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Ag secretary out: Paul Grimes represents ‘best traditions of impartiality’

Paul Grimes
Paul Grimes

Former ministers who worked with dismissed mandarin Paul Grimes have defended the former departmental secretary’s professionalism, impartiality and integrity, but there remains little clarity on why he was removed.

Dr Grimes was “terminated” as secretary of the Department of Agriculture on Friday after his current minister Barnaby Joyce said the pair agreed that “a relationship of strong mutual confidence …. was not a realistic prospect.”

Tony Burke, former Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Minister, says his then-departmental secretary represented the highest public service ideals:

“In every dealing I had with Paul he was the epitome of the frank and fearless public servant. Paul’s advice was without exception thoughtful, incisive and unashamedly independent. His departure is a significant loss to the Australian Public Service.”

Former Labor minister Gary Gray on Friday described Grimes’ career as “a testament to his absolute commitment to the best traditions of an impartial and high quality public service to good public policy-making and public administration with integrity … The outstanding capability and quality of our public service relies on dedicated people like Dr Grimes.”

Joyce has not revealed the specific basis for breakdown of relationship, or how Grimes’ recent appearance before Senate Estimates over freedom of information requests had offended. Last week Joyce said he had a very good working relationship with Grimes and the pair had never had an angry word. Grimes had met with Joyce to advise following the extensive editing of Hansard by the minister’s staff, provoking interest from the Opposition in the lead up to Senate Estimates.

Shadow Agriculture spokesperson Joel Fitzgibbon called on the minister to give a full explanation for the dismissal.

Today, Joyce told reporters at Parliament he was “absolutely at ease” with the situation, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott indicated he was satisfied with the recommendation from his departmental secretary Michael Thawley:

“The secretary of my department believed the best way to handle this was the way it has, in fact, been handled.”

Grimes’s career also included senior roles at the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and Finance. At state level, he held chief executive and deputy secretary roles for the treasuries in the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia respectively.

Joyce issued a statement Friday afternoon:

“Dr Paul Grimes PSM will step down as se​cretary of the Department of Agriculture. This follows a report under the Public Service Act 1999 from the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, with which Dr Grimes agreed, that a relationship of strong mutual confidence between the secretary and myself was not a realistic prospect.

“I would like to acknowledge the longstanding contribution of Dr Grimes to public administration in this country at the Commonwealth, state and territory levels.

“I thank Dr Grimes for his work in my department and wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Grimes confirmed in an email to the department that he accepted the situation:

“In particular, I have agreed that the Minister would be better supported at this time by a new secretary with a different background and set of policy skills.”

Phillip Glyde, currently deputy secretary at the department, will act as leader until further notice.

There has been speculation since the week earlier of an irreparable breakdown in the relationship between Joyce and Grimes, related to a recent controversy surrounding the department’s handling of a freedom of information request. The request sought to get to the bottom of whether changes to Joyce’s comments recorded by Hansard were requested by his staff without his knowledge, as the minister has claimed.

Labor’s agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon has labelled the termination a “disgrace” in a statement and said: “Dr Grimes lost his job because he told the truth about Hansardgate.” Fitzgibbon relentlessly pursued Joyce over the Hansard changes and says the minister “drew officials into his Hansard changes controversy and subsequent cover-up”.

Grimes tried to bring the matter to a close by requesting an appearance before the relevant Senate Estimates committee in an additional sitting last Thursday. Soon afterwards he went on leave and on Monday, Joyce described his relationship with the department as “strong”.

In part of his opening statement to the committee, Grimes said:

There is no question that there were errors within the department in the way it assisted the minister’s office in the processing of an FOI request to the Minister for Agriculture. Following last Monday’s hearing, there were suggestions that the department may not have adequately dealt with the hearing — presumably, partly because there was only partial evidence available.

When there are suggestions that a department has not adequately dealt with a matter, one available approach is to provide as much transparency as possible. In particular, this includes recognising areas where the department’s systems and processes could be improved. I believe all key witnesses necessary to address relevant questions from the committee are here today.

On all the facts that I am aware of, the officers concerned have acted to the best of their ability in good faith. They are all good public servants — in fact, they are excellent public servants — who have big futures ahead of them serving the government of the day.

I want to emphasise that the department has an excellent track record in its professional handling of FOI requests. However, unlike some departments, the Department of Agriculture does not have the experience of managing a significant volume of FOI requests that are addressed solely and directly to the minister. It is in this specific area that errors have occurred and improvements will need to be made to our systems so that they function more effectively in the future.

No-one relishes the prospect of being part of a learning experience. However, it is very much my sincere hope that the evidence today will help draw out some of the lessons we have learned through this experience. Moreover, I hope the lessons from this experience may have longer term benefits and learnings for this department and possibly also for other departments. Thank you.

The situation was described by the committee’s chair, Liberal senator Bill Heffernan, as “a storm in a teacup”. “All human endeavour includes mistakes,” Heffernan commented. “So I do not know what the political game is, but I am amazed that this has blown into some sort of an episode.”

Grimes’ predecessor as Agriculture secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, was also removed by the Coalition government and was soon after made a partner with the Canberra office of accounting firm Ernst and Young.

Political journalist Latika Bourke tweeted Grimes’ full message to staff:

 

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.