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Estimates: Questions on the Estimates process and making it more democratic

During Parliamentary Budget Estimates on Friday 16 July 2021, I asked questions of the Clerk and the Speaker about the Estimates hearings process and reforming it to make it more democratic. 

You can read the answers below or in the official Queensland Parliament Record of Proceedings (Hansard).

Mr BERKMAN: I appreciate the opportunity to ask a question or, hopefully, two. To the Clerk first of all: these hearings effectively account for two weeks worth of activity on the precinct compared to the ordinary 12 sitting weeks and then the budget week on top of that. Can you tell the committee how much it costs parliament to hold these estimates hearings each year as a round figure or as a proportion of the parliament’s total operating budget?

Mr Laurie: I do not have those figures at hand. They are a little difficult to calculate. It is a little bit like the cost of an additional sitting week, or anything of that nature. So many of the costs are essentially sunk costs. For example, for the two weeks of estimates there will be a cost in terms of labour for all the people who attend the chamber, set up the chamber and all the rest of it. Most of the costs are sunk in that sense. There will be additional costs for things like electricity and travel for members to come down to parliament that can be isolated, but the vast majority of costs are sunk costs. We have done that exercise from time to time for extra sitting weeks and things of that nature. It is very difficult to extract the exact cost of an extra sitting week or a couple of weeks of sitting and to come up with what it actually costs because so much of that is sunk costs. If this were not occurring that cost would be accruing in the main anyway. There would be components of overtime and members’ travel and allowances that would be expended because we have estimates, but the overall proportion of costs would be sunk costs.

Mr BERKMAN: Obviously that does not account for the departmental costs in preparing for estimates?

Mr Laurie: No, it does not account for the departmental costs. One of the things I like to emphasise continually is that it is very wrong, I think, to judge the value of the estimates process by the hearings. That might seem an odd statement to make, but, in my opinion—and this is now the 25th estimates hearing that I have appeared at—the value of estimates is not in the 45 minutes or one hour that the Parliamentary Service, for example, may have before the estimates committee, but it is preparing for the estimates and the self-reflection that goes on. I know for my organisation that the value is in self-reflection. It is about reflecting upon what actually went well and what actually did not go well—what are the things that we can boast about and what are things that we are really scared people are going to ask questions about; I am not going to tell you what they are.

CHAIR: I am sure there is nothing, Mr Clerk.

Mr Laurie: I would hope that that self-reflection pervades the entire public sector. Do not judge the value of this process simply by the hearings; the value of the process is in all the preparation that goes on. Departments may moan about the preparation and the resources that go into it, but if they were not doing that then there would be, I would suggest, bigger problems.

Mr BERKMAN: A very brief follow-up, if I might, to Mr Speaker.

CHAIR: We have gone well over time for opposition members’ questions.

Mr BERKMAN: It is a very brief question that I was hoping to ask of Mr Speaker.

CHAIR: Member for Maiwar you have the call.

Mr BERKMAN: In your opening comments you have acknowledged the importance of the process, and no-one disputes that. I am curious whether the CLA or any other parliamentary body is actively working on or has recently done any work on how the estimates process could be improved as a mechanism for accountability and scrutiny of government spending?

Mr SPEAKER: In terms of the estimates process per se, not particularly. I say that because I do not believe the process is fundamentally broken. I believe that it is a very beneficial process. As always, it is a process that works best when all members who are participating take it seriously and ask important questions. I go back to the point I made that it is not about the politics. It is not about the theatre. It is about scrutiny. In my experience from answering questions and asking questions, the best outcomes of an estimates process always happen as result of that. I believe that it also comes down to respect. I do not infer anything on this chair, but all chairs of the committees have to ensure that the process is done in a fair way. That is what I have experienced in terms of my hearings. As you can see there is a demonstration here that non-government members of this committee are being afforded more time to ask questions, such as the one you are asking now. I fundamentally believe that the process is a good process. Everything can always be improved. Sometimes that is about additional time. Sometimes it is about the process and how the time is adjudicated. Ultimately, it is very important. Without the estimates process Queensland would be the poorer—recognising that this process did not always exist in Queensland. We undertake it each and every year not only for its primary purpose of looking at appropriations and scrutinising appropriations but also all of the things that come out of the appropriation process—all of the things that are funded—and making sure that at all times we are striving to get the best value for the public money that is expended.

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