Prisons boss: ‘I adore public service whistleblowers’

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday March 29, 2016

Western Australia’s Corrective Services commissioner has defended public sector whistleblowers, and a senior executive whose internal complaints about financial management appeared in the newspaper over the weekend.

Commissioner James McMahon (pictured) said the former Department of Corrective Services chief financial officer, who refused to sign off on last year’s annual financial statements and instead wrote the four-page internal memo blasting several instances of financial mismanagement, had moved to a different role at the same level.

The commissioner described the author of the internal missive as “a man who cares about his job” who was now working on “a project looking at the effectiveness of the custody system” that required his financial expertise.

McMahon also denied the man had been forced out of the CFO role as a result of writing the memo, which he wrote and sent around the leadership team last July, according to various media reports. There is no suggestion that it was the author who provided it to The West Australian newspaper.

In contrast to Minister for Corrective Services Joe Francis, the commissioner spoke positively of public service whistleblowing in general and unauthorised disclosures in certain circumstances:

“When it comes to the transparency of whistleblowers, I adore it. That is such an important thing for the public service.”

Earlier this year, WA Premier Colin Barnett said public servants who complained to the media about internal matters were “unAustralian” after a group of doctors sent an open letter to journalists about serious problems at the state’s newest hospital.

While McMahon commented about the importance of transparency and accountability to the public service and the value of protections for whistleblowers, Francis suggested the former CFO was partly responsible for the poor management he was complaining about in the eight-month-old memo:

“I find it amazing that he wouldn’t sign off on his own work … which is one of the reasons he is no longer the CFO,” the minister said, claiming the executive “got caught out through incompetence and is disgruntled about it”.

Francis also sought to blame past problems in the Department of Corrective Services on the previous government and play down the complaints in the memo as old news. He suggested the organisation had begun to rapidly improve since McMahon’s appointment as commissioner.

McMahon has strengthened the department’s senior audit committee with a representative from the state Auditor-General’s office, and said he had about 1500 audit issues to deal with when he took the job in October, 2013. He says all the points raised in the letter have already been identified in two audits during his tenure.

The shadow minister Paul Papalia argued the “poor practices” detailed in the leaked memo were put in place on McMahon’s watch, denied they were a Labor legacy, and expressed “grave concerns” for the executive at the centre of the controversy:

“We will be watching closely [to see] if he is the subject of any intimidation.”

Cost blowouts and banking on assumptions

In the memo, the former CFO complained that department bosses planned on spending $51 million of money they had not been allocated by government in the 2014-15 state budget.

He told senior colleagues in the memo they did so based on “a fundamental assumption that the funds would be allocated through the mid-year review” of the budget.

He also criticised a blowout of about $1 million due to the cost of replacing staff uniforms, a measure that was originally supposed to save about $200,000, and still went ahead after the supplier confirmed the change would not reduce the department’s bill.

The former CFO also wrote that based on the advice of the Public Sector Commission, he had confirmed that senior executives were being paid on-call and after-hours loadings they were not entitled to.

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