Every secretary's nightmare for new parliamentary boss

By Harley Dennett

May 5, 2016

Take a moment to consider what it must have been like for Robert Stefanic to step into the shoes of his predecessor, Carol Mills, as secretary of the troubled Department of Parliamentary Services.

Mills was run out of the department — almost out of the country — sacked in spectacular fashion by the former speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry over her handling of a series of missteps by the department.

A public servant of considerable experience and talent, she was nonetheless reduced to tears while explaining what went wrong to a public committee hearing.

Stefanic, in his first two appearance before Senate Estimates hearings, has also been let down and surprised by his staff caught telling porkies in official questions on notice.

Earlier today Stefanic told the Finance and Public Administration Committee that, on taking up the role, he initiated greater sharing of information between his department, the Australian Federal Police and other relevant authorities, as well as centralising that information to better ensure accuracy and speed of access. However, it appears that even with these measures the department cannot provide accurate information to questions on notice.

“There’ll be strong action following this.”

The committee’s chair Senator Cory Bernardi had no wish to add to the misery, having seen how it turned out with Mills, but his frustration was palpable. This morning he walked DPS staff into a trap, at first asking if they were standing by an earlier question on notice that security staff at the parliament were not given baton training. DPS staff affirmed they were standing by that evidence.

“See this is part of the problem,” Bernardi sighed. “There’s a lot of people that read these answers to questions and some of them decided they wanted to contact me. They say things like, ‘in December 2015, we were shown and trained in the use of batons and plastic slip tie handcuffs, this is not the first time it’s been used, been done for a number of years.’ Another person… ‘defensive tactics modules included rudimentary use of batons and handcuffs’.

“It’s all remarkably consistent, they saying the evidence provided in that answer to questions on notice is not accurate. I can keep going, I’ve got more… I think you get the drift… so who do I believe?”

Caught out, Stefanic’s officials decided it was best to investigate their answer again.

The “repeated difficulties” — Bernardi’s polite term — that DPS has had with accuracy was frustrating for everyone involved, he said:

“I’m sure it’s frustrating for your executives, I’m sure it’s frustrating for your secretary, it’s frustrating for other people outside of this process directly, and it’s extraordinarily frustrating for those of us who are interested in the conduct of DPS … and that is a cross-party concern. This is not going to go away at the conclusion of this parliament because it is maddeningly frustrating.”

Stefanic concurred with the assessment: “There’ll be strong action following this,” he said, disappointment written all over his face. He added:

“I take this forum very seriously, and the information we provide should be 100% accurate.”

Stefanic has been given no honeymoon period, getting the same treatment at his first Estimates in February, when Bernardi accused one of his executives of “snowballing” the committee:

 

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