“I am not an anti-union Trump supporter,” declared National Disability Insurance Agency chief executive Martin Hoffman last night, after his past social media use came back to haunt him in his first appearance at Senate estimates since taking up the role.
“Well, those tweets would say differently, and you know it,” fumed Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, who had said a lot of people with disability would now be worried that the aforementioned descriptor applied to the new NDIA chief.
Hoffman was a regular user of the social media platform. Now his account has been deleted after Labor senator Deborah O’Neill argued some of his Twitter activity — mostly likes and retweets — exposed sympathy for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and antipathy towards the labour movement.
Steele-John and O’Neill both argued there was a failure to properly check Hoffman’s social media history before appointing him. Labor’s spokesperson for the NDIS, Bill Shorten, backed up his colleague’s line of questioning, reportedly saying “the last thing people with disability need” is a partisan public servant running the NDIA.
O’Neill listed some of Hoffman’s past Twitter activity, while he was a New South Wales department secretary and, in one case, while he ran the Commonwealth’s Services Australia transition taskforce. He strongly defended his record in senior state and federal public service jobs.
“I’ve been a public servant for 10 years,” Hoffman said, trying to rule a line under a tense exchange between the Labor senator and Department of Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell.
“I have served governments of both sides. I’ve been promoted within the public service while serving governments of both sides. I have performed well my duties for both sides. I’ve worked closely with Labor ministers. I’ve worked closely with Liberal ministers.”
On August 30, O’Neill said, he retweeted a complaint from the United States president suggesting Google had been more favourable to his predecessor Barack Obama with the hashtag #stopthebias. Another time, he retweeted a warning about militant union leaders who did not respect the law.
She also pointed to a fairly innocuous reply to a comment on a popular image that appeared to show Prime Minister Scott Morrison isolated at the G7 summit (which had been modified by political satirists and later shared by others out of context). Hoffman questioned another user’s description of Morrison as “self-absorbed, alone and powerless” and offered a different take on the picture — pointing out it also showed the first Australian PM ever invited to a G7 meeting. According to O’Neill, he also “liked” a tweet that says: “Leftists are nasty, intolerant, hateful people. Period.”
Campbell said she wasn’t aware of the tweets because they occurred before Hoffman began his current role on November 4, and she would only expect the department to inform her of noteworthy tweets by the NDIA chief after that point.
The DSS boss refused to say whether she was concerned by any of the Twitter activity O’Neill read out, or whether they were appropriate for a senior public servant, arguing this would be “an opinion” and repeatedly stressing that it all occurred before his most recent APS appointment.
O’Neill said the content was the issue, not the dates, and noted he had worked under similar conditions as a NSW department head and previously at senior level in the APS. Campbell refused to speculate on whether any of his reported Twitter activity would breach the APS code if it occurred now, arguing that code of conduct inquiries had to follow the procedure.
The Labor senator said this was only “a very brief coverage” of Twitter activity that showed Hoffman had shared or liked what she called “highly political” comments.
“Do you believe you did due diligence on Mr. Hoffman’s [suitability] in terms of bureaucratic independence?” she asked Campbell, who said the selection panel that chose Hoffman was “satisfied” he had the necessary skills but she had not checked his Twitter account and wasn’t sure if anyone else had either.
The secretary said she could not “follow everybody’s Twitter account” and an executive search firm had done “background checking” on the candidates, wearily pointing out DSS had provided “extensive details” about the selection process in a previous hearing.