Verona Burgess: Joyce affair could never happen in the public service… could it?


They’re corrosive to the wellbeing of every workplace, yet affairs between married bosses and subordinates can’t feasibly be prevented. Sorting it out swiftly with no favouritism, nepotism or misuse of taxpayer money has allowed some officials to survive unscathed, but not all are so lucky.

So, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is on a downhill trajectory that would do the Winter Olympics proud.

His colleagues might even give him the kiss of death today – it is Valentine’s Day.

At worst, he would crash onto the backbench. There, his base salary would be $203,030 plus super and allowances, such as $289 daily travel allowance from Armidale/Tamworth, a $32,000 electoral allowance and any extra percentages of base pay if the Nats throw him a few bones such as a committee chairmanship.

His best hope would be to give up the leadership of the National Party and deputy prime ministership, but remain Infrastructure minister in Cabinet, alighting on a feather bed of a 75% loading on his base salary, so $355,302 a year plus allowances and super. Not bad shekels for someone who has brought disgrace to the government, derailed the Prime Minister’s shakily positive start to the new year and, terrifyingly, incurred the wrath of the National Party wives.

Of course, it could never happen in the public service. Or could it?

Take the case some years ago of a senior (married with children) military person who allegedly had an affair with a subordinate whose husband was also a subordinate. The pair subsequently divorced, remarried and lived happily ever after with no loss of position — but a great deal of angst around the office.

Or the (also married with children) Australian Border Force Commissioner, Roman Quaedvlieg.

The Joyce affair has rekindled interest in Quaedvlieg, who is still on paid leave eight and a half months after stepping aside pending an inquiry, apparently by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, about whether he used his influence to get his young girlfriend a job at Sydney airport.

He has denied misusing his power but mystery surrounds why the matter has dragged on for so long.

The secretary of the now Home Affairs Department, Mike Pezzullo, a stickler for propriety, must be desperate to resolve it.

As the previous head of Customs, Pezzullo did everything he could to clean up the culture and part of that is ensuring that top executives are, and are seen to be, beyond reproach in their personal and professional behaviour.

Affairs between married bosses and subordinates will always happen – even babies happen – but rarely without enormous anger and resentment among staff. Primal as they are, they are corrosive to the wellbeing of every workplace and need to be sorted out swiftly with no favouritism, nepotism or misuse of taxpayer money.

The Australian Public Service code of conduct, which also applies to most statutory officers,  does not specifically prohibit such affairs (nor gross hypocrisy) and nor could it, feasibly.

But public servants are legally bound, among other things, to behave honestly and with integrity; act with care and diligence; treat everyone with respect and courtesy; take reasonable steps to avoid conflict of interest; use Commonwealth resources in a proper manner and for proper purpose; not make improper use of inside information, duties, status, power or authority; and at all times uphold the APS values and employment principles.

Little wonder public servants often feel they are held to higher standards than politicians and staffers.

In being investigated by whatever body, Quaedvlieg is entitled to a presumption of innocence. Even so, stepping aside was the right thing to do – something Joyce, who faces no legal sanctions, evidently has yet to comprehend.

As for money – the commissioner’s annual package is $617,920 – Pezzullo confirmed to Senate estimates in October that he had approved Quaedvlieg’s paid leave, although it’s the minister who ticks it off under the Australian Border Force Act 2015, which says, “The Minister may grant the Australian Border Force Commissioner leave of absence, other than recreation leave, on the terms and conditions as to remuneration or otherwise that the Minister determines.”

Whether, even if exonerated, Quaedvlieg can return to work unscathed is moot by now.

If not exonerated, the bottom (but surely unlikely) line would be for the Governor-General to sack him.

According to the act, “If the Governor‑General suspends or terminates the appointment of the Australian Border Force Commissioner, the Minister must cause a statement of the grounds of the suspension or termination to be laid before each House of the Parliament within 7 sitting days of that House after the suspension or termination.”

This would require a measure of transparency and accountability to the taxpayer that is not always governments’ preferred option.

As for Joyce, jaws are still dropping at the brazen excuse trotted out on Monday against suggestions of impropriety over girlfriend Vikki Campion’s job moves last year –  that she was not Joyce’s designated partner at the time. That status changed — magically — later on Monday night.

It did provide Turnbull with a shabby invisibility cloak under the ministerial code of conduct, which, unlike the public service code, isn’t legislated; he didn’t have to give approval if Campion wasn’t Joyce’s partner.

In turn, this absolves Turnbull’s then chief of staff, Greg Moriarty, who is now secretary of the Department of Defence.

Regardless, don’t expect non-government senators to stop quizzing Moriarty, the departments of Finance and Prime Minister and Cabinet and anyone else they please about the scandal during the Senate additional estimates that start on February 26.

‘Nothing to see here’ might have a hollow ring.

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