APS must reveal gifts and benefits from January, but only those accepted by agency heads

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday October 22, 2019

(Image: Ticket Master)

Australian Public Service websites have to include quarterly lists of gifts and benefits received by their leaders from early next year, under a policy put in place by the Prime Minister in response to complaints from News Corp journalists.

All gifts or benefits worth over $100 (before GST) must be added to the online register within 28 days of being accepted by the agency head. The first publication deadline is January 31, 2020, and the register must include all gifts and benefits received after the commencement of the policy on October 18. After that, it must be updated by the end of each financial quarter.

“Agency heads (including departmental secretaries) must not accept gifts or benefits that might reasonably be seen to compromise their integrity,” reminds the APS commission, in new guidelines that took effect on Friday.

“In determining whether a gift or benefit should be accepted, the agency head should take into account a range of factors, including the type and significance of the gift or benefit, whether it gives rise to a real or perceived conflict of interest, and whether it is part of an exchange of gifts between official representatives of governments.”

The new rules apply to agency heads, and to their immediate family members or dependants if they receive a benefit with a clear link to the public servant’s official duties. It is not, however, mandatory to reveal gifts and benefits given to public servants below the level of agency head.

“As a matter of best practice, there is a strong expectation that agency heads will also publish gifts and benefits received by staff in their agency that exceed the threshold of $AUD100.00 (excluding GST),” the guidelines state.

Statutory office holders and heads of Commonwealth corporate entities are also “strongly encouraged” to adopt the policy.

“Agency heads in the national intelligence community who are prevented from publishing their register on their agency’s website may provide this information through a separate agreed arrangement, such as classified annual reports,” the APSC explains.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised the new rules in September in response to a complaint from Adelaide newspaper The Advertiser, which proudly crowed that “a News Corp investigation forced intervention from the PM” in a news report last week.

Auditor-general Grant Hehir suggested “transparency would be enhanced through the publication of entity gifts and benefits registers on the internet” in mid-2018 and also proposed a whole-of-government policy requiring a consistent approach across the APS, but it seems the influential publisher has more sway with the Morrison government.

The registers do not have to include gifts and benefits that are declined, bequeathed in a will, or received in a purely personal capacity, as long as they do not create an actual or perceived conflict of interest. Any benefits that agency heads receive through “an approved assistance program such as a disaster relief arrangement” do not have to be included either.

A gift or benefit is defined as “any item or service accepted by an agency head from clients, customers (including potential clients or customers) or other associates of an agency head in the course of their official duties” and explain how their value is to be calculated.

The APSC provides a handy list of examples, making it clear that discounts, prizes won through the luck of the draw and intangible benefits like “preferential treatment” are all counted in the new policy.

The guidelines recognise that in some situations, refusing gifts can cause offence while accepting them would also be inappropriate for a public servant, and they endorse a few common ways of dealing with this. The APSC suggests the item could become property of the agency or the Commonwealth itself, donated to a worthy cause, or raffled off in a staff social network.

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