TENSIONS escalated during the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee’s estimates hearings, amid concerns about the process failing to deliver proper scrutiny of national agricultural levy-payer groups.
At the Canberra hearings last week, Labor Senator Carol Brown led questioning of Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) Chair Kay Hull and Managing Director John Harvey, about the annual Rural Women's Award dinner.
Senator Brown asked when the last awards dinner was held this year promoting Ms Hull to clarify the event hadn’t yet occurred but was scheduled to go ahead, September 13.
Senator Brown then led an extensive examination of the RIRDC’s new move to start charging people to attend the event, for the first time in its 22-year history, including $160 for alumni members, due to increasing numbers.
“There was a point where I thought: should R&D money and levy payers' money be utilised to give everybody a free night out, wining and dining in Canberra?” Ms Hull said.
“Our intention is very much focused towards growing the awards and we are very committed to the Rural Women's Award, so we would like to expose our finalists to as many outside interests as possible to give them the opportunity to expose their projects.
“If we are going to pay for everybody, we are limited in numbers - so we have implemented this cost this year and I feel very excited for the awards.”
But as Senator Brown continued her line of questioning during the 35 minute session, Assistant Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Anne Ruston vented frustrations at the relevance of the examination, prompting a feisty exchange between the pair.
“With the greatest amount of respect, how much level of detail do you want to get into,” Senator Ruston said.
Senator Brown hit back, offering to swap places with the minister and exchange roles, to which Senator Ruston said, “I am not sure the government will be very happy to have you here”.
Senator Brown said “I will ask the question - I think I have been asking them in quite a reasonable tone, so what is your problem?”
Committee Chair and Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan then expedited the RIRDC session, given he was also forced to trim the day’s agenda and the number of farm levy-payer groups appearing, due to the loss of time caused by the excessive questioning of Department officials on biosecurity and other issues earlier in the day.
The committee’s original schedule set aside six and a half hours to examine farm levy-payer R&D and marketing bodies like the RIRDC, Dairy Australia, Horticulture Innovation Australia and Australian Wool Innovation Limited.
But senior officials from Meat and Livestock Australia - for the third consecutive occasion - and other groups like LiveCorp were sent home without facing any questions, as the session was cut down to only two hours and 40 minutes.
Pauline Hanson said what?
Earlier in the day, Queensland One Nation Senator and party leader Pauline Hanson raised eyebrows nationwide when she asked Department officials if cattle were still alive, when their throats were slit, during halal slaughter.
“It has been brought to my attention that, under halal certification, these cattle are actually still alive when their throats are slit,” she said.
“So can you explain, then, under halal certification, what happens with the cows?”
Meat Exports Assistant Secretary Barbara Cooper said all cattle slaughtered according to halal certification standards in Australia are stunned prior to slaughter.
But Senator Hanson consumed more time, by continuing her line of thought.
“I have been advised that is not the case, that in some slaughterhouses the cow is still alive when its throat is slit,” she said.
After Ms Cooper clarified the Department’s responsibility in regards to animal welfare standards and investigations relating to export facilities and slaughter, Live Animal Exports Assistant Secretary Dr Narelle Clegg also explained the difference between animals being alive or stunned, at the point of slaughter.
“Senator Hanson, the other point to make is that animals are alive when they have been stunned; it is just that they are unconscious,” Dr Clegg said.
“So animals will be slaughtered when they are alive, but they will have been stunned first.
“So they are not like you and I at the moment; they are like you and I when we have been knocked out.”
But Senator Hanson said “No. This has come from people working in the slaughterhouses themselves”.
Senator O’Sullivan also raised concerns about time delays when WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle asked about the carp eradication program and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s House of Representatives speech on the topic when he said 'Carp! Carp! Carp!’
“Listen, we will not be this happy in another nine hours when we have not gotten through the schedule,” Senator O’Sullivan said.
“That is a minute I will never get back - get onto the carp.”
O’Sullivan: whole system needs a ‘shake along’
Senator O’Sullivan told Fairfax Agricultural Media the “process was to blame” rather than individual Committee members with time-wasting a common problem with other Senate committee hearings, not just Rural and Regional Affairs.
“A third of any estimates day is virtually wasted with people asking Dorothy Dixers, soft questions and probing issues that are not even in the national interest,” he said.
“They don’t even know where they’re going with the questioning, which puts pressure on the number of agencies that they’ve requested to appear before the committee.
“At some stage as a chair you have to manage this - some people sit there for 14 hours and don’t even get a start.
“It’s disappointing for them as they put a lot of effort into preparing themselves for estimates but more importantly it’s a very expensive exercise.”
Senator O’Sullivan said estimates across the board could cost about $4 million per day to run, including payment of support staff and Senate services, but he didn’t know the exact number.
He said in deciding which groups should remain on the hearing schedule to appear for questioning, or be permitted to go home, he consulted with cross bench members and the opposition on their priorities.
“Sometimes you need the Wisdom of Solomon about who to knock off but that’s what we do,” he said.
“We get a lot of Dorothy Dixers and questions prepared by both sides to try and get a message out and that’s important.
“But what’s even more important is that estimates are the most powerful oversight mechanism we have as a parliament, over the government of the day, and it does not matter whether you’re sitting with the Labor party, the Nationals, Liberals or someone else, I just think it’s potential is not being fully exploited.
“I don’t want to reflect just on our committee’s performance - but I think the whole system needs a shake along.”
Senator O’Sullivan said a separate committee comprising Senate committee chairs was discussing the issue and doing work to try and streamline activities, not just estimates hearings.
“There could be some use in trying to educate and skill up some of our Senators in terms of how to conduct an interrogation of witnesses and keep their questioning to the point,” he said.
Senator O’Sullivan conceded farmers who paid levies to groups like Meat and Livestock Australia would be frustrated by the estimates process and its impact on accountability and transparency measures.
He said the estimates process was important, having exposed some of those levy-payer groups for not making decisions in their members’ interests, in the past.
“I think it’s important these opportunities are fully exploited but it has to be on relevant and material stuff,” he said.
“We’re looking at them to see that the taxpayers’ dollar - that they sometimes get for a dollar for dollar share - is properly expended and we’re getting a value for a dollar.
The story Senate estimates process denies farm-levy scrutiny first appeared on Farm Online.