'Thanks for your service, liars': did Dan Andrews go too far?

By Jason Whittaker

March 11, 2015

It’s not the first time a government has sacked the head of an agency. But the ferocity and public nature of the dismissal of WorkSafe’s CEO and chairman in Victoria last week caught some by surprise.

“They cannot explain how they got this wrong,” Premier Daniel Andrews (pictured) fumed in a press conference on Tuesday. “I will not be lied to, and I will not accept incompetence.”

Earlier that day, Finance Minister Robin Scott met with Denise Cosgrove, the chief executive, and chair David Krasnostein over water contamination at the Country Fire Authority’s training facility in Fiskville. In December, WorkSafe told the minister it wasn’t aware of any health and safety concerns. Now the pair told the Minister they couldn’t confirm whether the body had tested the water.

Scott immediately sought their resignations and received them. “An assurance of safety was given. The Fiskville findings prove otherwise,” he said in a statement, before the Premier’s assault:

“When you’re confronted with that complete inconsistency and people can’t explain to you how it is that they got it so very wrong, either someone hasn’t done their job or someone has been untruthful.”

Both are experienced executives, in government and business. Krasnostein is a former CEO of MLC Private Equity and chief general counsel of the National Australia Bank, while serving as a director of the government’s Transport Accident Commission (he’s since resigned from the TAC). Cosgrove was a senior executive at a New Zealand workers’ compensation body, though as The Mandarin reported has been the subject of headlines in the past.

The charge against them was explicit: they lied, and they acted incompetently. Their future employment prospects are undoubtedly harmed. (A spokesperson for the Premier says Andrews did thank them for their service and noted they had “done the right thing” by offering their resignations.)

Of those The Mandarin has spoken to, there wasn’t much sympathy for the pair. “Ministers are accountable for the actions of their departments but when they are told things that are not true they are entitled to hold the department to account,” one senior serving bureaucrat said.

But another former top mandarin in the Victorian system was surprised how harsh and how public the criticism was. And they wondered if a government still finding its feet had set a new precedent: one mistake and the boss is axed.

“I am not surprised and am not in disagreement with his removal of the persons in whom he no longer has confidence.”

Tom Keating is a health academic who worked at senior levels in the Victorian bureaucracy. He says he can understand Andrews’ frustration.

“Secretaries of departments and CEOs of statutory authorities are paid big salaries and have to be held to account for the performance of their entities,” he told The Mandarin. “If the Premier was provided with false advice about safety checks having been undertaken, he may be entitled to form the view that he had been knowingly mislead or that the CEO had not performed his duties competently.

“In these circumstances I am not surprised and am not in disagreement with his removal of the persons in whom he no longer has confidence. The wisdom of the public statements is another question.”

Noting WorkSafe is not a government department but a “quasi-autonomous” authority, Keating was still surprised by the public attack.

“I cannot recall a time when a premier has publicly rebuked a public official, called them dishonest or incompetent and required their resignation,” he said.

“There have been many occasions when you might have thought it was warranted. The pink batts fiasco was a case of monumental failure by the Commonwealth bureaucracy, albeit aggravated by political imperatives and lack of ministerial oversight. But public servants were not named and while some may have had their careers impacted, that happened quietly.”

Andrews’ spokesperson called it “decisive action” against a dangerous contamination threat. Asked by The Mandarin whether the public statements against the CEO and chairman were justified — and how the government might treat other public servants in the future — they would only say:

“The Premier made clear that the government had received the wrong advice from WorkSafe and that it would not be tolerated when the lives of firefighters were at risk.

“WorkSafe is responsible for the health and safety of Victorian workers and restoring public confidence in them was the basis for seeking the resignations of its CEO and chair.”

What do you think? Were the sackings justified, and did Daniel Andrews go too far? Leave your comments below …

More at The Mandarin: Victoria’s WorkSafe management sacked over contamination

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