Senator Lee Rhiannon says government department officials do not need media training for Senate estimates hearings. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Federal government departments have paid external media consultants hundreds of thousands of dollars to train bureaucrats how to “perform” in Senate estimates hearings.
The consultants, who can be paid up to $30,000 a month, insist the training is not aimed at teaching public servants how to spin or avoid scrutiny – but some senators are not so sure.
While a search of government contracts suggests departments have spent about $160,000 on the training in recent years, the true cost is believed to be much higher but concealed through a sometimes opaque tender process.
For example, one major provider of Senate estimates training – Melbourne-based consultancy Media Manoeuvres – has been awarded at least $1.9 million in government contracts in recent years, according to the publicly accessible Austender website.
The contracts are typically for “media training” or “media awareness training”. None mention Senate estimates training, even though that is a significant part of Media Manoeuvres’ business.
On its website, Media Manoeuvres says it offers two levels of Senate estimates training: “awareness” and “performance skills”. The latter involves simulations and role-playing scenarios.
Chief executive Sam Elam said the company regularly provided the training to various agencies. It was aimed at giving public servants the confidence to deal with what could be a very stressful experience when confronted by aggressive senators.
“It’s high pressure and that can turn some people to water,” she said. “It’s about giving people the confidence to actually speak up.”
Canberra-based consultant Laurie Wilson has delivered Senate estimates training to the Australian Public Service Commission and a wide variety of government departments over the past decade.
Last year, he was paid about $60,000 to deliver an extensive two-month training course to the Department of Finance.
“A lot of people will make the false assumption that what you’re trying to do is teach people how to spin,” Mr Wilson, a former journalist who is also president of the National Press Club, said.
“In fact, it’s actually precisely the opposite. What you’re doing is saying to people: ‘If you have to explain something, does your explanation stand up? Is it a legitimate argument or are you just trying to push a line?’ ”
The Senate estimates committee convenes three times a year to give senators a chance to grill public servants about how taxpayers’ cash is spent.
Greens democracy spokeswoman Lee Rhiannon believes the training could be helping officials dodge scrutiny.
“Senate estimates should not be a performance,” she said. “Department officials should not need extensive PR training to come to estimates; they just need to turn up and answer the questions openly and honestly.”
Crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm said the training represented a lack of respect for taxpayers’ money and government accountability. He said it was likely the training taught public servants how to “lie, obfuscate or avoid answering questions”.
The departments contacted by Fairfax Media were cagey about just how much they spend on the training.
The departments of prime minister and cabinet, foreign affairs and immigration said they did not “routinely” pay external providers for such training, but admitted they had done so in the past.
The Department of Health said it used the training “on occasion” and the Department of Finance said it had used the training to ensure “officers are fully aware of the committee process and their obligations as witnesses”.
Only the Department of Defence gave expenditure details, saying it spent $13,400 on the training last financial year but nothing in the previous two years. Documents show it spent at least $25,000 in 2011.
Treasury and the Department of Social Services said they did not engage any external consultants.