Public servant Caroline Millar found herself in an uncomfortable position at Senate estimates recently - caught between duelling actors straight from the theatre of the Senate where their clashes are so practised as to be almost ritualistic.
As leaders of their respective parties in the Senate, Mathias Cormann and Penny Wong take seriously their job of intimidating, unsettling and discombobulating their opponents. In the case of Cormann obfuscating and deflecting; in the case of Wong giving the impression that the obfuscation something dastardly.
Millar is deputy secretary for national security in Prime Minister and Cabinet, so clearly holds some sensitive matter in the filing cabinet padlocked to the floor. Wong wanted her to share a little on the Barr inquiry. What involvement did the bureaucrats have in ambassador Joe Hockey's fulsome offer of help to Barr in his conspiracy-heavy investigation into the investigator?
Wong asked the question, in different versions, over and again. But Cormann was having none of it, jumping in on question after question to the officials to deflect and distract. But Wong wanted a smoking gun. There was, for example, a potential treasure trove of unanswered questions about Alexander Downer's drinks with the preposterous Papadopoulos that sparked the Mueller investigation. Questions of the how-professional-are-Austalia's-politician-diplomats-on-the-world-stage kind. Hockey and Downer, both comic figures for their own reasons, are now in the midst of high international drama.
And drama, as Caroline Millar could no doubt tell you, can be confusing.
"Everyone watching it knows she was going to answer and you intervened because you were worried about it ... You took it on notice because you didn't want her to answer," Wong declared during the lengthy grilling.
"When, Ms Miller, did you become aware of any request for assistance by the United States in relation to the Barr inquiry?" Wong asked for the seventy billionth time, only to face the inevitable intervention from Cormann.
Finally, Millar was given the floor: "We have had no involvement in this matter in the Prime Minister's Department," she said, looking less than comfortable. "It has been dealt with by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The politicians parry, until this time Wong decides to wound.
"Are you now aware, Ms Millar, that the United States government has asked the Australian government for assistance?" Ouch.
Millar: "I'm obviously aware of information that's been in the public domain and information that the prime minister has commented on," Millar offered. "But I would just reiterate that this department has not been involved in these issues so we really haven't been following it closely at all."
To which Wong offered one word: "Wow".
The joust here was between Cormann and Wong; Millar and her colleagues were mere collateral damage. But three days later, Frances Adamson, secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade, delivered a masterclass in how to deal with Wong. Granted, diplomacy is Adamson's stock and trade and she had the advantage of Cormann's absence.
"I understand entirely where your question is coming from," Adamson prefaced. "I think you have raised a valid question."
"I fully take the senator's point." "Let me tell you what happened."
As a result, Wong elicited a little more information than she did on the previous Monday.
"Can I help?" Adamson interrupted when Wong was struggling to get a straight answer.
It worked a charm, with the senator even going as far as to thank her. But it's no wonder many public servants dread the spectacle.