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question: if that is the case, why does Australia among only eight countries in the world continue to have a Triple-A credit rating and stable outlook”. Mr Abbott embraced the election announcement commenting that “the Coalition offers real change with a positive plan and a united team – real change for the better. We will deliver strong, experienced and


firmly fixed on the big issues that matter to everyone - protecting the environment, building a caring Australia and creating a new diversified, innovative and low- carbon economy”.

Senate Budget Estimates 27 May to 7 June 2013 Budget estimates were held in the two week period from 27 May to 7 June 2013. Estimates hearing are the most effective means by which the Parliament scrutinizes and holds executive government to account. Through the estimates

Senator Christine Milne

stable government, a stronger economy, stronger borders, a stronger Australia and a better future – for all Australians”. He concluded that “Australians

can be confident that the Coalition will deliver a strong, prosperous economy and a safe, secure Australia because we have listened to people from all parts of our country, and carefully developed Our Real Solutions Plan to build a strong Australia and a better future – for all Australians”. The Leader of the Australian

Greens, Senator Christine Milne, also welcomed the election announcement stating that “while Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott continue to fight each other in a race to the bottom on important issues like climate change and asylum seekers, the Greens are standing up for what matters”. She continued that “the Australian Greens will be calling on people to vote for a caring and sustainable Australia and to vote against cruelty and environmental destruction. We have our eyes

process the Senate assesses the performance of the public service and its administration of government policy and programmes. During estimates, various Senate committees hold hearings at which the responsible minister, or representative, and officers appear to answer questions on their respective programmes.

During estimates hearings, the Senate usually does not sit. Estimates hearings are held in public and committees performing their estimates functions do not receive confidential material. The Senate Procedural Information Bulletin (SPIB) often examines the conduct of Budget estimates, and sometimes discusses poor attempts and “barely-formulated excuses” by public servants who seek to avoid answering questions. Notwithstanding these attempts the SPIB noted that “the fact is that the estimates hearings remain one of the sharpest instruments of accountability in our system of government, providing a forum for detailed scrutiny of agency performance”. The SPIB examined the issue of witnesses trying to use the grounds of public interest immunity to avoid answering questions. For example, during scrutiny by the Senate Education,

228 | The Parliamentarian | 2013: Issue Three

Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee Sen. the Hon. Eric Abetz asked whether the agency had sought legal advice about compulsory arbitration. The officer refused to answer on the grounds of legal professional privilege but eventually took the question on notice. In response to this matter, the Chair of the Committee Senator Gavin Marshall stated that: “no witness has an independent discretion to decline to answer a question. An officer has a right, under Privilege Resolution 1(16), to refer a question to a senior officer or a minister. Alternatively, an officer may state the public interest ground on which he or she believes it may not be in the public interest to disclose the information requested and specify the harm to the public interest that could result from disclosure of the information. The order of the Senate of 13 May 2009, to which I have already referred, then sets out

of this parliament for their administration of taxpayers’ money must, in most cases, prevail. It has never been accepted in the Senate, nor in any comparable representative assembly, that legal professional privilege provides a ground for refusal of information in a parliamentary forum.”

Senator Gavin Marshall

the process to be followed. There is no other basis on which an answer may be withheld from a committee. It is very difficult to see how the answer to a question whether legal advice has been sought on a matter could attract legal professional privilege, let alone how it could harm the public interest. “The public interest in the Commonwealth agencies being accountable to committees

Senator Marshall explained that, in most cases, there were no grounds for officers to use legal professional privilege as grounds for not answering questions from a parliamentary committee. He stated that “the first question in response to any such claim is: to whom does the legal advice belong—to the Commonwealth, or some other party? Usually, it belongs to the Commonwealth. Legal advice to the federal government, however, is often disclosed by the government itself. “Therefore, the mere fact that information is legal advice to the government does not establish a basis for this ground. It must be established that there is some particular harm to be apprehended by the disclosure of the information, such as prejudice to pending legal proceedings or to the Commonwealth’s position in those proceedings. If the advice in question belongs to some other party, possible harm to that party in pending proceedings must be established. And, in any event, the approval of the party concerned for the disclosure of the advice may be sought”. The SPIB commented in

relation to this matter that “the public interest in Commonwealth agencies being accountable to committees of this Parliament for their administration of taxpayer’s money must, in most cases, prevail”. The SPIB noted that “the same witness had been criticized for similar unsoundly-based claims in two previous estimates reports of the committee in June 2006 and March 2007”.

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