PM asks APS to publish gift registers: News Corp achieves what the auditor-general could not

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday September 3, 2019

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has decided Australian Public Service agencies should publish their lists of gifts and benefits.

“I am asking the APSC Commissioner to look into all departments publishing gifts and benefits to ensure they are in line with community expectations,” the PM said in a statement provided to The Mandarin, and we understand this is much more than a casual request.

Update: a spokesperson for Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott said Morrison asked him to review the current processes all departments have in relation to registers of gifts and benefits, and whether they should be published. “The Commissioner intends to work with all departmental heads to develop a process for managing these arrangements,” the APSC told The Mandarin.

Morrison’s intervention reportedly came after News Corp Australia complained it struggled to access the information via the freedom of information system. His office did nothing to water down the powerful publisher’s proud announcement that he “ordered the head of the public service to direct all departments to publish their registers” soon after its editorial staff were told APS departments would be keeping them confidential.

Auditor-general Grant Hehir suggested this would be a good idea last June but it seems the influential publisher of the main metropolitan tabloids and The Australian has more influence.

Hehir said, “transparency would be enhanced through the publication of entity gifts and benefits registers on the internet” in an interim report on financial controls. He also endorsed the idea of a whole-of-government policy setting minimum rules for agencies, but nothing came of that.

Over the weekend, however, News Corp boasted Morrison had “personally intervened” after it complained that its FOI requests ran into resistance from a “culture of secrecy” in the APS, particularly in the Department of Health.

Unconventionally, the report appears to be referring to APS commissioner Peter Woolcott as “the head of the public service” — a role that belongs to Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens — and describes the auditor-general’s view as a “recommendation” although it was not one in the formal sense of the word. It was just a view, stated in a report.

Health reportedly said it would charge over $2300 to process an FOI application for its gift register, but then agreed to charge nothing “after News Corp appealed that it was in the public’s interest to release the documents”. The department then released a copy minus the names of individuals and organisations that provided the gifts and benefits.

Health claimed one FOI exemptions that relates to the need to avoid damaging Australia’s international relations, News Corp reports incredulously. The department said its policy was “complete and robust” and served to prevent actual or perceived conflicts of interest.

Perks found on the lists uncovered by the FOI requests include everything from cups of coffee, cakes and cheap souvenirs to expensive watches, travel and accommodation for conferences, corporate functions, concerts and sporting events.

Before the PM’s intervention, the Department of Home Affairs told News Corp it planned to publish its register of gifts and benefits some time in 2020 but many other departments said they would not.

They included Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury, Finance, the Attorney-General’s Department, Environment and Energy, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence, Social Services, Industry, Human Services, Communications, Health and Education.

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