Joyce sacked Ag secretary ‘to remind him where the authority starts from’

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday April 30, 2019

Video has emerged of ex-minister Barnaby Joyce explaining why he sacked former Department of Agriculture and Water Resources secretary Paul Grimes, as the auditor-general confirms he will look at the department’s water purchasing.

The official explanation was that both minister and secretary agreed that “a relationship of strong mutual confidence” between them was unrealistic, but according to the new video, Joyce wanted to send a clear message to the rest of the department. After he fired Grimes, he was much happier with how the remaining officials conducted themselves.

The newly announced audit into DAWR’s water buy-backs was already listed as “potential”, and the while the decision to lock it in is Hehir’s alone, it will satisfy two requests from parliament. One was from a group of five senators and two members of the lower house just on a year ago, and another last Tuesday from the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud.

The first request to the Australian National Audit Office followed The Australia Institute’s March 2018 report, That’s not how you haggle, which argued the Commonwealth had paid far too much for water entitlements. It came from a group of South Australian non-government parliamentarians spanning the ideological spectrum, plus Shadow Minister for Environment and Water Tony Burke.

Littleproud’s intervention came amid the more recent controversy about a $79 million buy-back of rights to capture floodwater, which saw Burke demand confidential papers from the department and promise a judicial inquiry if Labor wins the May election when the acting secretary refused.

This week, then-minister Barnaby Joyce told The Project reporter Hamish Macdonald he did some accountancy work for the previous owners of the two farms before they were purchased by Eastern Australia Agriculture, which later sold the water entitlements to the Commonwealth for a very tidy profit. The ultimate ownership of EAA is mostly obscured behind a secretive entity with a similar name based in the Cayman Islands, both of which were set up with the involvement of Energy Minister Angus Taylor before he entered parliament.

Macdonald has also obtained footage of Joyce discussing the sacking of Grimes, who later became Victoria’s public service commissioner.

“Sometimes I think we’re in government, sometimes I think [the Labor Party] are in government, but it’s not actually the case; the bureaucrats are in government every time,” Joyce said.

“And I found out one of the only ways I could deal with them when I was the Ag minister was I invited the head of the department up, brought him into my office and sacked him – just to remind him where the authority starts from.

“And then I got a lot more sense out of the rest of them; they were great.”

Joyce and others could well argue this is a legitimate way for a minister to act, if they feel the department is not respecting their authority gained through the ballot box. But it is also a clear example of why a lot of people, like former Westpac boss David Morgan, think the Australian Public Service Review should recommend more job security for secretaries, to ensure they are able to provide frank and fearless advice to government.

The reviewers are leaning towards proposing a slightly more transparent system of secretary appointments and terminations, with published criteria for their selection and evaluating their performance.

In his reply to Littleproud, the auditor-general details his information-gathering powers and notes his office began scoping work on the water audit in February this year, which involved initial conversations with departmental staff.

“In short, the performance audit will look at the design of the current policy for water buy-backs, and whether its implementation has been effective,” Hehir told the minister. “At this stage, I do not anticipate that the performance audit will cover in detail the period from 2008.”

Officially, that means the auditors will look at whether DAWR “had appropriate program design, planning and guidance in place to support strategic water procurements; executed the program consistent with approved policy, planning and guidance; and achieved value for money.”

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