The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has accused senator Rex Patrick of “undermining public confidence” and called for a parliamentary committee to review his conduct as he continues to criticise public servants under parliamentary privilege.
This week, Patrick launched fresh criticism of department secretary Phil Gaetjens, calling him “the prime minister’s henchman, covering up all manner of sins and corruption”.
It follows Patrick last week criticising a department deputy secretary after she rejected his request for national cabinet meeting minutes through FOI.
Patrick argues an Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruling has cast doubt on whether the national cabinet meetings are protected by cabinet in confidence provisions – and therefore should be accessible through FOI – but the department argues the tribunal doesn’t make binding decisions in the same ways as a court.
In response to Patrick’s criticisms of public servants last week, Gaetjens and public sector commissioner Peter Woolcott wrote a joint letter condemning the “unwarranted and offensive remarks” and requested they be referred to the parliamentary privileges committee for review.
“If senator Patrick’s comments, made under privilege, had been made in most other workplaces they would be characterised as bullying and harassment,” the two public servants said.
“The senator’s comments are likely to have the effect of undermining public confidence in the Australian public service.
“Senator Patrick attacked the integrity and reputation of the public service. In doing so, he has demoralised tens of thousands of public servants who seek to do their best for their country every day.”
But Patrick in the senate on Tuesday hit back again, criticising another department employee after lodging a second FOI request for the national cabinet documents and receiving a “ carbon copy” response.
“Some might think it’s unconventional that I come into this chamber and start naming public officials, but there are conventions being broken inside the government that are far more harmful in respect of damage to institutions,” he said.
In response to Gaetjens’ letter, Patrick claimed it was Gaetjens “who has undermined confidence in the public service”.
His comments about Gaetjens were fierce enough at one point that the senate’s deputy president asked him to withdraw them.
“I know there are very good people in the Australian Public Service, but, as it is said, a fish rots from the head,” he said.
A department spokesperson told The Mandarin PM&C wholly rejected Patrick’s latest allegations.
“These continued personal attacks on APS staff remain unwarranted and untrue,” the spokesperson said.
Senate leader Simon Birmingham also defended the department and said public servants should not be subject to politicised attacks on them as individuals.
“We ought to respect that those public servants are not elected officials,” Birmingham told the senate.
“They are individuals who rightly have accountability mechanisms and processes in place for the way in which they conduct their duties. Of course, as ministers, we are responsible for the work of our departments and for addressing those matters.”