It’s that time of year again which political junkies love and state politicians in power hate: the annual NSW budget estimates.
Before the eyes glaze over, it’s worth pointing out that it’s a rare opportunity to witness our elected ministers and unelected senior public servants squirm under questioning from their political opponents, away from the noise of parliament.
The setting is intimate – they sit opposite each other over tables in a small room – and it’s all streamed live, online.
Expenditure, performance and departmental effectiveness are all on the table. Awkward? You bet. And yes, incredibly boring at times due to incredibly boring MPs and bureaucrats.
It requires great stamina to persevere, as those with a dull tone may in fact be attempting to deflect all manner of inadequacies and questionable conduct.
Take Treasury’s inquiry on Friday, starring 40-year old newbie Andrew Constance (Liberal) and his bureaucratic sidekick.
Treasurer Constance sat mostly with chin in in hand, staring with pure contempt and disdain at Labor and Greens MPs as they asked him questions. Didn’t everyone know who he thought he was?
And in the background, Liberal MP and Lennox Head local, Catherine Cusack, continually interjected with shrill indignation at the questions. She was told to ‘shut up’ on more than one occasion.
Besides mindless politicking – did we learn anything?
Shadow minister for the environment Luke Foley seized on comments by NSW environment minister Rob Stokes, who apparently flubbed his government’s policy on meeting a declared target of 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020.
‘The minister was confused as to whether the state even has a 20 per cent renewable energy target or whether only the Commonwealth’s target applies,’ Foley said. ‘The NSW Liberals & Nationals Plans to Boost Renewable Energy policy, released before the 2011 NSW election, clearly states their intention to ‘provide a blueprint to increase the proportion of energy from seven per cent to meet the target of 20 per cent renewable energy consumption by 2020.’
Meanwhile there were no surprises that health minister Jillian Skinner (Liberal) supports the federal government’s $7 GP co-payment policy, which has been roundly criticised by doctors, nurses and the Australian Medical Association. Shadow health minister Dr Andrew McDonald claims Ms Skinner has not commissioned economic modelling on its impact.
And proposed large-scale Crown lands legislation which would give state bureaucrats almost total control of public lands seems to be on indefinite hold, after minister for lands, Kevin Humphries, told the committee that there was ‘a lot of interest in it.’
‘There will need to be a focused response from certain sectors of the community that have a significant stakeholding in Crown land. We have received 650 submissions… we might have to go back to some of those sectors for more consultation.’
And lastly – not included in budget estimates – was the bizarre revelation that minister for primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson (Nationals), read a joint AGL/Dairy Connect press release to answer a question about the ability of coal seam gas to coexist with the dairy industry. Greens Jeremy Buckingham, who asked the question, called her an industry mouthpiece. In typical tit-for- tat schoolyard fashion, Buckingham was then labelled by the minister as ‘anti-mining, anti-agriculture and anti-development.’
Yes, the political tide is at an incredibly low ebb – thankfully there’s a public rally to encourage debate at a higher frequency.
People In The Park, Missingham Park in Ballina. 2pm, Sunday.
Hans Lovejoy, editor