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Carol Mills responds: ‘what went wrong at the Parliament House job?’

Former departmental secretary Carol Mills has mounted a strong defence of the contribution made by the Department of Parliamentary Services, warning that her successors will face the same attacks if governance structures are not changed.

Mills today voluntarily fronted the Senate’s finance and public administration committee as a private citizen after it released a damning report into her running of the Department of Parliamentary Services last month.

However, the hearing was prematurely ended as an increasingly distressed Mills broke down and was unable to continue answering questions into her termination last month and the inconsistent evidence in the May 2014 Estimates over CCTV use in a code-of-conduct matter.

The allegations, which Mills denies, are that she misled the earlier Estimates hearing about not being aware that a DPS staff member was being investigated for approaching Senator John Faulkner’s office after being caught on CCTV footage. Faulkner obtained a copy of the report into the incident and questioned Mills about it. At first Mills denied knowledge, but later corrected the record that it was in fact a matter she was familiar with, but only that day. An email surfaced proving she was aware of the staff member being under investigation much earlier.

However, today Mills explained the discrepancy: there simply wasn’t enough detail in Faulkner’s line of questioning for Mills to make the connection between the CCTV report and a disciplinary matter that she was at arms length from at the time of her evidence, she said.

“If the senator had the report, I knew what that report was, why on Earth would I have … ” Mills began before requesting a break.

An emotional Mills then read out a statement defending the work that she has done for the Australian Public Service and the community, and the “constant threat” that DPS faces from its “enemies”:

“Since its creation a decade ago, the DPS has been a department with few champions … it’s been subject to continual review … even though the department has consistently had high levels of satisfaction among its customers, no one can be fully successful in that environment. Issues of resourcing, duplication, change resistance, which affect the department are systemic. No one individual can be accountable for their existence or for their eradication. It does seem this expectation has been increasingly placed on the position of secretary of DPS.

“Like my immediate predecessor, I’m an experienced public service executive. I’ve been responsible for budgets of over a billion dollars and thousands of staff. I’ve been consistently recognised for my achievement, professionalism, commitment and ethical behaviour. I’m proud to have improved the lives of homeless people, people with disability, children at risk. I have improved access to services.”

Another break was taken at the insistence of committee chair Senator Cory Bernardi, as Mills composed herself.

[pullquote] “I was warned by people in the APS against accepting this position … evidently, under the current arrangements the job could not be done.” [/pullquote]

“I’ve been contacted by people offering personal support and good wishes, including a plethora of current and former politicians, public servants, academics and business people. Some of these people approaching me were strangers who know me by reputation and know what I was trying to achieve at DPS. I was asked questions: ‘What went wrong at the job in Parliament House?’, ‘Why were the attacks so personal?’, ‘What can I do to help?’ It’s obviously very gratifying to hear such support.

“If DPS is to move forward it must be considered why its previous secretaries … have faced attacks that grew increasingly personal. It must also be considered that I was warned by people in the APS against accepting this position in the first place. Because evidently, under the current arrangements the job could not be done.”

Mills did not elaborate on the “enemies” she referred to undermining her position.

“If I leave here with one thing, I hope that none of my successors are faced with the same situation … there is no question the status quo is unsustainable [and] a change in governance is undoubtedly necessary.”

Mills said clarity of roles and responsibilities across the parliamentary departments and the Department of Finance, along the lines of an earlier review would be highly recommended, including an oversight board along the lines of the House of Commons in the UK or Canada.

“Another option would be to transfer responsibility to the special minister of state, as either an independent agency or part of the Department of Finance. This would have to be done in a way that protected the independence of parliament.

“There remains many areas of overlap and conflict. The work in this department is important and complex. The organisation has strengths and weaknesses, several of which are the result of circumstances beyond its control … genuine reform takes time and appropriate structures. I hope that DPS can move forward so staff and my successors will be given time and support.”

Mills confirmed that she was sacked in accordance with her employment conditions and had received a one-year severance in the order of $383,000.

The three overlapping departments in parliament — DPS, Department of the House of Representatives and Department of the Senate — have come to blows on several issues, with Senate clerk Dr Rosemary Laing writing to the committee with her concerns about the running of DPS. That letter has not been made public.

Parliamentary Librarian Dianne Heriot is acting as DPS secretary, and will testify before the committee at a later date.

Top image: Canberra CityNews

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.