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‘Shocked into silence’: Education ‘oppressive’ on Ultranet

Ultranet document

A former project manager has told of the Victorian Department of Education’s “oppressive”, blokey atmosphere and how human resources thought she was a “nutter” for raising probity concerns about her boss, deputy secretary Darrell Fraser.

So worried was Colleen Murphy, who was in charge of the first tendering process for the failed Ultranet software system, that she went out of her way to contact HR on a different phone number and from a different building level to remain anonymous.

Murphy told the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission inquiry into the department that she believed the lack of a tender process in a prior project meant software giant Oracle was being given “a really unfair advantage”.

“… [Darrell] Fraser treated Oracle’s involvement as ‘a fait accompli’.”

She argued on Tuesday that the preliminary project with 12 schools that ultimately led to Ultranet had no tender process, describing it as “dodgy” and stating Fraser treated Oracle’s involvement as “a fait accompli”.

Murphy told the hearing that Fraser and Gregory Martin, an executive at Oracle, were “blokey mates” and that the company offered departmental staff a range of gifts, including dinners and flights to Oracle’s office in Western Australia.

But when she raised probity concerns, she said Fraser told her she “needed to lighten up” and said he “didn’t take it very seriously”.

Murphy found the department’s gifts policy online and told Fraser she believed the dinners and flights fitted under the policy, so they shouldn’t be accepting the gifts, or should at least be declaring them, the inquiry heard. The result, she suspects, is that she was cut out of further knowledge of gifts from that point onwards.

Asked by counsel assisting Ian Hill QC whether she mentioned concerns with probity adviser Anne Dalton, who is appearing at IBAC on Wednesday, Murphy said she did in a “roundabout way”, but that Dalton seemed powerless:

“I think that the environment was also very much that [Darrell Fraser] was quite dominant at all of those meetings too, so it didn’t seem like someone like Anne had a lot of power. Like, who was she going to go to? [Deputy secretary] Jeff Rosewarne? Darrell and Jeff were very close.”

Murphy stated that it seemed Fraser and Rosewarne “were virtually running the department”. Asked whether this was a common view, she said:

“I think that many people were a bit frightened to talk about that openly, but there were murmurs.”

‘Like I was the nutter’

After the VPS6 project manager aired her thoughts with a colleague from HR about gifts and hiring issues, Murphy was told “you’re in a no-win situation” and that she should “just let it go”.

Indeed, she was placed in the position after the previous tenant “didn’t get on with Darrell so she lost her job”.

She even went to the effort of ringing HR from another level in the building and on a different number “so that I would know that I wouldn’t get somebody that already knew me and I said that I have a problem with my manager”. The HR officer assumed she was at a lower level and advised her to go to the boss above her boss.

When she asked what to do if the general manager was the problem, the response she got was “kind of like I was the nutter”. They suggested putting her problems in writing and sending them to HR. As Murphy told the hearing:

“And I thought the last thing I’m going to do is put this in writing.”

‘Shocked into silence’

Murphy’s hiring concerns involved her involvement on the recruitment panel for two new VPS6 jobs to manage the preliminary project, as well as the position of project manager of Ultranet.

One position description appeared to have been written with a preferred candidate in mind, the inquiry heard. Ben Cushing was hired as technical director directly from a school, meaning his salary would have nearly doubled to around $120,000.

Only two candidates applied, and Hill suggested the skillset for the position “was really written with [Cushing] in mind”. Murphy said he was “definitely” the best applicant, though the way it was written “seemed very different from the sort of public service ads that you generally see advertised”.

The second job was allegedly given to a weaker candidate after Fraser’s intervention. David Allibon was appointed to a professional learning management role. Murphy said she had been told Allibon was Fraser’s preferred candidate of the many who applied.

She told fellow panel member and Fraser’s “drinking buddy” John Allman she believed Allibon was not the best candidate and was “shocked” when she was overruled by Fraser:

“I said to John something like, ‘I’m really concerned — David [Allibon] is clearly not the best person for this position’. And John said, ‘leave it with me — I will go and talk to Darrell’. And he went over. Darrell’s office has got a glass wall. I saw him go in and talk to Darrell. I went and got my lunch. All good. Came back after lunch and we sat down and he looked at me and said, ‘Darrell and I know you will do the right thing’, and then launched into a soliloquy about why David was obviously the best person for the position.

“He went through the key selection criteria and ticked them off, and the other person on the selection panel agreed with him. And I thought that was reasonable because she probably would; he’s a general manager …

“I was shocked, actually. I know I sound naïve, but I did not think for a minute he would come back and do that. So I was shocked into silence for a little bit.”

Employment recommendation changed

Murphy, along with the other two panel members, including Cushing and an Erle Bourke, recommended a woman as the best candidate for the position of Ultranet project manager. But when that recommendation was forwarded to Fraser he had it changed, Murphy stated:

“I think it was the next morning, I was in a meeting and he — he called me out and said that Jeff — meaning Mr Rosewarne — wanted the recommendation changed, that he didn’t like the decision of the panel. And I said they look very similar on paper, words to the effect of this, but when they were interviewed, it became very obvious that she was the best candidate for the position, blah, blah, blah.

“And he said ‘Jeff wants them changed — he wants it to be this person, so rewrite the report’. And I said, ‘well, if Jeff doesn’t trust the decisions of the panel, perhaps he should sit on them himself’. And that probably wasn’t a wise thing to say to Mr Fraser …”

Agreeing that it was “brave or silly” to have said that to her boss, Murphy continued that “he became a bit more assertive, shall we say, about how he told me to do it.  Said it probably wasn’t my place to question that and to go and do it.”

After discussing this with fellow panel member Bourke, who recommended she re-write the recommendation, Murphy admitted, “I changed the report” to recommend a candidate from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Murphy said that although she worked at the department until 2013, she left Ultranet “as quickly as I could” in June 2007:

“I was absolutely committed to the Ultranet, I genuinely believed it would make a real difference to the lives of, you know, to schools and their communities and I’m very sad about what happened, but there was so many things that occurred in and around the project that the values that I had didn’t mesh with and I just couldn’t work on the project any longer and I didn’t feel there was anywhere I could go in the department that could help me with that.

Asked what “values” she was referring to, she said:

“My values, like, you know, tenders being treated like this, being — changing selection panels, the way there was that culture of blokeiness and drinks and, you know, it was a whole lot of things, but it — they just were very loose with what I thought were processes that everybody follows.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.