Tasmanian Integrity Commission finds 'systemic failure' on gifts

By David Donaldson

September 23, 2015

Tasmanian State Service agencies have displayed “a fundamental misunderstanding” and “concerning complacency” on the issue of gifts and benefits, argues a report by the Tasmanian Integrity Commission.

The State Service “appears to be at risk of developing a culture of entitlement in relation to receiving gifts and benefits — that employees are owed these ‘rewards’ because of their ‘hard work’,” argued the report, which was tabled on Tuesday.

Tasmanian Integrity Commission CEO Diane Merrywell
Tasmanian Integrity Commission CEO Diane Merryfull

The report is not about blaming individual public servants, commission CEO Diane Merryfull explained. “It is about the system. Agencies are failing their employees, leaving them without the clarity, training and support they need in dealing with gifts and benefits,” she said in a statement.

“Public servants should not expect to get anything extra for doing the job that they are paid to do — except for the thanks of the community.”

Agency policies relating to gifts and conflicts of interest mostly failed to adequately explain the relationship between the two and “even where an agency’s policy did provide some explanation of conflicts of interest, the gifts that had been approved by the agency demonstrated either a failure to understand the policy, or a failure to apply it.” The report says:

“There is a lack of understanding of appropriate standards, and of the risks that arise from accepting such rewards. Particularly at the lower end of the scale, accepting certain benefits is seen as just a ‘way of doing business’. Many State Service agencies appear to be under the impression (or at least give the impression to their staff) that as long as they are declared, most — if not all — gifts are acceptable. Yet at the same time, it appears that only a small percentage of received gifts are being declared.”

It noted that “Almost without exception, the commission’s request for gifts and benefits policies and records triggered a flurry of activity within agencies. Many agencies advised that they had a new gifts policy — or were in the process of drafting one. Some agencies took several months to locate and send the requested information to the Commission.”

Blanket ban impractical

Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Greg Johannes argued a blanket ban on accepting gifts would be impractical.

Tasmanian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Greg Johannes
Tasmanian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Greg Johannes

The report recommends a general ban on gifts, with a few exceptions, and that agencies should tell suppliers not to offer gifts to staff:

“The guidance in relation to declining and accepting gifts should be made clearer. It should commence with a prohibition on all gifts, and go on to give a limited, clear and concise list of exceptions. As part of that list, it should provide that any accepted (non-token) gifts must clearly be of benefit to the agency, state and/or the community (i.e. they must meet the public interest test). It should also highlight the importance of the relationship between the giver and the intended receiver when considering all gift offers (including token gifts). This test is to be applied to all gifts, including sponsored travel, hospitality, functions, and event invitations.”

In a letter, Johannes acknowledged that practices across the Tasmanian State Service regarding gifts, benefits and hospitality “require improvement.”

“I would hate to think we are getting to the stage of ruling out an apple for the teacher.”

In particular, he said, “there is a need for targeted training and guidance to staff, and enhancements to policies and systems to minimise the integrity risks associated with gifts, benefits and hospitality.”

He added, however, that “A prescriptive, zero tolerance approach … to managing the risks associated with gifts, benefits and hospitality is neither practical nor contemporary public sector practice, and is inconsistent with effective management practice.”

This approach “sends the wrong message to employees, that is that they cannot be trusted to behave ethically. This is particularly so in the context of the report’s finding that there is an absence of corruption, fraud or serious misconduct int he TSS,” he argued, adding that this raised concerns for morale and retention of employees.

The ABC reported that Johannes questioned the need for a policy that would prevent public servants accepting coffee being bought for them.

“I think you need to take a common-sense approach,” he said.

“It’s important that in managing gifts, benefits and hospitality, we still allow for people to have cups of coffee from time to time with each other.

“I don’t think it’s inappropriate for someone to give a paramedic a box of chocolates because they saved their partner’s life, and I would hate to think we are getting to the stage of ruling out an apple for the teacher.”

No finding of absence of corruption

The commission took issue with Johannes’ characterisation of the report as having found an absence of corruption, stating, “this report makes no such finding. … The investigation was not looking for fraud, corruption or misconduct.” It continues:

“By seeking to emphasise a supposed lack of evidence or findings about fraud, corruption or ‘serious misconduct’, the submissions are glossing over some of the very serious instances of inappropriate and/or undeclared gifts which the investigation uncovered. This includes (but is not limited to) very expensive electrical items, sponsored travel and (literally) thousands of dollars of gift cards – which are the equivalent of cash. Information about these instances was provided to heads of agencies in their individual feedback reports.”

Johannes also requested the commission not table the report in parliament, as doing so “could be counter-productive”, likely resulting in “employee defensiveness”. The commission ignored the suggestion, arguing that it “serves the interests of the public, not the interests of public service agencies.”

The Integrity Commission made news just last month when outgoing commissioner Murray Kellam QC issued a parting shot at the state government for failing to bring Tasmania into line with the rest of the country by criminalising abuse of public office.

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