A breakdown of trust: accountability the key to Carol Mills sacking

By Stephen Easton

April 28, 2015

A maintenance staff member keeping Parliament House spick and span; one of the 5000 people who work in the building during sitting periods. Anne Zahalka, Parliament House Art Collection, Department of Parliamentary Services

If any more explanation is required for the dismissal of Parliamentary Services secretary Carol Mills last week, it was provided today in yet another unfavourable report from yet another inquiry into the troubled department.

Carol Mills
Carol Mills (photo: Canberra CityNews)

The dismissal, which went un-explained by those behind it on Friday, likely has multiple causes. But chief among them seems to be the view that Mills has been less than forthcoming when called to account, giving evidence to multiple inquires over several years that was seen as variously incomplete, contradictory, evasive, dismissive and even deliberately misleading.

Having completed three public hearings and two Estimates hearings, and seeing as the Senate Privileges Committee and the auditor-general have now both tabled DPS-related inquiry reports, the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee felt today was the “opportune” time to add their own PDF to the pile.

In part, the committee wanted to follow up on the implementation of recommendations it made in 2012, but it also re-hashed the various other controversies that have taken place since then.

Today’s report pulls out highlights from auditor-general Ian McPhee’s review, which in the committee’s interpretation, demonstrated little had changed since 2012. The senators concluded that McPhee had been “generous” in saying the implementation of the 2012 prescriptions was “at the slower end”.

The committee notes the department’s poor reputation made it difficult to recruit senior staff and that general morale is low. It savages Mills over her explanations for the lack of progress:

“DPS has had two-and-a-half years in which to address the recommendations and effect some change. Frankly, the complete lack of progress is unacceptable.”

The committee also went over the commissioning of $30,000 worth of photographic art — including the photo above — for the 25th anniversary of Parliament House from Anne Zahalka, who lived near Mills and knew her personally. Although the former secretary denied she knew her very well, the lack of documentation and fuzzy memories of staff regarding the process made it difficult to investigate the matter:

“In the committee’s opinion, the commissioning of the photographs to mark the 25th Anniversary of Parliament House epitomises the failings that still exist within DPS. Crucially, DPS are unable to produce documents for a three-month period during the commissioning process.”

The interim report then provides a blow-by-blow summary of the scandal surrounding the use of security cameras in the investigation of a DPS employee potentially breaching the code of conduct by providing information to former senator John Faulkner. It was Mills’ attempts to explain and defend her department’s actions in this controversial series of events that perhaps did her career the most damage.

The Privileges Committee found Mills an evasive and unhelpful witness whose testimony was contradicted by her own department, and when she responded to its December 2014 report, she only dug herself deeper. The Clerk of the Senate Rosemary Laing took issue with Mills’ response and wrote to the committee to say so.

The Finance and Public Administration Committee’s latest investigations gave it even less confidence in Mills’ past statements, and it concluded that:

“Overall, the evidence to the committee so far demonstrates that DPS, as currently managed, is deeply dysfunctional.”

The committee also “holds little hope” of DPS being able to address the issues highlighted by McPhee’s audit, given its failure to take the medicine prescribed in 2012, although it prepared today’s report before it found out Mills no longer worked there.

Based on the dire warnings of the politicians and the auditor-general, the task of turning things around will not be an easy one.

Top photo by Anne Zahalka, part of the Parliament House at Work exhibition scrutinised by the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee.

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