Poisoned chalice? NSW Parliament chief to lead federal equivalent

By Stephen Easton

November 5, 2015

Robert Stefanic, head of the New South Wales Department of Parliamentary Services, has been appointed to lead the equivalent federal agency.

Stefanic’s predecessor claimed she was warned never to take on the job and suggested it was impossible to perform successfully under current governance arrangements. He will certainly have his work cut out for him to impress senators who will eventually scrutinise his performance. Members of the Finance and Public Administration committee commented earlier in the year that the department had low morale and a poor reputation, which made it difficult to recruit senior staff.

Stefanic has led the NSW agency since 2011, after almost three years as its chief information officer.

Robert Stefanic
Robert Stefanic

He has worked to keep the wheels of the state Parliament turning for more than 15 years, starting as a deputy usher of the black rod in 1998 before project managing the implementation of a new enterprise resource planning software package.

Stefanic held senior corporate support roles with the NSW upper house as well as in the management of its various committee hearings and inquiries.

The Commonwealth DPS has been led by parliamentary librarian Dianne Heriot since the termination of its former secretary Carol Mills in April.

Mills faced a series of increasingly dire assessments of the organisation’s performance going back several years, as well as several specific incidents. When called to account by federal parliamentarians in various inquiries and hearings, her responses were generally found wanting.

But in a gutsy move, she voluntarily faced the senators one last time after her dismissal as a private citizen. In a May hearing of the Finance and Public Administration committee that was clearly a harrowing experience for Mills, she maintained that the job had been something of a poisoned chalice:

“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.”

A tearful Mills said her successor would need “time and support” as well as significant reform to fix the “many areas of overlap and conflict” between DPS, the Department of the House of Representatives and the Department of the Senate. Senate clerk Rosemary Laing was at odds with Mills on several occasions, including when she torpedoed the former DPS head’s tilt at a prestigious job at Westminster. Said Mills:

“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.”

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