Au pairs inquiry: calls for a federal ICAC, and better record-keeping at Home Affairs

By Stephen Easton

Thursday September 20, 2018

Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Michael Pezzullo (right) speaks to the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force Michael Outram during a Senate Inquiry at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, September 5, 2018. The Senate legal affairs committee is examining whether Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton misused his ministerial discretion to grant two European au pairs visas in 2015, despite the reservations of border authorities. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING

The Department of Home Affairs has not escaped criticism from the opposition-dominated Senate committee that investigated its minster, Peter Dutton, while a leading public sector integrity expert agrees with the government senators that the “shambolic” inquiry was not the right way to probe the allegations.

The committee claims the department’s record-keeping and the evidence it provided were not good enough for it to get to the bottom of the stoush between Dutton and the former head of Australian Border Force, Roman Quaedvlieg.

The Home Affairs Minister severely damaged the ex-commissioner’s credibility by pointing out major errors of fact in a letter Quaedvlieg submitted to the inquiry, which turned up in the Sydney Morning Herald before it even got to the committee secretariat, according to the government members.

Then the department’s evidence seemingly undermined his subsequent claim in a second letter, stating he was adamant that the substance of his recollection was true — that Dutton’s chief of staff Craig Maclachlan asked him for advice on how to help “the boss’s mate in Brisbane” whose prospective au pair had been detained at some point — but also accepting he was not sure of when it happened.

Earlier coverage:

According to Quaedvlieg’s second letter, he believed it was some time between October 2015 and December 2016, but the department said it could only find evidence of two cases fitting the relevant description. This was good enough for the government, of course, but not for the Labor and Greens senators.

“In lieu of further evidence, the Committee is unable to assure itself as to whether or not an additional intervention occurred in line with the clarifying evidence from Mr Quaedvlieg,” their majority report states, suggesting the former ABF chief could be remembering a request that did not lead to ministerial intervention, or ended with different type of visa being granted that fell outside the scope of the department’s search.

They claim Home Affairs also submitted evidence that had to be corrected later, and criticised the quality of its record-keeping systems:

“The inconsistencies presented in the Department’s evidence, multiple clarifications to errors or inconsistencies in that evidence and the Department’s own admission that it was required to search through deficient legacy systems, including paper-based records, leaves the Committee in significant doubt as to whether all relevant ministerial interventions have been captured by this inquiry.

“The Committee remains unconvinced that the Department has been able to rule out that another intervention may exist that might align with the former Commissioner ‘s stated recollection.”

Elsewhere, the majority report says the committee “appreciates” the evidence Home Affairs provided and thanks secretary Michael Pezzullo and ABF commissioner Michael Outram for answering their questions, but also suggests they did not allow the public servants with most knowledge of the matters in question to give evidence.

“However, the committee also notes that it had invited the department to make available certain officers who would have direct knowledge of the matters under consideration, and the department declined to make those officers available,” it adds.

“While the committee accepts that it is generally the prerogative of the secretary of a department to determine who should represent the department, it nonetheless considers that the presence of the requested officers might have helped shed further light on the matters in question.”

The government senators reject Quaedvlieg’s letters completely and express total faith in the evidence provided by Home Affairs and Pezzullo in particular.

Integrity expert: federal ICAC better than a Senate ‘show-trial’

While federal parliament’s much more bipartisan joint committees can get meaningful things done, Senate committees are often highly politicised and ultimately inconsequential affairs, with little public credibility.

Griffith University professor AJ Brown, one of the nation’s foremost experts on the prevention of government corruption and a strong supporter of federal integrity reform, said today the polarised inquiry was a “an inconclusive and ill-equipped parliamentary ‘show trial'” and demonstrates the need for an independent, impartial mechanism to improve parliamentary and ministerial integrity, such as a ‘federal ICAC’.

The final report recommends the Senate vote on whether to censure Dutton “for failing to observe fairness in making official decisions as required by the Statement of Ministerial Standards” and demands an explanation from the government on behalf of Dutton.

And, as per usual, it also includes a sharply worded dissenting view from its government members, Eric Abetz and Ian Macdonald, who describe the process as a “a farcical and shambolic witch-hunt” that ignored the Westminster conventions of government.

Today the professor offered federal parliamentarians a “bipartisan briefing” — jointly hosted by Liberal Senator Dean Smith and Labor Senator Jacinta Collins — on the recent report, A National Integrity Commission: options for Australia, which he co-authored along with several other leading public sector integrity experts.

Brown agrees with Abetz and Macdonald on at least one point.

“Government senators are right to label this inquiry process as farcical and shambolic,” Brown said.

“The inquiry’s opposition and cross-bench majority are correct that most Australians would want any such prima facie cases of favouritism to be fully investigated and resolved, but their own report confirms this rushed, incomplete process was not fit for purpose as a means of doing so.”

In the dissenting report, Macdonald and Abetz accuse their opposition and cross-bench counterparts of undermining the convention “that the two Houses of Parliament do not seek to sit in review of each other” by asking Dutton to attend.

The committee majority prefers to say they simply “invited” Dutton and several people from his office including chief of staff Craig MacLachlan to attend. MacLachlan declined and the minister didn’t respond at all.

Brown says the deficiencies of the Senate inquiry process as a form of accountability were demonstrated by the fact that key witnesses “were never interviewed or were shielded” — including the minister and his staff as well as Roman Quaedvlieg and the “frontline officers of the Department and Australian Border Force” who weren’t allowed to attend.

“No independent verification of the Department’s documents has occurred,” the professor added.

“The whole process was conducted in public – when any proper investigation should have started privately, undertaken by someone with no interests other than the facts and the public interest.

“The real losers in this are the Australian public, many of whom will have no confidence in the objectivity or impartiality of the conclusions reached, from either side.”

Brown said stronger processes for parliamentary and ministerial integrity, like those discussed in the options paper, would provide “independent, professional investigations in which Australians can have real confidence”.

The latest report explores three options for integrity reform, including costings, and says they are not mutually exclusive. It argues that even the most comprehensive and therefore costliest option — at about $110.8 million per year — is pretty cheap in the scheme of things. It would bring the fraction of Commonwealth expenditure that goes towards “core public integrity agencies” from 0.033% to 0.07%.

Financially, this “would only barely bring the Commonwealth towards parity” with the state that spends the least on public sector integrity, and would be “approaching” the level of spending in New Zealand, the report states.

“This level of investment is not only feasible but justified, rendering all options cheap compared with demonstrated need.”

Top photo: Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, giving evidence to the inquiry. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

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