NOOSA – Some of the most important windows into the operations of the federal government in Australia government are provided by Senate Estimates Committees.
The title may sound unexciting, but these committees – established to enable Senators twice a year to quiz government departments on how they are spending public money – provide a unique opportunity to allow Senators to determine how the government is operating.
The public servants being quizzed are expected to know their stuff and answer questions truthfully and these exchanges often provide rich pickings for the journalists observing proceedings in the committee room.
Yesterday ABC foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic (@stephendziedzic) was present when the estimates committee interrogated the Department of Foreign Affairs.
He real-time tweeted proceedings and in this piece I’ll quote his tweets relevant to Papua New Guinea and provide a commentary around them.
Dziedzic - @dfat estimates today so I'll be live tweeting. [DFAT] Secretary Frances Adamson has a brief opening statement. She says diplomats and officials have done "exceptional work" helping Australians overseas during the pandemic, often in difficult circumstances.
Eventually senators began to question the public servants on the Covid situation in Papua New Guinea. Janet Rice, a Greens senator from Victoria, opened the batting.
Dziedzic - Now the grim Covid-19 situation in PNG. Adamson confirms to Rice that Australian diplomats are pressing European countries to release 1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines for use in PNG - she [Adamson] says it's the Department's "top priority in Europe".
That sounds promising but Rice continues her questioning.
Dziedzic - Rice asks if Australia will release some of its domestically manufactured AZ vaccines to PNG if it's unable to secure further supplies from overseas. Adamson says that is "certainly something that is live, but (is) yet to be decided by Government".
In other words, despite the continuing and severe Covid problem in PNG, the Australian government has no plan for what its response will be.
And I’m not just referring to philanthropy or good neighbourliness here. Yesterday we also learned that the coronavirus in PNG has mutated and given the world a new variant.
Health authorities believe it’s no more severe than Covid-19, but it reminds us that a virus out of control in PNG is a threat to Australia given the permeability of the border in the Torres Strait.
Next Senator Penny Wong (Labor, South Australia) joined the questioning.
Dziedzic - @SenatorWong asks how serious the situation is. Officials acknowledge there is widespread community transmission but say it's impossible to give any sort of precise figure. Wong gets a bit frustrated with all the generalities.
The ‘generalities’ of course signal how little planning has gone into developing an appropriate Australian response to the developments in PNG. The officials continue their explanation….
Dziedzic - Australia has already sent 8000 doses to PNG to vaccinate frontline health workers. But @SenatorWong asks how Australia landed on this figure.
Dziedzic - Officials don't give a clear answer on this. There are some 30,000 health + ancillary workers in PNG. Adamson stresses the 8,000 is only the first contribution from Australia but says the Govt is taking it step by step "supply has to fit what can be absorbed".
This statement is also a real giveaway – “what can be absorbed” leads us to another huge problem. This is the logistics of how a sufficient number of the PNG population can be vaccinated to mute the serious outbreak of the disease that, if left to ravage PNG, could bring the country to its knees.
Once again, we see that the Australian government has no plan. Sure, we are not PNG’s protectors, but there are many reasons – humanitarian and strategic – why Australia should be doing much more than it is to address its Covid crisis.
Dziedzic - Wong asks if Australia's aid partners/contractors in PNG will be covered by the first tranche of doses. Officials say no but then (frankly) become pretty evasive, saying it's still a matter for discussion with PNG Govt. Stress they'll be a priority in future vaccine roll-outs.
What future vaccine roll-outs? There is no plan.
Dziedzic - Adamson says the 8,000+ batch of doses was "a sensible figure to start with but by no means the last word." And Payne seems to confirm Cabinet ‘might’ decide to send domestically manufactured doses to PNG relatively soon-"that is something that must be on the table".
“A sensible figure to start with” said Adamson. But the officials had just admitted there are 30,000 health and “ancillary” workers in PNG. So where did that 8,000 figure come from? In what way was it “sensible”.
So now I’ll come a tweet of my own:
Jackson - Sickening report of Oz Senate committee yesterday reveals total lack of planning & compassion & strategic savvy by Oz government to assist #PNG government respond to urgent need for Covid vaccine & distribution.
Yep, that’s it.