Welcome to the estimates clown car of fools

6 minute read

There were some nuggets to be had, but Senate estimates is also a platform for loonies and grifters.

Bollywood actor Ram Charan said “drama starts where logic ends”.

I bet he wouldn’t have picked the Australian Senate estimates hearings on health and aged care to prove his point.

I will admit right now that in a 35-year journalism career I have managed to avoid “essies” at every turn, right up until a couple of Thursdays ago when the boss tapped me on the shoulder, handed me the agenda and said “don’t come back without a yarn”.

The good news is you can’t turn around in estimates without running in to a story. On a plate. With mayo. The bad news is you’re laughing so hard at the sheer ridiculousness of many of the performers on the stage that the nuggets can pass you by.

I’m sure the senators think they’re doing a public service, and to be fair, there were some genuine attempts at digging for the truth – David Pocock, Jordon Steele-John, and Tammy Tyrrell all battled hard for their constituents with thoughtful, specific questions to which they actually listened to the answers and asked relevant follow-ups.

For the rest it was an opportunity to wear their favourite lobbyist’s heart on their sleeve and score points off their long-hated adversaries. Senators Ruston, Gallagher, Canavan, Roberts, and Antic – I’m looking at you, you craven opportunists.

Kudos to the public service mandarins who sat through all this confected palaver for 14 hours a day, reminding me inexorably of this classic Hillary Clinton meme:

Special mentions to the ever-patient Professor Brendan Murphy, outgoing Secretary of the DoHAC, and the steely-eyed, unflappable Penny Shakespeare, deputy secretary, whose demeanour could cut glass. Seriously.

Important things we learned

Despite the eye-rolling drama, there were some significant reveals.


Oh dear.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has benefited to the tune of about $25 million from contracts with the DoHAC, including at least one signed after their tax scandal was revealed on 23 January. Not sure PwC can expect much more in the foreseeable future.

“Seeking assurances” seems a somewhat tepid response by the department, but time will tell.

Reproductive health services

Professor Murphy as good as said the report from the Senate committee inquiry into universal access to reproductive healthcare didn’t go far enough in its recommendations for abortion services to be provided in public hospitals more widely.

If you recall, the committee recommended that “all public hospitals within Australia be equipped to provide surgical pregnancy terminations, or timely and affordable pathways to other local providers”.

Professor Murphy said in estimates that “any hospital that undertakes obstetrics and gynaecology procedures is physically equipped to [perform terminations]”.

“It’s a question of whether they want to set up the clinical systems to support that – whether they have the counselling services and, frankly, the clinicians are willing to do it … I don’t think it’s so much a capital or infrastructure issue. It’s more a model of care issue.”

Quite right, sir.

Double dispensing

There’s no question the 60-day dispensing policy will impact community pharmacists. Nor is there any doubt that the Pharmacy Guild of Australia is prepared to go to any lengths to get what it wants.

That includes breaking confidentiality agreements with the DoHAC in the lead-up to the May budget. We wondered at the time why the department announced the double dispensing policy before the budget – this is why.

The Guild, according to Ms Shakespeare, had clearly told its members of the plan, in breach of the agreement, so there was no option but to go public. The agreement included the possibility of going public with written agreement of the other party, but the Guild “chose not to do that”, she said.

Since then, there have been no negotiations with the Guild, according to the DoHAC.

Then we found that the Guild has “likely” been using personal details harvested from its Find-A-Pharmacy website to lobby and point people to their medicineshortages.com.au website which spruiks its belief that double dispensing will magically make the drugs go away.

Is it any wonder GPs often wish their own lobby groups were as resourced and powerful as the Guild? Up there’s for thinking, dear AMA and RACGP.


That headline writer’s dream, the Australian Centre for Disease Control, finally has a firm agenda laid out for its emergence from Labor’s pre-election promises into reality – 1 January 2024 for the interim body, to be headed by CMO Professor Paul Kelly, to a fully-fledged independently led institution by the end of the year.

Oh, the humanity

We learned a lot more from estimates, of course, than those meaty chunks. There was plenty of salty gravy.

We learned that Liberal Senator Anne Ruston is every bit the crumb maiden we thought she was, taking every opportunity to get into a slap-fest with Labor Senator Katy Gallagher, she of many portfolios and her very own current scandal, who was standing in for Health Minister Mark Butler at the hearings.

Senator Ruston clearly had the Pharmacy Guild on speed-dial, coming back from every break in proceedings with a brand-new set of double-dispensing talking points disguised as serious questions, while Senator Gallagher gave as good as she got, with things devolving in to “you-can’t-play-with-us-any-more” hijinks frequently.

As former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said, there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.

But the misogyny didn’t end there. Enter somehow-Senators Matt Canavan and Alex Antic, co-authors of one of the nuttiest anti-abortion bills ever to be put in front of Parliament, who were unashamedly dismissive of their female colleagues.

Both were comfortable talking over women – including committee chair Labor Senator Marielle Smith – laughing, belittling and flexing over the course of the two days.

Just foul.

Add to that the batshit-crazy theories of Senator Malcolm Roberts – anti-vax, covid conspiracies, ivermectin – you name it, the man spouted it, and you can see why by the end of Friday I was cranky.

In the words of the late, great Logan Roy – these are not serious people.

While entertaining at best, Senate estimates is a chance for Australians to get an insight into whether they are getting bang for their voting buck when it comes to the people supposedly running the country.

And at worst, the answer is a resounding no. A disturbingly large proportion of the people we give our votes to, on both sides of the game, are there to line their own pockets, boost their own media profile, find themselves a cushy post-politics gig, and please people we most definitely do not vote for – lobby groups.

When it comes to health and aged care, we deserve better.

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