longer than the PEO's community outreach programs. But I think that a similar audience is interested in both.

Senator RYAN: I know it comes out of general research, but is it possible to get a series of costs for the last few years?

Dr Laing : Yes, we can do that.

Senator RYAN: That would be appreciated. Are these things streamed or broadcast in any way?

Dr Laing : They are recorded, and they can be both listened to and viewed from the website.

Senator RYAN: So it is possible for people outside Canberra to access these?

Dr Laing : Yes. In addition to that, we always publish either a transcript or the paper that the lecturer has prepared. So the audience that attends on the day is possibly—at least, I am hoping so—the tip of the iceberg.

Senator RYAN: Yes, the server slows down when you put the transcript up!

Senator KROGER: So you coordinate the occasional lectures; but I understand that the budget does not come under the Department of the Senate budget.

Dr Laing : No, it does, Senator. I said that it came from the Procedure Office budget.

Senator KROGER: I see—it comes from the Procedure Office budget.

Dr Laing : The Procedure Office of the Department the Senate, yes.

Senator KROGER: Do you have a target in terms of how many lectures you seek to put on in any one year? You know—a projected framework for a particular year?

Dr Laing : We would aim for about 10, but it depends on lots of things: people's availability; sometimes we might have a beautifully-planned series of 10 lectures starting in February and concluding in November, and somebody drops out or somebody cannot do it then. We also are able to tap into visiting academics because we have lots of connections with places like the ANU. So, if we hear of someone who is coming and who has a paper that would be of interest to our audience, we might schedule an extra lecture. It is really a flexible and pragmatic process.

Senator KROGER: How many people are involved in organising the lecture series?

Dr Laing : It is done within our research section, which is a component of the Procedure Office. The Director of Research probably does the heavy lifting on researching the possible subjects and lecturers, with one or two of his staff assisting. On the day, there is a need for people to be in attendance to guide members of the public into the lecture, to assist in handing out flyers or just to assist. So there would be two, three or four staff on the ground on the day.

Senator KROGER: Okay. Thank you.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr President, I wanted to ask about the status of media filming and photography of parliamentary proceedings. I noted, in a brief you put out last year, you said that there was a review of media arrangements being undertaken by the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings. I think it mentioned there—or at some point I have read about—a roundtable that was to be held at the start of this year. So I was interested: has that roundtable happened, when will the report come out and will it be made public?

The President : Yes, the roundtable has taken place. I cannot recall the details of that. I have not personally been involved in the actual proceedings. I can get details of what happened and I can get those to you.

Senator RHIANNON: Is there somebody here who oversaw that, who could speak to my questions, please?

The President : No. If I can assist you, that has been run through the House of Representatives secretariat. They have looked after the detailed running of that affair. So I will get you the detail and I will get back to you.

Senator RHIANNON: I wanted to ask about the restrictions on the coverage, about the inconsistency between the Senate rules and the House of Representatives rules with regard to photography—how that has arisen?

The President : The actual inquiry itself?

Senator RHIANNON: No, no. I have a specific question. In the Senate, you would obviously be aware of what the rules are with regard to photography; in the House of Representatives, it is possible to take wider shots—

The President : I will ask the Usher of the Black Rod.

Mr Hallett : There are general rules for filming and photography in the building that the Presiding Officers have agreed on. Sitting alongside those general rules, there is a resolution of each house. So there is a resolution of the Senate and there is a resolution of the House of Representatives. And, as each house is its own master, there are subtle differences in what the media can do and the broadcasting principles for each chamber. We could get you copies of those resolutions as they currently stand if that would assist you.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, I would appreciate that. I understand, as you have said, that each chamber is master of its own decisions. With regard to the inconsistencies that do exist, with regard to TV shots and still photography, has consideration being given to how that should be resolved?

Mr Hallett : I cannot comment on what the committee is doing, Senator. But it is probably worth also explaining that there are guidelines, as I understand it, for DPS camera operators. That is probably something that the DPS witnesses could assist you further with.

Senator RHIANNON: So maybe it is back to the President. Was that considered in the review, this inconsistency between the chambers with regard to still shots and filming?

The President : That I do not know. I attended only one of the meetings of the review, at its very early stages, and then it was passed over to the secretariat to conduct the rest of the review. So I can find out that detail for you and get back to you and give you a report on that. As to the second thing, the report of the broadcasting committee, I understand that that is yet to be finalised and I am sure that, when it is finalised, it will become a public document.

Senator RHIANNON: When do you expect it to be finalised?

The President : I have no defined time line that I can give you at this stage, but I will search that out.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you had any complaints from the media about these rules and their restrictive nature?

The President: As I said, I have not participated in the taking of evidence or the roundtable sessions, so I am not familiar with the business that was transacted at those meetings. But, again, I can take that question on notice and have it responded to for you.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for taking it on notice and for supplying that other information. Could you also take on notice the number of times the rules have been breached over the last decade and whether any penalties were imposed?

Mr Hallett : I can probably assist you there. There is regular dialogue between the press gallery, the Serjeant and myself, because we do the day-to-day running around, if you like, trying to ensure that the guidelines are complied with. It is always a very healthy tension—that is probably the best way to put it—because the media want to get their story. The Serjeant's view and my view is that this is a workplace for senators and members and that is why we have the rules. I am aware of one formal sanction that has been applied on our side of the building in my four years here, and I can get you details on notice about that. It is going to be very difficult to look at how many complaints there have been from the press gallery over the past decade, because generally the way the press gallery works is that it is a telephone call or a corridor discussion. I can certainly provide you with details of the one sanction that I am aware of that has been applied on the Senate side in relation to a press gallery member, early in my time, who did the wrong thing.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it possible to take the question on notice for the past two years?

Mr Hallett : Certainly. That would be—

Senator RHIANNON: More workable. Thank you. I would like to move on to the issue of FOI, maybe to the Clerk and the President, whoever could—

CHAIR: I am sorry to interrupt, but, Senator Ryan, did you have a follow-up question?

Senator RYAN: No. It went back to the other issue.

CHAIR: Sorry.

Senator RHIANNON: Have there been any discussions with the Attorney-General or her office about challenging the interpretation that the Senate is subject to FOI?

Dr Laing : There have been some discussions with officers of the Attorney-General's Department about the decision of the Australian Information Commissioner to revise the guidelines to indicate that the parliamentary departments, other than the PBO, are subject to the act.

Senator RHIANNON: That would lead to legislation?

Dr Laing : Yes. There has been some discussion around legislation, and that discussion is ongoing. There is also a review of the act due to commence late this year, which I am sure I will make a submission to.

Senator RHIANNON: How many FOI applications have been made since the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner made guidelines which note the department is subject to FOI?

Dr Laing : I will ask the Black Rod to answer that one.

Mr Hallett : Through you, Chair, there have been six FOI requests which have been made. They have all been dealt with. They are on our register, which is on our website.

Senator FAULKNER: It would be useful, Mr Hallett, if you could say what 'they have all been dealt with' means.

Mr Hallett : From memory, one was referred to the Department of Parliamentary Services because it was not within the remit of our responsibility. For a second one we had no documents that met the request. A third one related to items that were in the care of senators and had been written off. I contacted two senators who had been unfortunate enough to have their laptops stolen and provided the information and the senators agreed. The remaining requests were to do with the amount of moneys paid to senators, which is already publicly available, but I collated that information and provided it to the people who were requesting the information.

Senator FAULKNER: Thank you.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean that you approved supplying the information of three out of the six? Is that how you would describe it?

Mr Hallett : I would not use the word 'approved'. I mean we tried to provide the information where possible. The first case was about catering and senators' use of catering. The Department of the Senate has no role to play in that, so I referred that to the Department of Parliamentary Services. There was another request where we checked the files and we did not have any documents or information, so I advised the person of that and they accepted that. There was the issue of the stolen laptops, as I have mentioned, and the rest were to do with payments to senators.

Senator RHIANNON: Four?

Mr Hallett : Sorry, four. Thank you.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering public money allows the Department of the Senate to function, should it be beyond the reach of FOI laws?

Dr Laing : I might take that one. There is certainly an argument that the administrative functions of the parliamentary departments—the Department of the Senate—should be within the remit of the FOI regime. We do run on taxpayers' money; we are open and transparent about our operations. The difficulty comes, I think, with things that are not the administrative functions of the Department of the Senate, and that is the whole area of proceedings of parliament and the operation of the Senate and its committees, and there is a very strong argument under the separation of powers that those areas should be beyond what is effectively interference by the executive. This is not a radical idea; it is already present in the Freedom of Information Act by the way that the act applies to the courts and to the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General. In recognition of the fact that they are separate institutions of government, the FOI Act applies only to administrative documents of court registries, not to the proceedings of courts, and it applies only to the administrative documents of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General, recognising that there are other areas that are beyond that coverage.

Senator FAULKNER: In relation to transparency for administrative documents and such matters, does the Department of the Senate have a policy in relation to full transparency?

Dr Laing : I believe we do, yes. We have always cooperated with the spirit of the FOI Act. Those students of old annual reports will see from time to time where we did get requests, purportedly under the FOI Act, that we did outline how we responded to them. Yes, I have no argument with the idea that the FOI Act should apply to administrative documents of the department.

Senator FAULKNER: Thank you.

Senator RHIANNON: You raised the important issue about the separation of powers. Obviously it is fundamental to our parliamentary process. I would be interested if you could expand on what makes the department different from other agencies and therefore would justify, if I am understanding correctly, some level of exclusion from the federal FOI scheme.

Dr Laing : The major difference, of course, is that we are not a government agency. We serve the Senate, which is established under chapter I of the Constitution, as opposed to executive agencies, which serve ministers of state, appointed under chapter II of the Constitution. The running of the Senate is up to the Senate itself. The Senate has control over its own proceedings and committees have control over their proceedings, to the extent that that has been delegated by the Senate. So it is totally inappropriate for any outside body to interfere with those operations. This is the absolute fundamental tenet of parliamentary privilege, going back centuries upon centuries, that proceedings in parliament shall not be impeached or questioned in any place outside of parliament. What parliament does is up to parliament, not up to the executive.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, it is certainly an interesting one, isn't it. It is like we are cooperating with the spirit but not the law in terms of how freedom of information plays out. Do you feel that there are some contradictions there?

Dr Laing : No, not at all, because for the most part parliament operates in public openly and transparently. Committees have hearings in public, like this, and to the extent that they do not operate in public it is their decision not to. It is their decision about the evidence they receive—whether or not to publish it. Their private deliberations they may disclose in terms of publishing their minutes or relating in reports how they went about coming to a particular decision, but that is up to the committee, and no-one can interfere with that right.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Senator RYAN: Are you aware of whether, for any staff of the APS, attendance at such lectures would count for internal training purposes?

Dr Laing : I have no idea, Senator, no.

Senator FAULKNER: I wanted to ask about the senators pecuniary interests register and access to it. There was a recent series of articles in a Fairfax newspaper about what was described as politicians' perks, which used information from the Senate pecuniary interests register. I commence by asking you, Clerk, whether you are aware of those articles.

Dr Laing : I am aware, yes.

Senator FAULKNER: Are you aware of the personal explanation that I made in the Senate as a result of major inaccuracies about my own pecuniary interests which were in the Fairfax database?

Dr Laing : Indeed I am. I think you identified 10 errors in the Fairfax database that they had ostensibly based on the actual register of interests.

Senator FAULKNER: That is true. The information that was made public, in what I would describe—trying to be as fair about this as I can—as a searchable database that the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age produced, was gained, as I understand it, from publicly available information courtesy of the Department of the Senate and the Department of the House of Representatives. I appreciate you cannot comment on the Department of the House of Representatives but, in relation to the Department of the Senate, can you confirm that that was the source of the information?

Dr Laing : I expect so, because the registers in both houses are public documents. They are tabled from time to time, but in the meantime anybody is able to inspect the paper document—and that paper document is now online.

Senator FAULKNER: How long has it been online?

Dr Laing : From the commencement of the current Senate. This is a decision that goes back some time. The Committee of Senators' Interests, in a previous parliament, agreed that the register should be placed online to make it more accessible, because before then you could only see the register by physically inspecting it.

Senator FAULKNER: Do you think there should be any role or capacity for the Department of the Senate to check on material that is—I am trying to think of the correct verb here, not to verbal anyone—produced from a Senate database? Has any thought been given as to whether there might be a checking mechanism by the Senate itself?

Dr Laing : There has not been. I think it is really a question of resources. I am not sure, if you start with one set of checking, how far you would have to take it. Lots and lots of different applications use information sourced in Senate records. The fact that they cannot get it right—I do not know how we can monitor that other than by becoming aware of it through press reports, as happened in this case.

Senator FAULKNER: I certainly made my concerns about the inaccuracies public through a personal explanation. Are you aware of any other inaccuracies in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age database?

Dr Laing : None that have been brought to our attention.

Senator FAULKNER: So this would depend on a senator accessing the records in relation to themselves and ensuring that they were in fact accurate?

Dr Laing : That is correct. There is also the question of whether it is something for the department or whether it is not something in the first instance for the Committee of Senators' Interests, which monitors the register.

Senator FAULKNER: Certainly, but it is difficult for me to ask questions of the Committee of Senators' Interests. But, if you would care to comment on that matter, that is fine. I am not sure it is entirely appropriate for us to canvass the business of that committee in Senate estimates.

Dr Laing : That is right. I guess we are reliant on what the committee reports to the Senate by way of its activities.

Senator FAULKNER: So hence accuracy, as far as I can determine from asking these questions, is really dependent on those who themselves access the database or on individuals actually checking the entries in relation to themselves.

Dr Laing : That is my understanding, yes. I would be very happy to draw this transcript to the attention of the committee, if you think that is a good idea.

Senator FAULKNER: I think that would be helpful. I have to be honest here: this really only came to my attention because I met a few people in the street, effectively, who told me about my extensive financial resources and holdings, which came as an enormous surprise to me and a tremendous disappointment when I realised that it was only the views of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age and there was actually no truth to it at all.

Dr Laing : Of course this is an inherent danger when you manipulate information. That is possibly one of the reasons why the Committee of Senators' Interests has always taken the view that it should publish what senators provide on their forms rather than having any system of transcribing or repackaging the information as some other systems of pecuniary interests disclosure do.

Senator FAULKNER: To be fair, I am sure the media outlet would say, 'There have been some transcription errors in this case.' They would also say that the advantage of the format that they have used is that it is a more easily searched database than that currently provided by the Senate. Let us put the transcription errors aside. Would you have a view on whether it is a resources issue or whether there is perhaps an opportunity in the future to make the Senate database in relation to pecuniary interests a little more user-friendly and searchable?

Dr Laing : I think that is something for the committee to have a look at, in conjunction with resources being available, yes.

Senator FAULKNER: The pecuniary interests declarations are effectively made in hard copy by senators, are they not?

Dr Laing : They are, yes.

Senator FAULKNER: Therefore, I assume any move to making a fully searchable database would clearly require significant resource allocation from the Department of the Senate.

Dr Laing : It would. It would also involve quite a significant change to the approach of the senators' interests committee to the register, as I outlined before.

Senator FAULKNER: Anyway, I would appreciate you passing that on to the committee—

Dr Laing : I shall do so.

Senator FAULKNER: if they have not heard already. The other issue I wanted to canvass, if I could, was just in relation to the establishment of the new Senate meeting rooms. What are they and what are they going to be used for?

Dr Laing : I will ask the Usher of the Black Rod to answer that one.

Mr Hallett : I think we explored this issue at an earlier estimates hearing. The former attendant stations were unused spaces. There is a shortage of meeting rooms in the building, as we are all acutely aware, so we put a proposal to DPS that those spaces could be better used as meeting areas, particularly for departmental meetings, which would take some of the pressure off committee rooms so that the committee rooms could be used by senators. Those two rooms have now been commissioned and are available for use by officers of our department and officers of the other parliamentary departments, if they so need them.

Senator FAULKNER: Do you know how long they have been available for use?

Mr Hallett : We had some issues getting it finished because of what we call defects, but I think fairly recently. I could find the exact date on notice for you.

Senator FAULKNER: They seem to have been there for a long time and unused; this is what I'm grappling with. Is that right?

Mr Hallett : My understanding is that there were some teething problems getting the final things finished, but they have now been resolved. Certainly, a notice went out in our department a short while ago saying that the rooms were available for use. But I can get the exact dates on notice.

Senator FAULKNER: Fair enough. What sort of defects are we talking about?

Mr Hallett : They were to do with locks and air conditioning, I am advised.

Senator FAULKNER: Were they not air conditioned?

Mr Hallett : I think there were some issues with the ducting and getting the air conditioning to work properly in what had formerly been a large open space and which is now a contained space. Again, I can get more information for you on notice.

Senator FAULKNER: This was an initiative of the Department of the Senate, wasn't it?

Mr Hallett : Yes. We originally asked for it to be done, because it was an unused space. If we go back a couple of years, our mail and freight room that had been upstairs we moved down to the former northern attendants area on the ground floor. That had been quite successful. Based on that we looked at the other unused attendants stations and thought they could be better utilised, so we put a proposal to DPS. There was consultation with Mr Giurgola and the rooms were built and commissioned.

Senator FAULKNER: Would you expect Senate committees to use these Senate meeting rooms?

Mr Hallett : Not really. As I said earlier, the thinking we had was that departmental officers who currently often book rooms—not rooms as large as this one, but some of the other, smaller committee rooms—would use the new rooms, which would take some of the pressure of committee rooms. We basically have more meetings, both of senators committees and departmental officers, than there are rooms currently to host them.

Senator FAULKNER: Anyway, if you can take them on notice. I can ask DPS a couple of these questions about the difficulties you have described, but I would appreciate understanding how long they have been sitting there unused. It seems to me to have been a while. I have noticed them and wondered what the hell was happening with them.

Mr Hallett : My understanding, for the record, is that they are now in use.

Senator FAULKNER: Since when?

Mr Hallett : That is what I will have to take on notice, but to be honest it is fairly recently.

Senator FAULKNER: A matter of days?

Mr Hallett : I would have to take that on notice.

Senator FAULKNER: It would not be since I suggested to someone that I was going to ask questions about the Senate meeting rooms? I hope it would, because that—

Mr Hallett : I do think it is a couple of weeks. I do not want to mislead the committee, so I would prefer to take it on notice.

Senator FAULKNER: I will be very interested to learn.

CHAIR: Dr Laing, I have a question in relation to committees and your opening remarks in relation to the challenges within the budget and staffing arrangements. I was wondering if you could inform the committee as to the activities of the committees and what impact if any of the budget is having on their work.

Dr Laing : As the committee is aware, we provided the usual update on committee activity to this committee at the end of last week. The figures show that levels of activity in this parliament to this point are pretty comparable with levels of activity in the last parliament. We took on board suggestions to try to compare apples with apples, so you will see some of the graphs in the document provided compare things like number of references or number of reports across a very similar period for each of the last two parliaments. If I take the number of references that committees have at the moment—that is committees administered by the Committee Office—at this point in the 43rd Parliament there have been in total 210 references to committees, compared with 224 over a similar period in the last parliament and 153 in the parliament before that. Graph 3 shows us that there have been 323 reports presented this parliament compared with 322 at a similar point in the last parliament and 239 in the parliament before that. So I think you could say that, in terms of trends, the levels of the last parliament are being sustained in the current parliament and that the committees are being resourced appropriately—but with much closer workload management by the Committee Office executive to ensure that resources are attached to the committees that need them.

Senator RONALDSON: I was looking through the performance review for the 2010-11 annual report. There is a reference here under the heading, 'Factors influencing performance':

Demand for the department’s services is substantially driven by the requirements of senators, the Senate chamber and committees. Each year, significant factors include:

• the political composition of the Senate …

Other factors, such as 'workload of committees', are also mentioned. But I just want to concentrate on the point about political composition. Is the current composition—a larger number of minor parties or Independents—driving different dynamics and influencing performance more than in previous parliaments? It was just an interesting comment to have in there. I assume that the political composition does drive the dynamics of the place. I am assuming that, with the two major parties, the work pressures are probably less, whereas with the others they are more. Could you just explain that reference in the performance overview, please?

Dr Laing : Certainly. As you know, the numbers matter. Getting anything through the Senate, whether it is an order for the production of documents or a committee reference, requires a majority of the members of the Senate to support it. In recent parliaments, we have experienced the situation where the government party was in the majority. During that time, we did see quite a marked decrease in the number of references going to references committees. We did not see a decline in the number of bills going to committees. In fact, we saw an increase in the number of bills. During that time, we saw a marked reduction in the number of orders for production of documents being agreed to. So the numbers in the Senate influence the work of the Senate and consequently the work of the department.

In terms of the current situation, I think the more interesting feature is not the numbers in the Senate, which are very much 'business as usual'. But the situation in the House does, I think, have some impact on the work of the Senate. It is very interesting that, in the 43rd parliament to date, it was only last week that we had our first disagreement with the House of Representatives over legislation—for the whole parliament. That is a highly unusual thing. I am not sure what it actually tells us, but, in terms of the work of the department in supporting the legislative process, it means that the things we are doing are slightly different from the things we usually do.

Senator RONALDSON: Thank you. I will stew on that.

Dr Laing : It is not a political comment; it is really a statement of the bleeding obvious.

Senator RONALDSON: As I said, I will stew on that.

Senator FAULKNER: I would have thought that the figures you gave on committee references reflects precisely the point you are making.

Dr Laing : Indeed they do.

Senator RONALDSON: This may have been discussed while I was trying to get my laptop working, which is always a difficulty. Given the pressure the department is under, is the implementation of your plans to move forward ad hoc or is there a proactive response with other departments?

What is the nature of the relationship between the Department of the Senate and the other departments in the context of a forward plan to address service provision, modernisation of facilities et cetera? Is there an overarching group that actually has some overview of this place as a whole—the parliament, not just the Senate?

Dr Laing : I guess the overarching group there is the Presiding Officers, who have joint responsibility for the joint facilities and individual responsibility for their own departments. I think that there is a lot of cooperation between the parliamentary departments. We have a number of forums where we meet for coordination matters. There is a senior management coordination group. There are various IT coordination groups. The thing that we always have to safeguard, of course, is the independence of the houses—the right of the Senate to decide what it wants us to do and the right of the House to deal with its own business, as separate entities. But, within those constraints, I think there is a reasonable amount of cooperation and coordination. Now the Presiding Officers' ICT review has disclosed that what we lack in ICT is a capacity for strategic overview, and that review is addressing that identified shortcoming by the recommendation—which the Presiding Officers have accepted—to appoint a chief information officer for the parliament. I think that is the sort of direction we need to be going in.

Senator RONALDSON: It is interesting that you have approached it that way. What concerns me is that there is the potential for a bit of patch detection here by the Senate and the Reps and other departments. With the IT stuff, I understand there is now a comprehensive overview. But, given the enormous pressures that everyone is under—both this department and the other, DPS et cetera—I cannot quite understand why there is not an overall plan for Parliament House itself involving all those departments. I would have thought that everyone was under pressure to modernise, everyone was under pressure in relation to service provision and everyone was under enormous cost pressures. I just do not understand why we have these silos. I accept there is a bit of an overarching approach now with the IT info, but why isn't there an overarching approach to this place across all departments?

Dr Laing : It is the Constitution, Senator—and it's more than 'the vibe'! It is the fact that the two houses are constitutionally independent bodies.

Senator RONALDSON: Well, what an extraordinary answer, with the greatest respect. I am talking about modernisation of facilities, I am talking about cost reductions, I am talking about a whole lot of things that are totally unrelated to the Constitution. In some respects, the fact that you gave me that answer indicates what the problem is. If it is good enough for the IT, why isn't it good enough to have an overarching group looking at the long-term needs of this place, the cost pressures on this place and the resourcing requirements of this place, rather than having a whole lot of silos, Clerk?

Dr Laing : It is not an extraordinary answer, Senator. While I apologise for the flippancy, the heart of it is the constitutional fact that we have two independent and sovereign houses of parliament. Now, I am sure you are not suggesting that we would have things like a joint committee office, where you have staff under the control of the Speaker supporting Senate committees.

Senator RONALDSON: Rather than giving me scenarios, perhaps you could just answer my question. If it is good enough to do it for IT, why is it not good enough to do it in an overarching sense for everything else that goes on in the place?

Dr Laing : In a sense, it is done for those common services, and that is the role of DPS—to provide common services like IT, the Library, Building Management. I think it is done to the extent that is constitutionally possible, leaving to the two houses their independence and their right to control their own proceedings, in each case under the supervision of a senior management committee of the members or senators of each chamber.

Senator RONALDSON: There is a Senate order on one of the departmental contracts relating to the period 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2012, the Salmat digitisation of tabled papers. Is that proceeding on track?

Dr Laing : That is an ongoing project which is proceeding on track. The aim of the project is to digitise all tabled papers back to 9 May 1901. We have done that; we have done the historical part of it. The contract, effectively, is to enable us to digitise current material tabled in the Senate.

Senator RONALDSON: And the Corporate Express contract? That is just a long-term office—

Dr Laing : That is our stationery—

Senator RONALDSON: stationery requisition contract?

Dr Laing : That is our stationery contract, which is done on a joint procurement basis.

Mr Hallett : I should add that there is a whole-of-government move to stationery purchasing that we are following up that is coming down the track as well.

Senator RONALDSON: What about the contract for $1.345 million to SAIC Pty Ltd for systems software development?

Dr Laing : Yes. That is for the redevelopment of the systems that underpin Table Office functions and Senate support—the generation of Notice Papers, journals, legislation, procedural scripts for the chamber, the production of the red, the Dynamic Red, the Senate daily summary. All of that requires redevelopment because the current system is aged and nearing obsolescence.

Senator RONALDSON: What system do the Reps have?

Dr Laing : They have the same. It is a joint system.

Senator RONALDSON: It is a joint system. I notice in the budget statements that, under 'Employee benefits', there is an increase from $16.496 million to $17.226 million. Is that related to wage increases or is that personnel increases?

Mr Hallett : That would reflect the pay rise, under the enterprise agreement, of three per cent.

Senator RONALDSON: Okay. It does not reflect increasing staffing levels?

Mr Hallett : In fact, as the Clerk explained in earlier evidence, the numbers are now going in the other direction. They are going backwards.

Senator RONALDSON: Under 'Assets', you have got 'Trade and other receivables', which are dramatically decreasing in 2011-12 from $10.464 million to $3.639 million. There is an increase—and I do not know whether it is a commensurate increase—in 'Intangibles', from $1.485 million to $5.345 million over the forward estimates. Can you just tell me what the 'trade and other receivables' are and what the 'intangibles' are. They may well be reflecting one and the same, but I do not quite understand.

Mr d'Angelo : The 'trade and other receivables' substantially comprises our prior year unspent appropriations. I am not sure what you are looking at, there, but if you go to note—

Senator RONALDSON: The budget statements, page 26.

Mr d'Angelo : The budget statements.

Senator RONALDSON: There are accumulated funds, are there, that will be—

Mr Hallett : Yes. We have unspent appropriations, and those funds are the funds that are being used to meet the deficit that we have recorded each year for the last four years. Currently, the unspent appropriations are approximately $12 million, as reported in the annual report.

Mr d'Angelo : So those forward year estimates are forecasting the investment in capital projects, utilising those prior year unspent appropriations.

Senator RONALDSON: What were the unspent appropriations at four years ago if you have been drawing down on it over that four year period?

Dr Laing : They were at a very significant level. Over the years, we had accumulated around $20 million in unspent appropriations. Part of that came from our agreement with government over the funding of our committees. We had an agreement for the funding of four select committees in any year and, if we did not use that money, it went into this pool of unspent appropriations. Some years ago, the Appropriations and Staffing Committee made a decision to return approximately half of that to consolidated revenue and—

Senator RONALDSON: How long ago was that?

Dr Laing : That was in 2007-08, from recollection.

Senator RONALDSON: What was the figure at that stage?

Dr Laing : It was around $20 million at that stage, or just over.

Senator RONALDSON: And it was brought back to what?

Dr Laing : It was brought it back to about $10 million or $11 million. That $10 million or $11 million was earmarked for things like—you mentioned the SAIC contract a few moments ago—the replacement of the Table Office Production System and other long-term projects that we did not have any other funding for.

Senator RONALDSON: I am not clear. You said there have been reductions over the last four years of those accumulated funds and you said that there was about $10 million in there four years ago, but in 2011-12 it is showing it as $10 million. Where was the reduction?

Dr Laing : It is the accountants.

Senator RONALDSON: I don't intend to be an accountant; I am just interested. You said there has been a reduction over four years but the figure four years ago was $10 million.

Mr d'Angelo : No; four to five years ago, the figure was around $20 million.

Senator RONALDSON: Yes, and then it was halved and then four years ago it was at $10 million or $11 million and there have been reductions ever since.

Mr d'Angelo : It has sat around that quantum of $10 million to $11 million.

Senator RONALDSON: So you have not been using those accumulated funds to meet deficits then?

Mr d'Angelo : No; those larger capital investments that I mentioned have only begun in the last 18 months.

Mr Hallett : Senator, if you look at page 144 of our recently tabled annual report, there is actually a table there that gives a breakdown of the unspent appropriations. They are effectively our cash reserves that, as the Clerk says, we propose to use for particular capital projects—for example, the Table Office Production System—that are urgently in need of update, but they have also been used to fund the deficits that have been recorded for the past four years. It is a book entry but—

Senator FAULKNER: Isn't the critical element here, historically, the number of select committees that the—

Senator RONALDSON: Can I just get an answer to this first? I am sure that is a great question, but I just want an answer to this first. Someone was saying something.

Mr Hallett : Senator, I just drew the committee's attention to the unspent appropriations table on page 144 of the recently tabled annual report, which gives a breakdown of the unspent appropriations.

Senator RONALDSON: And the intangibles, Mr d'Angelo—what is this?

Mr d'Angelo : That is primarily any software that we own.

Senator RONALDSON: We have got $1.35 million on the SAIC contract. What else is adding to that over the next five years?

Mr d'Angelo : We are currently developing the Table Office system to replace the very old document production system.

Senator RONALDSON: That is the SAIC contract, isn't it?

Mr d'Angelo : That is correct.

Senator RONALDSON: That is $1.35 million, so where is the—

Dr Laing : Senator, can I ask what document you are quoting from? I do not think it is what we have got in front of us.

Senator RONALDSON: It is the budget statements, Department of the Senate, page 26. I would be a bit surprised if you did not have it.

Dr Laing : We do. You were citing an earlier annual report before.

Mr d'Angelo : There are a couple of other capital projects of a smaller nature included in there. There is a committee office system that we are also developing currently.

Senator RONALDSON: Rather than holding up the committee, can you please take on notice what is going to form that quite significant amount, if it is indeed those systems making up that nearly $4 million extra. Could you detail those for me please.

CHAIR: Are there any further questions? If not, I suggest that we take the morning tea break now. Thank you much, Mr President and Clerk, for appearing before us.

Proceedings suspended from 10:19 to 10:35