Senior figures from five federal departments racked up an estimates training bill of at least $45,000 ahead of their recent appearances, raising concern for opposition senators public servants are learning to better evade important lines of questioning.
Questions have been raised over the amount spent by departments to teach officials how to front senators during parliamentary committees when tough questions are asked over government processes and spending.
The Canberra Times asked all 14 departments for the amount spent on training up department officials ahead of their appearances in March's Senate estimates hearings.
Six departments admitted to training their staff in 2021 with the training cost per individual ranging between $165 and $675.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade engaged a private contractor, Interaction Consulting Group Pty Ltd, to train 38 of its staff, costing $15,481 or a little more than $400 per staff member.
The departments of Home Affairs, Industry and Social Services spent more than $15,000 to prepare 50 of their staff for estimates questioning.
The Department of Finance said it spent $13,750 on staff training for estimates during the 2020-21 period. It would not provide further information on who provided the training, how many staff were trained, the seniority of staff and when the training sessions were held during the period.
One department, Agriculture, Water and the Environment, said one senior executive official received an estimates preparation session from a legal services provider. It would not reveal the cost of the session or who provided it.
The training sessions were prepared by private contractors along with the Australian Public Service Commission and the Department of the Senate.
Topics covered included information on parliamentary privilege, public interest immunity, official witnesses, advice to government, and legal professional privilege.
The public service commission said it had offered the course since April 2015 at the cost of $675 per public servant. Since that time, it's trained 237 staff in six years with nearly half of the attendees coming from the Defence and Social Services departments.
The training bill for the most recent estimates hearings is not an anomaly.
In an answered question on notice to Senator Kimberley Kitching last year, the Department of Parliamentary Services admitted it had spent $16,314 on 13 staff members between March 2019 and November 2020.
Labor spokesperson for government accountability Senator Kristina Keneally said it was a trend in recent years giving government departments the tools to avoid scrutiny.
"Scott Morrison leads a tired old government that has lost its way after eight long years in office. Under the Morrison government, wages will be cut, JobKeeper support has been axed and childcare costs will stay too high," Senator Keneally said.
"Now we learn that departments are spending tens of thousands of dollars learning how to hide and avoid answering questions at Senate estimates.
"The Morrison government is always there for the photo op, never there for the follow up. They simply don't want to answer the hard questions."
But senior public servants have also previously warned Senate estimates training was becoming a hot spot for political point scoring.
Former Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson said public servants attending Senate estimates were often left feeling like pawns in political stunts designed to embarrass governments of the day with "gotcha" moments.
"Where it becomes problematic is when [estimates hearings move] from genuine efforts focused on improving public administration to simply trying to embarrass the government of the day," he said in 2017.
"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.'"