Agriculture deputy to lead APS 'reform taskforce' and other estimates tidbits

By Stephen Easton

May 22, 2018

Several new appointments in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet were confirmed in Senate estimates this morning, including the two main support officers for Malcolm Turnbull’s public service review.

“On the 27th of February, 2018, Mr David Williamson, deputy secretary, joined the department to lead the APS review secretariat,” reported Stephanie Foster, the former deputy public service commissioner, who opened the batting for PM&C this morning, fresh in her own new role as deputy secretary for governance.

Williamson was previously a deputy at the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, responsible for some of the department’s core policy areas and farm support. He will be supported by Mary Wiley-Smith, who was formerly the head of the PM&C cities division and starts as first assistant secretary in the APS review team this Thursday, May 23.

Foster gave the committee a new organisation chart, accurate as of last Thursday, which gives the review secretariat the more grandiose title of “reform taskforce”.

“Ms Helen Wilson will commence as first assistant secretary, industry, infrastructure and environment division, on 29 May,” Foster added.

“Mr John Reid will commence as first assistant secretary, government division, in early July, and Ros Baxter will commence as first assistant secretary, social policy division, also in July.”

Wilson comes across from Environment and Energy, and has previous experience in PM&C, Treasury and Finance. Reid is a FAS at the Attorney-General’s Department, in the area of international law and human rights.

“On 28th February, 2018, Mr Allan McKinnon resumed his responsibility as deputy secretary, national security,” Foster added.

“On 13 April, 2018, Mr Simon Merrifield returned the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, after heading the ASEAN Australia special summit.”

There’s been more than the usual amount of movements in the senior levels of the APS since Turnbull’s big reshuffle of secretaries last year, but agencies have generally got much better at keeping organisational charts and the online staff directory updated in recent years, making it easier to keep up with the constant game of SES musical chairs.

Following Foster’s update, Senator Penny Wong opened the questioning by suggesting the department had been, in her view, more helpful to a member of the government than it had when a member of the opposition made the same enquiry a couple of years later.

Flagging this as an issue she would come back to later in the session, Wong said PM&C provided a “reasonably narrow” response to a question on notice from her colleague Don Farrell, while it had given a more fulsome answer to an “analogous, virtually identical question” asked by Senator Cory Bernardi in 2014, when he was still a government backbencher.

Farrell’s question, answered on February 26, sought figures for the number of Departmental Liaison Officers in each minister’s office as of January 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. He was told the department did not have the data he wanted, and given an overall figure rather than one for each ministerial office: “The most recent data is accurate as at February 2018, and indicates that 83 DLOs were located in ministerial offices, out of an allocation of 85.”

Wong said “the department was exceedingly helpful to Senator Bernardi, and provided him with information spanning 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2013” and wanted to know why it seemed “that helpfulness disappeared, or was somewhat limited, when it came to the analogous question asked by Senator Farrell” in her view.


Mad Monday recap

One of the biggest issues to emerge from yesterday’s hearings was a suspicious grant of $444 million bestowed to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation without a tender process, and without the small group even asking for it.

The nonprofit has less than 10 staff and according to The New Daily, the massive windfall — like “winning the lottery” from the foundation’s perspective, and by far the federal government’s biggest environmental grant ever — is more than eight times the total amount of money that has come into the organisation over a decade.

Departmental officials and Minister Simon Birmingham defended the decision and said a lot of arrangements were still being finalised. Environment and Energy deputy secretary Dean Knudson presumed the organisation would experience a “significant scaling up” due to the money, and said public servants might be seconded.

“That could include potentially seconding staff that have experience in this area either in Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, ourselves or Queensland to the foundation,” he said.

As expected, disquiet among departmental security guards and APS commissioner John Lloyd’s relationship with the Institute of Public Affairs were among the key issues examined again in yesterday’s hearings.

Lloyd’s latest lashing follows a Canberra Times report of a freedom-of-information refusal message from PM&C, which implies this matter might be subject to some kind of investigation.

The commissioner simply refused to answer the big question of the day: is this true? Is he or his office under investigation?

Parliamentary protocol was the main sticking point this time, and now he has to come back to the committee with legal advice justifying his silence, or else answer the main query and a list of related questions on notice.

Wong and her colleague Jenny McAllister reminded Lloyd that no comment was not an option open to him in estimates, and suggested the usual process would be that the minister — a role played in this case by new Senate president Scott Ryan — intervened on behalf of the witness to claim public interest immunity, if required.

Following a short suspension of proceedings for a private chat, and with no minister ready and willing to assert the PII claim, Lloyd confirmed he did intend to claim the immunity but on what basis, he wasn’t sure. He undertook to provide that justification on notice.

Simplifying matters slightly, Ryan consulted Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice and found Lloyd could in fact make a PII claim on his own, as a statutory officer.

By now, lots of observers have forgotten where this all began: an FOI release, just before the matter blew up in last October’s estimates, showing Lloyd had sent a 13-page curated set of extracts from APS workplace agreements labelled “Examples of ‘soft’ arrangements in Commonwealth enterprise agreements” to the IPA.

This document fed directly into the group’s various submissions and publications campaigning for less generous APS pay and conditions, and sharp reductions to the size of the public service, beyond the already strict staff cap which is government policy.

The commissioner argues this is fine because it is publicly available information; his enemies in the unions and the Labor Party see it as improperly diverting the APSC’s time and other resources into research support for the IPA’s political campaign. “I think you are unfit to hold this office because you are partisan,” said Wong, a claim Lloyd said he rejected.

In an email that has enraged the opposition, sent shortly after the last round of Lloyd vs Wong, the commissioner joked with his IPA chum John Roskam that the IPA had got some free publicity, including on page one of the Times, out of the last round of sparring. Today’s front page carried the ongoing war of words once again.

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