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Heather Smith's Senate Estimates surprise: Senators frustrated over lack of answers

Senators are frustrated by massive delays in receiving answers to questions on notice from the Department of Communications and the Arts. 

Newly appointed secretary Heather Smith has promised a shake-up of how answers are given to senators after her first Estimates appearance as a department head was soured by the complaint on Tuesday morning.

Dr Smith, a fortnight into her new job, moved from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet now headed by her husband Martin Parkinson.

The chair of Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, Senator Linda Reynolds, said the department failed to meet the deadline to respond to all of the 173 questions asked in October and November. 

Many of the answers should have been provided by early December.


The answers had trickled in "extremely slowly" since the deadline passed. 

"I am, as chair, concerned about tardiness of responses to the committee," Senator Reynolds said. 

"To say the committee members and also other senators who have placed questions on notice are a little upset is possibly an understatement given some of their language to me.

"A full third [of the answers] have come in since Friday afternoon which gives the committee members absolutely no time to review the responses to their questions and adequately prepare for this hearing today.

"I'm sorry to have this as my first issue but it is of significant concern."

Dr Smith said a number of factors contributed to the lateness of the answers including the fact many of the questions required coordinating responses from portfolio agencies.

"The department does take the provision and tabling of notices very seriously and we will ensure a better response rate going forward," she said. 

"This will include putting in administrative arrangements to provide early advice to portfolio agencies before the index of questions on notice has been finalised."