Last week’s Senate Estimates hearings put a few public servants in the hot seat but they were a walk in the park compared to the recent inquiry into black lung disease in Queensland, which demanded a code of conduct investigation into the public servants who were hauled in to walk the fine line between serving their minister and contempt of parliament.
The bipartisan committee has brought substantial pressure on the Department of Mines and Natural Resources, reporting its members were “appalled” by the “resistance and obstruction” of senior staff members, whose argumentative and defensive behaviour they see as a reflection of organisational culture developed over 30 years.
The government has 90 days to respond to 68 recommendations made by the the bipartisan committee, whose report Black lung, white lies details a range of serious regulatory and administrative failures that left coal miners exposed to the deadly disease.
The final two recommendations put the Department of Mines and Natural Resources firmly in the spotlight, providing a pointed example of when being questioned by parliamentarians goes really, badly wrong for public servants.
The report calls on the Queensland Public Service Commission to go through the transcripts and investigate whether any officials misled the committee or breached the code of conduct for such appearances. It also recommends a new bipartisan oversight committee to investigate any matter of public administration, either by referral or on its own motion.
The Minister, Anthony Lynham, has voiced general support for the departmental officials but the strong language used in the bipartisan report surely demands careful attention as part of the government’s full response to the damning findings.
“The committee doesn’t see my department as I see my department,” he told the ABC. “I see hard working public servants absolutely committed to eliminating this insidious disorder from the Queensland workforce.”
The department established a dedicated unit to deal with the inquiry but in the end it over-promised and under-delivered, according to the report:
“From the commencement of this inquiry, there has been a substantial divergence between the pledges of DNRM officials to provide ready assistance to the committee’s inquiry, and the degree to which such assistance or information has in fact been forthcoming.
“The committee was appalled by the level of disregard for its work demonstrated by some senior officers of DNRM.”
The MPs had a summons issued when the department failed to produce documents they requested, and it failed to inform key witnesses that they would need to appear despite their evidence being seen as “vital” by the committee. These witnesses “were then produced only under threat of summons, and were not properly prepared by DNRM prior to their appearances before the committee”.
The committee wrote:
“Frequently senior officers have been unprepared and unable to answer important questions relevant to the committee’s inquiry and where answers were given, often the officers were argumentative and resistant to acknowledging the wide-ranging failures of their department.
“This appears to be a reflection of a culture and attitude that has built up over 30 years.”
The department also failed to give committee members new and updated information directly relevant to their inquiries, which they found out “second-hand, including through media releases, new publications on the department’s website, or informal advice from stakeholders” instead of from the public servants they were attempting to question.
They were particularly incensed that the department did not tell them about its interactions with various experts and authorities in the United States, which they found out anyway:
“During the inquiry this information was of extraordinary assistance to the committee. Had it not been disclosed to the committee’s delegation in the USA, it is likely the committee would never have learned it and this report would have been deficient.”
Unsurprisingly, all of this caused “significant frustration” to the committee members, who felt that getting to the bottom of what went wrong in health and safety regulation for victims of the disease and their families was far more important than laying blame.
Parliamentarians generally support the public service in its careful strategic communications aimed at limiting reputational damage to departments, ministers and the government as a whole, but those same MPs can also get fed up with it when they are on the receiving end. And when an inquiry is, like this one, focused on a very emotive issue and filled with moving testimony, public servants are well advised to rise to the occasion and, to some degree, ease up on the charade. Or, in more parliamentary language:
“The committee is concerned that efforts to avoid blame and delays associated with message management within DNRM may have hindered an appropriately transparent and open inquiry process.”
Not only did the committee feel it was having to drag the information out of the department, it also reports “what appeared to be delaying tactics, hollow or imprecise answers and a demonstrated contempt by some departmental officials for the work of the committee”.
These strong words are backed up with examples from the transcripts. Perhaps tellingly, the vague, non-committal responses from the public servants are more or less par for the course for parliamentary committees in any jurisdiction.
The final recommendation, to establish a new permanent public administration oversight committee, is intended to continue where the eight-month inquiry left off, noting that such inquests are “very rare, indeed almost without precedent” in Queensland.