Staff cuts and software glitches hamper Senate’s operations

Australian Parliament - Senate Chamber

A shrinking headcount of administrative and support staff vital for the smooth operation of Australia’s Upper House of Parliament has prompted the Clerk of the Senate, Dr Rosemary Laing, to warn all sides of politics that the scrutiny of Bills by parliamentarians could soon suffer because of cuts.

In a spirited defence of her organisation before a Budget Estimates hearing this week, Dr Laing put politicians on notice that it could not assume smooth administrative sailing ahead of them as the effect of headcount reductions bit into the business end of Parliament’s vital system of paperwork.

Dr Laing told the Estimates hearing that over the compounding effect of efficiency would produce an “ultimate impact on staffing numbers in 2016-17 of about 25 staff.”

“That is a very significant number of staff for the operations of the Department of the Senate. For example, it is the entire Clerk’s and Table Office’s staff combined,” Dr Laing said.

Asked by Labor’s Senator Penny Wong – herself a former frontline proponent of efficiency dividends – whether funding cuts “could impinge upon the Senate and senators’ capacity to scrutinise legislation and to perform the traditional role of the Senate” Dr Laing answered that “it certainly could.”

The prospect of insufficient resources to scrutinise legislation has already been flagged by the Palmer United Party as a problem it wants solved as its members prepare to take up their seats in the new Senate following the last election.

The Clerk of the Senate is now warning that resources that were once counted on may no longer be there for Senators, especially on the crucial business of committees.

“We have numerous committees that scrutinise legislation both from a policy point of view and from a technical legislative point of view, including the human rights committee and the Scrutiny of Bills Committee,” Dr Laing said in her evidence.

“If we cannot staff those committees adequately enough to provide the support and to bring attention to the issues in legislation that senators need to be aware of, in accordance with the terms of reference of those committees, then neither the committees nor the senators are doing their job. That would be a tragedy.”

The Clerk of the Senate also issued a powerful caution that any government not having majority numbers in the Upper House was simply something that politicians on both sides need to come to terms with.

Dr Laing said that under the cuts there would be “less scrutiny, less effectiveness and it may suit governments to have a less effective Senate”

“But—I am sorry—while we have the system of electing the Senate that we have now, the fact of life is that few governments enjoy a majority in the Senate at any time and the non-government majority in the Senate is a fact of life that needs to be lived with.

“It is a set of conditions that over many decades has prevailed in the Senate and has encouraged the development of numerous accountability mechanisms, such as the committee system itself, not to mention all the other techniques that senators are able to use to hold governments of all complexions to account,” Dr Laing said.

The strength of that evidence appears to have prompted the government’s Whip in the upper house, Liberal Senator Helen Kroger, to change tack and look into the deployment of a new software system that has been causing grief on all sides of politics.

Asked why “there was a need to pursue a different system” to the one the Senate had previously had, Dr Laing that the old system “was getting old and obsolete, and there was nobody around to support it anymore.”

But its deployment has clearly not gone to plan.

“I am looking forward to the day when it works,” Dr Laing said.

Senator Kroger wanted to know why, during budget week when the system was changed over, the system had gone awry and produced “errors”.

“There were not errors; there were malfunctions,” Dr Laing said, adding that there were “teething issues.”

“For the budget week we had the contractors on site working with the procedural people who were putting the information in, and there was a problem that occurred with the Red and the Journals,” Dr Laing said.

“Something disappeared and took with it a whole lot of other widgets and stuff, and that caused problems. So that had to be rebuilt… That was our first transitional week… It is not perfect yet, is it” the Clerk of the Senate told the Chief Whip.

“No, it certainly is not,” Senator Kroger replied.

Dr Laing said that contractors were continuing to work on the system.

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