20 Jun 2021

Budget 2021: holding the Government to account for its accounts

From The House , 7:30 am on 20 June 2021

Ministers have appeared before other MPs to answer questions about Budget 2021 as part of Parliament's financial scrutiny cycle.

An estimates hearing for vote courts before the Justice Committee at Parliament

An estimates hearing for vote courts before the Justice Committee at Parliament Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The announcement of Budget 2021 on May 20 was the beginning of a process to approve the government's spending proposal.

On Budget day, the minister of finance delivered the Budget statement which details the government's plan and also started an eight-hour long debate on whether or not it should be passed. 

While that took place, sections of the Budget were referred to different select committees; these are smaller groups of MPs from different parties who focus on subjects like health, education, and transport.

These are referred to as estimates hearings and they follow a similar structure each year. 

Briefing 

Minister for Courts Aupito William Sio attends an estimates hearing at the Justice Committee

Minister for Courts Aupito William Sio appears before the Justice Select Committee for an estimates hearing Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The chair of the select committee welcomes the minister and any officials from the ministry they may have brought with them. The minister then gives a summary outlining their role and the purpose of their portfolio. 

Appearing before the Justice Select Committee, the Minister for Courts Aupito William Sio said his role is one of support. 

"The court portfolio is about providing support to our judiciary, to our high court, appeals court, district courts, the tribunal and making sure that they're serviced and making sure that we are looking at how do you innovate this essential public service and looking to make sure that it is fit for purpose for the times," Sio said. 

"That requires myself to look at it from a different perspective, that I'm the steward of an essential service. That my role there is to make sure that we protect the integrity of the judiciary."  

For the past 30 years, the focus had been on a punitive system and this term the aim is to move towards a rehabilitative approach, Sio said.

"We have to do things differently. We have to try and make sure that all peoples, irrespective of culture, ethnic background etc, have access to justice. That we need to treat them as human beings with dignity and mana."

The amount in the Budget set aside for courts totals over $886 million for the 2021/22 financial year and it's no surprise that MPs on the committee will have questions about how that money will be used. 

 Questions

Labout MP Ginny Anderson chairing the Justice select committee at Parliament

Labout MP Ginny Anderson chairing the Justice select committee at Parliament Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Each select committee has a chair and a deputy chair who are in charge of keeping the committee running and make sure MPs follow the rules. 

After the minister has completed giving their summary the chair of the committee opens it up for questions and keeps an eye on MPs who are requesting either a primary question on a new topic, or a follow-up question (supplementary). 

As often happens at an estimates hearing, the questions tend to be about what has been done as well as what will be done.

In his briefing to the committee Sio said there was a backlog of cases in the coroner's court. It's an issue that existed before he took on the court portfolio this parliamentary term, though he was Associate Minister for Courts for the previous Parliament.

A coroner is informed of a death that is suspicious, violent, unexpected, or if the cause of death is unknown. They might order a post mortem examination or hold an inquiry. 

The backlog of cases has created a delay with some families waiting years for a coronial inquest to be completed despite the appointment of relief coroners in March last year.

This was the focus of National MP Chris Penk's questions.

"What has actually taken place to reduce some of the backlogs for example in the coroner's court that you've acknowledged?" he asked. 

National MP Chris Penk questions a Minister during an estimates hearing

National MP Chris Penk questions a Minister during an estimates hearing Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Sio said solving the problem in the coroner's court has been challenging. 

"We put in money in the first Wellbeing Budget to make sure that we had a number of temporary coroners, about eight," he said.

"Then we found that some got promoted to judges, others retired and then we had to look again but we're now exploring legislative changes and I'm pretty confident that we're in a pretty good space to be able to embark on that particular work."

Penk had submitted written questions and received answers from Sio about the wait times for coronial findings and said it's still too long. 

"May I quote a written question answer from your good self, the number of active coronial cases has increased to 5439 and the wait times to 484 days on average as compared with 303 days in 2017 for that equivalent figure," he said.

"So with respect, it is not moving in the right direction and given what you've told us about what you've done so far, and that you've been surprised that it hasn't made a difference in a positive direction what else have you got?"

Sio said he is taking the problems onboard and the system is moving in the right direction. 

"I want to assure this committee, yes we've started the work in trying to make some changes to try and alleviate that growing number of work in 2019. We then met up with some challenges [and] now we're having to relook at other opportunities in terms of legislation.

"It's just not about this first year, it's also long-term. It's a challenge that I'm up to, I'm not going to shy away from that, I believe that we're on the right track to try and fix it. Time will tell."

ACT MP Nicole McKee asked for details on what Sio will do during his three-year term as minister for courts. 

"Is there a timeframe within the three years of your tenure as minister and also whether or not you think there should be something put aside to assist the families who are caught up in the process because a lot of them are experiencing such high anxiety that they're losing jobs while they go through this process?" 

ACT MP Nicole McKee sits on the Justice Committee in an estimates hearing for the Minister for Courts Aupito William Sio

ACT MP Nicole McKee sits on the Justice Committee in an estimates hearing for the Minister for Courts Aupito William Sio Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

McKee said she has heard from people speaking to other select committees that they are struggling to navigate the court system on their own while coroners are supported by lawyers.

"These people are trying to come in and do it themselves without any help, so if the delay is going to be long is there something that you can do for the victims or family members who are stuck in the system while you try and find an answer for them?"

Sio said the work is ongoing and he's unable to give a timeline for his three-year term as minister for courts and nothing comes to mind in terms of support for families. 

"But I think we have to explore with the officials and find out how we do support those families," he said.

McKee questioned the increase in funding for courts saying it's only a 1.9 percent increase overall in the Budget.

"Is this going to help you or are you going to be stuck for the next three years in the quagmire that is a broken system?"

Sio said the first Budget is always the most challenging but there are two more Budgets to come.

"My focus now is looking at how do we take advantage of the information that we currently have, the input that the coroners have provided me, and the advice that the officials will provide so that we're able to carve out the work that is required, the needs that are required and hopefully be successful in the second budgets."

The minister was before the committee for about half an hour for this question and answer session but some estimates hearings can take more than an hour. 

Reports and more debates

Various ministers have appeared before committees so far including for education, workplace relations and safety, health, internal affairs, housing, women, and tourism with some ministers turning up more than once. 

Each committee has to write a report which must be sent back to the House within two months of Budget Day. 

Those reports become the subject of the Estimates debate which is another long set of speeches that can last up to 11 hours in the House. 

More estimates hearings are scheduled and the timetable can be found on Parliament’s website.

The hearings can also be watched live on select committee Facebook pages or found on Parliament's website.