Last Friday afternoon newly appointed Northern Territory Treasurer John Elferink issued a media release advising the NT Parliament’s Budget Estimates process would be “changed to significantly reduce the burden on public servants and increase transparency.”

According to Elferink:

… Ministers … now responsible for answering all questions posed by members of Parliament. Previously there were extensive entourages of public servants who answered questions on behalf of the Minister … Gone also are the days when hundreds of public servants would spend weeks preparing information just in case it was asked.”

There is little doubt that the Estimates process serves a vital role in a democracy, even one as small as the NT. In 2010, President of the Australian Senate, Senator John Hogg told a conference commemorating 40 years of Senate committees* that:

Estimates provide the opportunity for the people to understand the government of the day’s Budget and programs and provide a forum for the government of the day to be held accountable for its actions. The estimates process highlights the need for openness and transparency in government.

Former Senator Robert Ray, who with Senator John Faulkner had a reputation for ruthless cross-examination in Senate Estimates, also spoke at the conference, and noted one aspect of Estimates that for mine is less obvious but no less important than the theatre that happens in the Committee rooms, the “will this pass Estimates scrutiny?” test:

Somewhere, someplace in Canberra right now public servants are making an administrative or a policy decision and one of the key questions they are going to ask is this: will this survive scrutiny at estimates? … What higher testament can a set of Senate committees have than that being in the minds of every public servant? … How many billions of dollars do you think have been saved simply by having the threat of Senate estimates committees?

That test should apply no less in the offices of Departmental offices in Darwin than those in Canberra.

This year the NT Estimates Committee will sit for six days in mid-June. Even under the revised proposal put forward by Elferink, NT public servants will still have a substantial workload preparing Budget briefing papers for each department in order that their Minister will have all relevant material before them in the Committee room, even if he or she is not across all the material in that brief or across the work of their department.

This last point will be particularly relevant.

Following the most recent reshuffle of the current Mills Cabinet there will be a number of new ministers – of varying experience and capacity – who will be not only under Elferink’s reforms be required to get across the minutiae of a complex departmental load (think of newly elected Member for Drysdale, Lia Finocchiaro for example, who is also a Cabinet newbie with Ministries for Sport and Recreation, Racing, Young Territorians, Senior Territorians and Statehood) but also be required to respond to the forensic questioning of the Labor Opposition members of the Estimates Committee (which consists of the membership of the Public Accounts Committee).

Examination of the responses of a junior Minister from the Estimates Hansard at last year’s sittings – when Labor was in Government – show a heavy reliance on Departmental staff when things get sticky. At last year’s Estimates sittings Local Government and Regional Development Minister Malardirri McCarthy was accompanied by four senior Departmental officers with others available “as appropriate.”

This year Ministers will be very much on their own.

For mine there will be two sessions to watch this year.

Elferink has recently been appointed as NT Treasurer and, as is apparent from last year’s Estimates Hansard, considers himself a bit of an economics wonk.

The other hot-ticket session will be that of newly anointed king-maker and Member for Namatjira Alison Anderson. She now has a very demanding Ministerial load, particularly the hot potato Department of Children and Families. At the 2012 Estimates sittings for this Department Labor’s Kon Vatskalis – a senior and experienced Minister – was questioned by the CLP’s Robyn Lambley, who while relatively new to the Parliament, has a strong interest in this area and gave a good account of herself.

This year will be very different and Anderson will be questioned on the conduct of her Department at a time when swingeing cuts by her government have apparently slashed budgets, staff and capacity. It should be quite a show and I think it is safe to say that while Elferink’s reforms will allow senior and well-briefed Ministers to give a good account of themselves and their Departments, less experienced Ministers may well curse Elferink and his changes to the rafters.

In June 2009, Anderson’s last appearance before the Estimates committee as a Minister, then with responsibility for the Departments of Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport, she was assisted by no less than eleven Departmental staff, including two CEOs.

Elferink has reportedly made claims of savings of up to $2.5 million from these changes. It is difficult, assuming that the bulk of the costs associated with preparation and attendance at Estimates arise from the backroom preparation of documents and briefing papers and not from having a few shiny-bummed CEOs and senior staffers waiting around in an ante room, to see where savings of that magnitude will come from.

Elferink’s comments that “Questions that are unable to be completely answered … will be answered at at later time. The Government will provide these answers as quickly as possible.” raise further questions about his claims of large savings.

In the past those answers have had to be provided by 20 July. One benefit of having public servants in the estimates committee room with their Ministers is that, more often than not, complete answers to even complex questions are provided on the day they are asked, with few set-off as Questions on Notice. I think it is safe to assume that under Elferink’s reformed processes those same public servants will be required to spend time – long after Estimates sittings have ended – answering an increased number of questions.

Elferink’s changes may also reflect broader concerns that the Country Liberal Party have with the “long and protracted form of questioning” that highlights the need for openness and transparency in government. The current form of estimates sittings was introduced by Labor in its first term in government in 2002 and it is fair comment that the CLP have had few members that have been able to match the ALP’s forensic abilities during Estimates sittings.

It remains to be seen whether Elferink’s changes diminish the democratic value of the Estimates processes. For mine they won’t, primarily because Labor will ensure that Government Ministers and their Departments are properly held to account.

NT Labor’s Shadow Minister for Government Accountability Michael Gunner reckons Elferink’s new estimates process is designed to gag public servants to prevent the truth being revealed about the CLP Government’s decisions.

“The CLP are gagging public servants to prevent them from revealing the truth to Territorians. At their first opportunity, the CLP have decided that public servants cannot answer questions and that details of questions must be provided before estimates. “They are asking for a copy of the exam paper before the exam.

I reckon that Labor hasn’t picked the hidden sting in the tail of Elferink’s reform – with the added light cast upon them by Elferink’s reforms – and without the support of the many Departmental staffers they’ve relied upon in the past – it may be those same Ministers that rue Elferink’s changes most.

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* Throwing Light Into Dark Corners: Senate Estimates and Executive Accountability.” Papers on Parliament No. 54, December 2010.