Kindergarten Politicians

IF Tasmanian politics is theatre, albeit played on a very small stage, Budget Estimates is a week of matinee performances.

It’s a space where the elected representatives can liken each other to Robert Mugabe, accuse one another of “constipating the economy”, claim the Spirit of Tasmania ferries are “a superhighway for drugs”, thank one another for “another completely unsatisfactory answer”, and misconstrue Budget papers to say just about anything they want.

The annual hearings crack open the door on Government spending and fiscal performance, giving an insight perhaps not so much into where Tasmania is going as where it has just been.

The hearings can be marathon affairs lasting 10 hours as members traverse portfolios in exacting detail, before committee chairs mercifully declare: “The time for examination has expired.”

Otto von Bismark once said something to the effect that the business of government was like the manufacture of sausages, it is better not to see them being made. Estimates is Bismark’s adage writ large.

This year’s hearings were a chance for the Liberal Opposition to forensically extract the effects of the massive cuts in the 2010-11 Budget through the system.

So Tasmanians learned that in the past nine months 250 nurses had disappeared from the state’s health system one a day as the Opposition delighted in calculating and hospital waiting lists had grown about 5 per cent.

We heard of 150 fewer teachers (or 373 depending on how you count) and 118 teachers aides too, along with 50 police, although one of those will return to the streets thanks to cuts to the PCYC.

Perhaps the most extraordinary revelation of the hearings was the Government’s plan to table legislation to enact the forest peace deal with big gaps for the details to be filled in later.

Absent from the Intergovernmental Forestry Agreement bills will be the size of the reserves or of timber quotas, but at least the deadline will be met. The move will give parties to the peace deal a couple more months to sort out a lasting agreement.

By fulfilling the letter of its deal with the Federal Government, the Giddings Government will ensure $100 million in development funding continues to flow.

Among other revelations were the likelihood that Social Inclusion Commissioner David Adams will not be replaced when his contract expires in October, although the Education Department will find some work to keep the premier’s dumped $200,000-a-year former chief of staff Mark Sayer busy.

A new Basslink connector isn’t likely anytime soon, thanks to the troubled Budget, nor is a 35-seat Lower House, but the people of the Huon Valley will be getting a visit from entrepreneur whisperer Ernesto Sirolli.

And the state’s Aboriginal people will have to wait another year for proper protection of their ancient heritage, although the 14-year delay has probably imparted a degree of patience.

Estimates is a fine forum for the political trivia buff and provides good fodder for Twitter.

Where else can you find out that vandals and arsonists are costing Housing Tasmania $5 million a year, Tourism Tasmania is spending $2 million on a website, 2 per cent of the suspensions from government schools were for sexual incidents and exactly no dead birds stuffed with drugs were thrown over the perimeter fences of Risdon Prison last year?

Hayes Prison Farm is no more sold than it was a year ago, although there’s a lovely patch of bush up the back that might be worth looking after.

Oh, and there were 2.8 fewer spin doctors in the Government Media Unit last year, $699,208 less spent on travel and one less ministerial car, while compensation claims by educators numbered 501 and cost $9.28 million.

At their best, Budget estimates hearings offer an unprecedented opportunity to see the inner workings of government.

Into each hearing each morning trudges a platoon of senior public servants, each clutching a lever arch folder filled with data on the minutia of every section of every department.

What wondrous secrets must lie within those bulging folders for the person who asks just the right question the interesting tidbits governments keep from those they govern.

Premier Lara Giddings had a phalanx of about 30 minders and helpers who filled Parliament’s Long Room and while the vast majority were never required they were diverted from their daily duties nonetheless.

As a spectacle, Estimates hearings attracts a limited public following – though there are moments of humour and conflict.

Like when Premier Lara Giddings patiently explained that detailing how the Government works out its likely GST share isn’t in the public interest or when yet another minister tried to turn a question on an inquisitor, starting a reply with “Here we go again … “.

There is little love lost between Education Minister Nick McKim or his counterpart Michael Ferguson, nor between Opposition Treasury spokesman Peter Gutwein and the Premier. Even normally softly spoken Attorney-General Brian Wightman and Liberal Matthew Groom managed some sparks.

Ms Giddings’ feigned indignation to Opposition questioning is coming along well, and even rubbing off on Greens leader Nick McKim – though he could possibly try harder to suppress his broad smile when deflecting Mr Ferguson’s inquiries with political jabs of his own.

Health Minister Michelle O’Byrne displayed a hitherto unknown skill for reading out figures at a breakneck pace that unfortunately defied any attempt by reporters to write them down.

But with a power-sharing parliament, some of the sting is taken out of proceedings and the Liberals are left to do all the heavy lifting the Greens once shared.

Sourced from The Mercury

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