Labor questions Prime Minister and Cabinet boss Martin Parkinson over estimates criticism

The federal opposition has questioned Australia's most senior public servant over comments about scrutiny from budget estimates hearings, suggesting Martin Parkinson should make himself available to Labor and crossbench senators.

The Prime Minister and Cabinet boss used an interview with Fairfax Media this week to argue public servants are sometimes left feeling like bit players in parliamentary hearings, suggesting they can become a political exercise to embarrass governments with "gotcha" moments.

Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Martin Parkinson.

Photo: Rohan Thomson

In a wide ranging interview, Dr Parkinson said regular estimates hearings held an important role for scrutiny of government but could also descend into political point scoring.

"Where it becomes problematic is when it moves from genuine efforts focused on improving public administration to simply trying to embarrass the government of the day," he said.

Ministers and senior public servants regularly face scrutiny from Senate estimates hearings.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"This has been true for a long time.

"You understand why it's all about trying to embarrass the government of the day, but there are times when public servants sit there and think, 'we really don't need to be here, because we're simply bit players in this whole exercise and you're not actually interested in improving the quality of public administration'."

One Labor senator responded on Wednesday, saying the process would be improved if Dr Parkinson attended himself, a move which would break the convention of the head of the public service being represented by deputy secretaries and other senior bureaucrats.

"It's a bit rich of Martin Parkinson to complain about Senate estimates when he doesn't even bother turning up," the senator said.

"We have repeatedly invited Dr Parkinson to attend Senate estimates, but he apparently thinks it's beneath him.

"If Dr Parkinson wants to improve the tone of Senate estimates, perhaps he could actually turn up next time."

Labor's Penny Wong used a 2016 estimates hearings to tell deputy secretary for governance Elizabeth Kelly of her disappointment that Prime Minister and Cabinet had taken months to return answers to questions on notice, with some information only provided the morning of the next round of hearings.

Considered a fierce estimates inquisitor, Senator Wong said the slow response was discourteous to members of Parliament and asked for her comments to be shared with Dr Parkinson.

"As a courtesy, we do not call the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, but if this continues we will certainly be seeking to call him," Senator Wong said at the time.

Dr Parkinson's comments were in response to questions about his recent speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia, in which he said "gotcha games" at estimates "may give everyone a thrill, but they fail miserably at improving the quality of public service; instead they encourage inertia and mass risk aversion."

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