Senate Estimates hearings can be tough going at the best of times for senior bureaucrats, however horror days don’t come much worse than the one Department of Parliamentary Services Secretary Carol Mills endured on Monday.
In a rare confluence of polar opposites in Australian politics, both Labor stalwart Senator John Faulkner and Liberal maverick Senator Bill Heffernan have rounded on the performance of the small agency charged with providing services to elected representatives.
In one of the most serious accusations levelled at the DPS in years, Senator Faulkner used a Senate Estimates hearing to elicit a damning admission that the Parliament’s internal security CCTV network is likely to have been misused to conduct surveillance on a suspected whistleblower.
The revelation that the CCTV network may have been misused to spy on comings and goings from Senator Faulkner’s office is particularly serious because it goes directly to the issue of parliamentary privilege and whether DPS staff acted in contempt of the longstanding protections.
On Tuesday Fairfax Media reported that it had obtained advice to Senator Faulkner from Clerk of the Senate Rosemary Laing that there was a “reasonably strong possibility” of a contempt of the Senate in relation to the incident.
According to Parliament’s own website “the punishments for contempts which either house may apply are set by the 1987 Act as fines of $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for corporations, and up to six months imprisonment for individuals.”
To make matters worse, the alleged misuse of surveillance cameras appears to be connected to Senator Faulkner’s previous probing DPS’ governance and performance. In 2011 Senator Faulkner questioned how some parliamentary assets, including two billiard tables, appeared to have put up for auction and then bid for by staff connected to their disposal.
Senator Faulkner has said that he intends to pursue the CCTV issue as a privileges matter, a course of action that is unlikely to reflect well on DPS or its management.
Meanwhile, Senator Bill Heffernan has hopped into new, lower cost security procedures at Parliament House after he produced an mock pipe bomb as a prop to illustrate that security procedures had become a “joke” to Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus.
Under the new procedures that are being trialled, parliamentarians, their staff and departmental bureaucrats can bypass metal detector and bag scans and checks.
However accredited press gallery journalists must still wait in line for alongside public visitors.
Striking a balance between security and accessibility has never been easy an easy task for DPS whose managers must regularly front public estimates hearings where their shortcomings are put on display.
In 2006 DPS Secretary Hilary Penfold was given a multi-party roasting over a physical security upgrade and changed traffic conditions in and around Parliament that installed in heavy duty bollards which unexpectedly rose up and impaled cars waiting at the entry to underground car parks.
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