SENATE inquiries - including those that interrogate complex and controversial agricultural issues - remain critical to achieving political policy outcomes and pressuring the government into action.
But the accountability process isn’t perfect and can be improved and strengthened, say experienced members of parliament.
Their opinions arrive after the value of Senate inquiries was questioned amid criticism ventilated at the results of recent examinations with recommendations on Australian beef sector issues, like how to structure and fund a sustainable model for national cattle producer representation.
Nick Xenophon Team leader Nick Xenophon served on numerous farm-related Senate inquiries during his 10 years in parliament (2008-2017) like one in 2011 looking at the impacts of major supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths selling milk at $1 per litre.
He was also a member of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee’s inquiry in 2015 that looked at ways of trying to resolve $60 billion of escalating farm debt and holding banks to account, to improve farm fortunes.
Mr Xenophon said any cynicism shouldn’t be directed towards the Senate inquiry process itself but at governments that ignore evidence of problems raised by stakeholders in their submissions or evidence presented at public hearings which the inquiry reports seek to address, in final recommendations.
“People shouldn’t be cynical with the Senate inquiry process – they need to be cynical of governments that ignore the findings of well researched and well evidenced inquiries where communities have spoken up about issues of concern and they’ve been ignored - especially the farm sector,” he said.
Mr Xenophon said once the evidence was heard and inquiry conclusions were reached, it was very hard for a government to say a problem doesn’t exist and to then ignore that problem.
He said that process “takes away the cover for a government to say that they didn’t know”.
“I believe in the Senate inquiry process but think there should be some more rigor applied around the rules so a government has to explain why they’ve rejected a particular recommendation,” he said.
“They have a number of sitting days (of parliament) to respond to a report’s recommendations, as part of the inquiry process.
“But any condemnation should not be aimed at the Senate and the Senate Committee itself where the Committees work pretty much on a non-partisan basis.
“Most inquiries are conducted in a spirit of cooperation and you don’t see that type of partisanship anywhere else and it’s something that needs to be taken into account.”
Mr Xenophon said an effective Senate inquiry wasn’t just about the final report’s recommendations and whether government responded.
For example, he said the public examination of major supermarkets - which saw high paid leading executives from Coles and Woolworths hauled before the Senate Economics Committee to answer questions from angry federal Senators - applied political pressure that forced change, without the need for regulatory intervention.
“In the $1 per litre milk case, that Senate inquiry helped because, in some respects, it tempered the behaviour of the big supermarkets,” he said.
“It stopped them from going any further with conduct that may have damaged the farm sector because we called them out on that so it was a good thing.
“The $1 a litre milk inquiry shone a light on the issue and it actually informed political debate.
“After that it’s a question of political will but the inquiry process helps to build political consensus.
“Do I think it’s worthwhile? Absolutely.
“Am I frustrated that governments ignore them? Absolutely.
“But it doesn’t mean you give up.
“You’ve still got to believe in the system and the process but if Senate inquiries continue to be ignored (the subject matter) will increasingly become an election issue.”
Mr Xenophon said he’d been accused of putting up too many Senate inquiries in response to policy issues raised in Canberra, but he believes “they’re all necessary”.
“It’s just a question of how you do them with limited and finite resources available,” he said.
He said the court of public opinion can hold the government to account but in terms of potential improvements to the Senate inquiry process a more comprehensive explanation of why the government has rejected a particular recommendation is needed.
Government or individual cabinet ministers giving a “glib” answer of ‘we don’t believe it’s needed’ is not good enough, he said.
“If a Senate inquiry has made a specific recommendation then the government needs to give details as to why they won’t be implementing it and to set an alternative,” he said.
“If there’s a specific problem that a Senate inquiry is seeking to fix, the government ought to set out details of why it won’t accept the inquiry recommendation – that’s the key issue – and say what the alternatives are.”
Senator Xenophon has often added “dissenting reports” to final inquiry reports where the outcome was somewhat predetermined, making recommendations designed to embarrass or pressure the government, by the opposition or other political forces.
He conceded committees were “stacked” sometimes which was a matter for the Senate to determine but retained a positive outlook overall.
“I’m still an optimist and believe the process does work,” he said.
NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm has presided over Senate inquiries like the accountability and use of agricultural levies in spending of hundreds of millions of dollars per year on research and development and marketing activities.
Senator Leyonhjelm also chaired a Senate-select Committee inquiry held in the previous parliament into the Murray Darling Basin Plan and early last year slammed the government’s response to it.
He said report recommendations can often be rejected by the government of the day and Committee membership can sway the final report - but the overall process remained influential.
Senate inquiries into issues other than pending legislation are handled by “References” Committees where the government doesn’t have a majority and the Chair is always a non-government Senator, he said.
Senator Leyonhjelm said the Committee Chair also had control over the main report so its recommendations commonly reflected Labor and/or Greens perspectives, in the current Senate environment.
“There is always some negotiation over recommendations and bi-partisan support does occur,” he said.
“However, it is also not unusual for government and/or crossbench Senators to disagree with the main report, and to submit a dissenting report.
“Whether the recommendations are accepted is up to the Minister and where an issue is highly partisan this is not likely.
“It is more likely when there is bi-partisan support.
“Even when the recommendations of a Committee are rejected by the Minister, the Committee process is often valuable.
“The submissions and the report usually become a valuable source of information for future action, informing Senators, their staff and bureaucrats.
“Highly partisan inquiries are doomed in terms of obtaining government support for their recommendations, but that is often not their purpose.
“Labor and the Greens regularly establish committees with the intention of highlighting issues on which they disagree with the government.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said Committee examinations can be quite useful at raising awareness, with the public or bureaucrats, of “specific inadequacies” in current policies and the inquiry he instigated into agricultural levies was a good example.
“It highlighted the fact that nobody even kept a list of levy payers, let alone asked them their opinion,” he said.
“This is now being rectified.
“The inquiry I chaired into the Murray Darling Basin Plan has not had its recommendations accepted.
“However, it serves as a continuing reminder that the removal of water from productive agriculture in Queensland, Victoria and NSW, to evaporate in Lake Alexandrina in South Australia, is immoral.
“Eventually the government will be unable to ignore it.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said currently there were too many inquiries and secretarial staff members were “spread too thinly to ensure they maintained their customary high quality work”.
He said there were also issues surrounding the running of Senate Estimates hearings and their proper use of time but “in general the references system is working as it should”.