Complaint-handling linked to low morale: insider says Home Affairs is rife with ███████

By Stephen Easton

Friday November 15, 2019

ABC News/Matt Roberts

An angry insider links simmering discontent about promotions and deep distrust of senior executives in the Department of Home Affairs to the way internal complaints are handled, in a submission to a Senate inquiry that hears from the secretary on Friday.

The committee lined up secretary Michael Pezzullo for a Friday morning session of its second hearing about press freedom and government whistleblowers. The inquiry recently received a long list of grievances and allegations about senior leaders in Home Affairs from a person who claims over 30 years experience in the public service, and we have reason to believe many others in the department share their views.

The unnamed insider, whose name was withheld by the committee on request, says internal channels for whistleblowers, like the Public Interest Disclosure scheme, do not work, and criticises the way leaks to the media have been investigated by the Australian Federal Police, particularly those which are referred to the AFP by the department.

“Legislation needs to support a change in mindset that whistleblowers are doing something wrong, to whistleblowers are doing something right,” says the submission, which argues there is an insufficient “separation of powers” between agencies in the portfolio, and the minister’s office inappropriately interferes in AFP and ABF operations.

The submission refers to internal complaints made against some of the most senior leaders in the portfolio, stemming from disquiet about who got what job and how much they are paid. It argues inconsistent complaint-handling has led to a perception of a double standard, whereby Senior Executive Service (SES) officers don’t have to abide by the merit principle, contributing to DHA’s incredibly low morale.

Survey results show well over half of DHA employees have little faith in their leaders: only 35% feel they work under “high quality” senior executives, 29% think SES officers work well as a team, and 31% think they communicate well with other staff.

The submission argues processes and protections for whistleblowers under the PID Act are inadequate. It claims that when the federal ombudsperson refers such disclosures back to the agency, its senior staff can “manipulate the investigation” that follows. It says a disclosure containing “information related to the Secretary” was made to the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity but was passed back to Home Affairs, where it was investigated by an Executive Level 1 officer.

“Anyone with knowledge of the APS would know that it would take a very courageous EL1 to undertake an investigation which may result in any adverse findings in a matter involving the Secretary of the behemoth that is the Department of Home Affairs,” the public submission states.

It appears the complainant felt a certain promotion was an example of someone using their position to gain “a benefit or advantage” for another person — nepotism, essentially — but this was not upheld.

“Another tactic used by the agency in regard to PID reports is to change the investigating officer multiple times which ensures there is no continuity of knowledge or context and makes it extremely exhausting for the discloser to continue monitoring the matter,” the submission adds.

The line between what meets the standard of a merit-based process and outright nepotism is not always black and white. It often comes down to the nature of relationships between people and if they aren’t obviously related in a family or intimate sense, that can be hard to define. The public submission also refers to the ABF deputy commissioner in charge of operations, Mandy Newton, suggesting vaguely that her “friends” have got a lot of senior promotions.

The public submission provides no evidence of any wrongdoing by anyone.

The Mandarin has obtained parts of internal complaints that fit the vague references in the submission. Right or wrong, this unnamed individual is obviously aggrieved by how such allegations have been handled, and is not alone in these views within the department.

These kinds of internal complaints could come from misunderstandings or differing opinions about how the merit principle is meant to work in practice. Whatever the specifics, it is undeniable that they have emerged from a generally unhappy workforce and thus could be seen as symptoms of a broader workforce malaise that should be addressed. The person behind the submission firmly supports integrity reform.

Last year DHA told the Senate that between July 1, 2017, and April 30, 2018, it had referred “three complaints against senior officers which involved allegations of relationships with staff” to ACLEI but two were dismissed. The other was against former ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg, who was bundled off on leave, investigated by ACLEI, and later sacked for helping his girlfriend get a low-level ABF position.

The submission compares the handling of an unknown complaint that mentioned Pezzullo to the handling of the one against Quaedvlieg.

“Whilst [redacted] is very common in the Department of Home Affairs and ABF, staff were concerned at the inconsistency in pursuit of the matters involving the Secretary and then Commissioner,” it claims.

Over the past year The Mandarin has been told by multiple current and former DHA staff, including several in the middle management layer and one from the SES levels, about discontent in the department and the ABF over the way a very small group of EL2s were promoted into a newly created “senior director” classification and paid at a much higher level than their peers.

While the inquiry rolls on, long delayed Public Interest Disclosure reforms are on the way after the federal government was prodded into action mainly by the backlash against the AFP searching the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst.

On October 30 Attorney-General Christian Porter said the government would soon release an official response to the Moss review of the Public Interest Disclosure Act, after sitting on the recommendations since mid-2016.

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