Friday, June 03, 2005

Canberra: the Gold Coast for Intellectuals

Alas, I can't claim that cute little description as my own. Peter from Canberra told it to me me, and he admitted that it'd come from someone else. Still, funny is funny.

Our national capital really is a lively city if you know where to look. The cliches might be spouted from rev-head Sydneysiders and Melburnians, but Canberra is only boring to boring people. With a bit of imagination, you can find a thriving cafe culture, some fascinating historical sites, and a palpable sense that This Is Somewhere Important. Oh yeah, and bring a suit and tie. You never know when you'll need it. Over the next couple of posts I'll be sharing some details from the trip.

Arrived on a Virgin flight early on Tuesday morning. Virgin really does give you the shits after a while. On board they must be the perkiest airline staff in the world, and given that the sun had barely popped up over the horizon, it was a considerable effort. Being aboard a Virgin flight is like being at 80s night at a Carrum Downs disco. The music is painfully dated, the hostesses have too much make-up on, and it doesn't take long before you're hearing bad pick-up lines. There were grumblings a couple of years ago from female business travellers who felt that the airline was becoming a look-but-don't-touch-brothel that served only to massage male egos. Not much has changed, with plenty of flirty banter filling the announcements and a clear preference for young, attractive women in the hiring policy. Still, it's not all bad. The announcement as we were getting close to Canberra had people chuckling: "We are now approaching Wagga Wagga airport...."

By 10am I'd made my way to the big house on the hill. Parliament House is swarming with burly looking security guards trying to justify their existance. To get to the Senate Estimates hearing involved this conversation:

Ari (smiling, in suit, tie and a twinkle in the eye): Hi, I'm looking for the Senate Estimates hearings. You wouldn't have a running sheet would you, you know, times, places, rooms, that sort of thing...
Burly Security Guard Trying to Justify His Existance: Pfff, running sheet... don't have anything like that.
A: (gives 'wind taken out of sails' look)
BSGTJHE: I tell you what, if you tell me which committee you want, I can tell you which room it's in.
A: (does best bit of James Bond work and reads paper in front of BSGTJHE): Aaaah, Department of Employment and Workplace Relations?
BSGTJHE: (Look of damn, he got me'.) Yeah, it's in room 2S3.
A: Family and Community Services?
BSGTJHE: 2S1
A: (on a roll) Department of Finance?
BSGTJHE: (looking totally defeated) 2R1.
Game, set and match A.
Finally, I made it to Senate Estimates for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. This is the first time I'd seen Estimates live, and it certainly is a highly-charged atmosphere. Lined up at one end are a team of Senators from a variety of parties, and facing them are a team of senior public servents, with their minister - in this case the slightly mad Senator Eric Abetz - in the middle. In the public gallery is a significant number of Important Looking People. It would later emerge that they are mostly employees from the department, there either to observe procedings, feed advice to the senior public servents being questioned, or to answer questions themeselves later on in the day.

The undoubted highlight of the couple of hours of questioning I saw was a sustained attack by lively Labor Senator Penny Wong. Clearly Wong had been well briefed. The incident in question was the case of a private Job Network Provider promising a wage subsidy to employers who took on unemployed people on their books (a well-accepted legimate technique) but who would then renege on this promise (a technique known in the trade as 'lying'). Given that public money is paid to the JNP for each unemployed person who it finds work for, this amounts to fraud.

To paraphrase the questioning:

Was the department aware of any examples of this?
Yes.
Could the department reveal which state it was in?
No.
What was being done about it?
An investigation was underway.
Did the Job Network Provider know it was being investigated?
Probably not.
Watch this space!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very entertaining

Who's on first...

RD