Estimates reply speech

05 August 2014

This is the first time I have come into the chamber to reflect on the estimates process.

Mr SPEIRS ( Bright ) ( 12:27 ): This is the first time I have come into the chamber to reflect on the estimates process. I think that doing these speeches drags this process out by another couple of weeks and adds to the pain—but never mind. The person who probably suffered more pain than me during the estimates process was you, Deputy Speaker, because you had to sit through more of it than I did!

I have been able to think both long and hard, both during the process and since it occurred, about the purpose and point of estimates. I had the privilege of spending many hours of my life in multiple portfolio hearings including with the Premier, the Minister for Small Business, the Minister for Defence Industries, the Minister for Innovation and Manufacturing, the Minister for the Public Sector, amongst others; but the portfolio I had the most misfortune of being part of was, no doubt, the environment portfolio.

The environment department and in fact the whole environmental agenda in South Australia, I believe, has really lost its way with this government. With the drought gone and forgotten and climate change relegated from being the greatest moral challenge of our time, and with Greens' preferences seemingly guaranteed no matter the environmental credentials of the worthy Liberal candidates (not that I am bitter about that), the green agenda has taken a back seat for our state's policymakers. We found out during the estimates hearing for the department that the government is refusing to rule out further cutting the number of park rangers this financial year. We now have 88 park rangers in the state down from 300 in 2002. Of those 88, I am told firsthand that they spend many hours each week writing ministerial briefings and completing onerous reporting requirements keeping them away from front-line duties.

Today in South Australia we have 343 parks spanning over 21 million hectares and making up 21.5 per cent of our state’s land mass. These areas require adequate care, protection and management, yet the people who provide that practical care, the people who can build relationships with communities and the people who can build knowledge and understanding of the way the land works, are subject to continual cutbacks. Similarly, the cuts to the Natural Resource Management Community Grants program flies in the face of good governance. These grants are used to empower community groups and landowners to take responsibility for their local environment by tackling invasive weeds, feral animals and undertaking revegetation programs.

Seed funding programs such as the NRM grants are best practice in governance because they transfer responsibility from a big, out-of-touch government to people at a community level. They empower people, build community capability and stretch the dollar much further than government might be able to do. They are also much more likely to attract additional in-kind support and build goodwill between government and communities, yet these are slashed and burned in the recent cuts.

I have said before in this place that I am an environmentalist, but in a very practical way—not in an esoteric latte-sipping way, but in a real life, tree planting, weed removing, public transport catching way. This brand of environmentalism is focused on community action, encouraging people to undertake practical works at the local level and actually getting things happening.

Consequently, the loss of the NRM grants, the loss of front-line rangers, the loss of goodwill between the environment department and communities, serves to break down the effectiveness of the department and undermine its ongoing existence, an existence which has already been called into question by the Treasurer, who canvassed its abolition as a way to plug the massive holes in the government’s budget.

Today the environment department lies broken and humbled like a wheezing mega fauna crawling through the dust to extinction. Once energetic and influential, able to drive across government and community-centric agendas, it now struggles for relevance, pondering its raison d’être and giving up the ghost, one front-line service at a time.

The estimates process for the environment portfolio was revealing for me in a whole range of ways. Not only did it draw out the crisis of existence facing the environment department, it also demonstrated all that is wrong with the estimates process. Ministers were sitting there being questioned on budget papers that were so different in format and structure from last year’s that they were barely recognisable. This is part of a game, it seems: how much can we hide through structuring the budget documents differently?

My first recommendation to make this process better, more accessible, would be to legislate the format of budget papers, set them in stone, so that only departmental restructures could change their format, and even at that, the budget papers should clearly show which areas have been combined and altered between one year and the next.

In the environment portfolio it was clear from the beginning that the minister did not want to answer our questions. Some ministers were open during this process and had a frank dialogue with their questioners, but in the environment portfolio avoidance and arrogance was the strategy of the day. On one occasion the minister refused to answer a question because it was close to impossible for us to identify where the item lay within the budget papers. There was much back and forward with the minister silently guffawing at us for not being able to translate the interminable gibberish of his budget papers to point to the exact position of the item we were questioning. The arrogance dripped from the minister with syrupy viscous, and each of his words were used to mock and chuckle at us.

Except my next question asked the minister to identify where the item was, and it took him and three of his executive advisers three minutes to find it themselves—and these were the people who actually came up with the budget. What a joke. Each question asked of him was avoided, rebutted, ignored or arrogantly answered with a Dorothy Dixer. I looked at the minister’s advisers, some of whom I know well, and they looked uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassed. It got worse.

Next up was the EPA hearing, which was only afforded half an hour, despite the fact that the Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park contamination was the most pressing issue of the month. The minister’s now infamous toilet break chewed up most of the time, followed by a lengthy and unnecessary introductory statement. I would ban these introductory statements. They are just self-important and completely unnecessary.

Another problem with estimates is the huge amount of time eaten up behind the scenes, and the members for Heysen and Kavel have already alluded to that this morning. When I worked in the public service I was often part of the 'cottage industry' that is the estimates process. Departments spend literally thousands of hours predicting what questions could be asked, writing briefings on these questions, and getting those briefings back to put commas and semicolons in places where you did not put commas and semicolons in the first place.

In fact, I was speaking to a contact in one department a couple of weeks ago, and was told that for two months her team had been completely engrossed in the estimates process and distracted from normal business by the estimates preparation process. And this comes around every year, year in and year out—a couple of months wasted on the estimates process. It is a bit like constructing the Clipsal stadium in the Parklands: no sooner is it disassembled at the end of one race than it is being built again for the next race.

It is one thing to stand here pontificating about the failings of the estimates process, but I would be doing the parliament and the community a disservice if I did not put on record some suggestions for change. Of course, I must put in a disclaimer here that these are my own views expressed as the member for Bright alone and not necessarily the views of the Liberal Party. To date, I have made no effort to persuade my colleagues of the merit of these ideas, though down the track I will try to do so.

I would significantly reform the way estimates is done, mostly because of the amount of time they waste and the lack of accountability that they actually draw out. Estimates are a waste of time. They are a waste of time for the members of the committees, a waste of time for ministerial and senior public servants being briefed and, of course, a waste of time for ministerial advisers and, let's face it, ministerial advisers need all the time they can get to come up with rubbish to tweet on their fake Twitter accounts. More importantly, they are a waste of time for the hundreds of public servants who spend those two months leading up to the estimates in a constant kerfuffle ensuring that those semicolons and commas and hyphens are correctly placed in the many, many briefings that we have to put together.

So, my vision for a modernised estimates process: I would continue to have a hearing for each ministerial portfolio and could use the annual budget as the catalyst for this occurring, but it would not be fixated on budget lines as the current process is. As I have described from minister Hunter's shambolic avoidance strategy, this is just embarrassing, and not just for the questioner; it is also embarrassing for the avoider, and it is not overly necessary. Why does a questioner need to refer to a specific point in a budget paper? Because it is convention. Well, these old conventions need to be reviewed from time to time.

Since I was elected this place I have seen so many things that need a question mark hooked around their roots and tugged on until these dusty old vestiges are pulled down and rebuilt. Estimates are one of them. I would only allow ministers and their chief executive onto the floor, no other advisers. They can go and tweet stuff. I would allow as many non-government MPs into the process as possible, both from the lower and upper house, and if anyone has a question they can ask it through the chair—none of this subbing in and subbing out.

I would not bother with government MPs. It is just unnecessary and a waste of their time. The good folks of Morphett Vale would be far better served if the member for Reynell was down in the electorate for estimates week rather than sitting here wasting her time on the government benches. Likewise, the members for Ashford, Elder, Torrens, Napier and Giles—a complete waste of their valuable time. Goodness, Deputy Speaker, the member for Elder could have been down in Clovelly Park digging out the contamination, but, sadly, she was stuck here.

I would have 1.5 hours of questioning for every portfolio. That is plenty of time for the bigger portfolios and it increases time for the smaller ones as well. And here is my biggest reform: I would welcome outsiders into the process. Now that really would be co-designing a new engagement paradigm.

I have heard lots of people say that estimates should be abolished, but I do not think that is the case. I think we could actually really increase their value by bringing outsiders in, by bringing representatives from peak bodies, from community groups, from business leaders, community leaders and not-for-profits. I think there could be a great deal of value in bringing these groups into the estimates process and asking them to sit alongside shadow ministers.

I think sometimes in this house, as a collective on both sides, we do get distracted with a bit of self importance, but we are not experts in everything, and bringing people from the outside into the estimates process would be a valuable reform, I believe. I have heard lots of people from my side of politics really cry out for significant reform in the estimates process, but I do believe that reform is needed; but in the interests of accountability we do need to keep estimates.

The good thing about estimates is that they get ministers to front up and go through an extended period of questioning, sort of like question time on valium. We need to have as many instruments of ministerial accountability at every turn, because we know the government's adverse reaction to freedom of information requests. Openness is not this government's forte. There needs to be mechanisms like estimates so we can get access to ministers without being forced to write to the bureaucracy, because, as I recently discovered, there seems to be a haphazard policy in place that prevents public servants from providing any advice to an MP or an MP's office without writing to the minister's office first.

Here are a couple of anecdotes for the house. A couple of weeks ago I was at Hallett Cove shopping centre, holding one of my regular listening posts, and a young mother came up for a chat. She asked if I knew whether the government had set down its kindergarten operating hours for the next year, 2015. I said that I did not know but that on Monday I would contact the education department and find out. So on Monday that is what my office did. A simple question for the education department. As soon as they heard it was from an MP's office they closed down: 'No, we can't tell you the kindergarten operating hours. We can't give MPs any information—you have to write to the minister.' Yes, write to the minister! As if the education department is not bureaucratic enough, they want me to punt another piece of rubbish into the system.

What if a member of the public called to ask the same question? What if one of my staff members rang the agency and asked the question, but instead of being from the Bright electorate office, imagine they were a young mum! Imagine they were called 'Lisa', and for good measure imagine if they were called 'Lisa Rankine'. So that is what we did: 'Lisa Rankine' picked up the phone and called the crazy bureaucracy that is DECD. You could almost see the DECD operative look at their checklist: No. 1—is it a bomb threat? No! Okay, do not transfer it to SAPOL. No. 2—is it a school principal? Okay, do not hang up! No. 3—is it the member for Unley? Okay, it is not, do not hang up. No. 4—is it another MP? It is not—okay, do not hang up. No. 5, is it Lisa Rankine, young mum from Brighton—okay, continue the call. So, quick as a flash, Lisa (who really was one of my staffers) was provided with information about kindy hours for 2015. That is really frustrating in the extreme. Could it be an isolated incident? I think not!

A couple of weeks back I received an email from a Hallett Cove resident concerned about the safety of an intersection. The fluorescent paint that covers the edges of a traffic island was worn away and needed to be repainted. Could I do anything about it, my constituents asked. Sure, I said, 'It's pretty easy, I'll call the transport department, I'll report it, something will get done.' Or not! I made a mistake: when I emailed the Traffic Management Centre at Norwood I revealed my identity. Heaven forbid, it was an MP's office emailing, so I was ignored. Remember, this was a pressing safety issue, so the following week, having had no response to my email, one of my staff called again, and again we made the mistake of saying that we were from the office of David Speirs. It was like an earthquake warning had been sounded in the office: everyone got under their desks and hid. 'Is it over—has the MP gone away?' Actually, this phone call was quite open: the public servant we spoke to said there was a policy in place that no DPTI staff member is allowed to interact with MPs or their offices, and we have to write to the minister.

If there is one thing I have learnt in my four months in this place it is that DPTI is a black hole when it comes to ministerial correspondence. Remember, this was a safety issue. This traffic island had visibility issues, and we were told to write to the minister. Good luck to my constituent who impales their car on the traffic island while this correspondence works through the layers of bureaucracy in DPTI.

But, I am a tenacious sort. I want to achieve for my electorate, so we decided to call back, and third time lucky! We had learnt our lesson. We are learning that, if we identify that we are from an MP's office, we will not get any luck, so we had to call back as a member of the public. How about Lisa again, but not Lisa Rankine? She has already done her duty for the state. How about Lisa Mullighan? No, my staff member said, Mullighan is too rare a surname. 'Milligan', I suggest—M-I-L-L-I-G-A-N—so 'Lisa Milligan' picked up the phone, called the department and, hey presto, this morning, within 40 minutes, they are sending out a maintenance team to take a look at the dangerous intersection. Spare me the pain. This is what we are dealing with. A government so averse to interacting with the democracy that they will not have anything to do with MPs but if you are 'Lisa Rankine' or 'Lisa Mulligan', well that is a good thing. So I look forward to 'Lisa Bignell' coming to the fore in the coming months, and 'Lisa Close 'and 'Lisa Weatherill' and 'Lisa Rau' and even 'Lisa Koutsantonis'. They all live in the electorate of Bright and they can be looked up in the electoral roll.

I will leave it at that. I believe that the estimates process should be reformed. There are significant changes that need to be made but it should not be abolished. Because the government is so averse to interacting with members opposite and doing the right thing by democracy in our state, we need as many accountability mechanisms in place as possible and, though estimates does have its failings, there is still a bit of accountability present within the system.

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