Campbell’s AUKUS appointment did not meet standards of public service

Aug 23, 2023
Former Secretary of the Department of Social Services Kathryn Campbell speaks during a Senate inquiry at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, October 29, 2020. Image:AAP/Lukas Coch

There are solid grounds for suspecting that the appointment of Ms Kathryn Campbell, of Robodebt notoriety, to the Department of Defence’s AUKUS division did not meet the normal standards required for other appointments in the public service. Those responsible for the appointment of Ms Campbell and the suspension of her salary have got little to write home about.

This article is not about Ms Kathryn Campbell. It’s about those who arranged her appointment in 2022 to a senior position in the Department of Defence and the suspension of her $900k a year salary a year later, shortly before she resigned from the public service.

But for those oblivious to the modern history of the Australian Public Service, from 2011 to 2021 Ms Campbell was head of the department of Human Services and subsequently Social Security. In July 2021, she was appointed Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a position she lost after last year’s election.

At that point the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Davis, who is responsible for advising the Prime Minister on the appointment and termination of departmental Secretaries, had a spare one on his hands, Ms Campbell.

In evidence before a Senate committee, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, Mr Moriarty, said that in June 2022, Davis asked him “to think about whether there might be a role” for Campbell in Defence.

The then Public Service Commissioner, Mr Woolcott, became involved and in the middle of June he wrote to Davis saying that he had spoken to Moriarty about Campbell’s prospects in Defence and that “we are moving forward on that and that it is very manageable”. Woolcott said that after Campbell had been formally “terminated” in Foreign Affairs, she would be “immediately placed on a three year non on-going contract with Defence, She will then take LWOP [leave without pay] for a month or two while the job is worked up….” and, that once in the job, she would retain the salary she had as Foreign Affairs Secretary.

Davis wrote back to Woolcott saying “Appreciate you working with Greg (Moriarty) and Kathryn through to a landing – these sound an entirely workable set of arrangements.” Really?

So a job was created in Defence and, pursuant to section 27 of the Public Service Commissioner’s Directions, she was appointed to it by Moriarty on 1 July, the day she left Foreign Affairs and eight days after the job was created but presumably before it was “worked up”. That is to say, the job was made for Campbell rather than her being slotted into an existing one, and the appointment would not have satisfied sub section (3) of section 27 requiring positions to be advertised. Why this elaborate means were used to keep Campbell in employment is anyone’s guess. Some “landing”.

At the time of Campbell’s appointment the basic ills of the Robodebt fiasco were well known – the pain it had inflicted on thousands of the less well off, its illegality and the $2 billion paid out in compensation to its victims. The ALP saw a scandal that required a Royal Commission. Equally well known was that Campbell, as a long serving departmental social security Secretary, must inevitably have been involved in the fraudulent scheme.

Of course it is standard practice in making appointments in the public service and anywhere else to check the recent work history of potential appointees, both their achievements and behaviour. Therefore, the departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Defence were asked if, prior to her appointment to Defence, Dr Davis and Mr Moriarty spoke to Ms Campbell or any other relevant party about the nature of her involvement in Robodebt.

The Department of Defence ignored the question. Sorry any dear readers who have got this far but Defence is happy to keep you in the dark.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet responded by answering a question that hadn’t been asked, saying that the “appointment of Ms Kathryn Campbell as Deputy Secretary AUKUS Joint Program Office in the Department of Defence was made by the Secretary of that Department, not the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.” How satisfying it must be for Dr Davis to be able to pass responsibility to Mr Moriarty even though he (Davis) appears to have been the initiator of the defence option for Ms Campbell.

In evidence to a parliamentary committee, Moriarty said that “at the time I made the appointment (Campbell’s), there was no Royal Commission.” That’s an absurd point. The point is that at the time of her appointment to Defence even the drover’s dog knew Campbell must have been involved in a scheme that was widely known to have been illegal and done damage requiring immense compensation. As a matter of proper diligence that should have been checked prior to any Defence appointment.

But as neither Davis not Moriarty are prepared to say what they did or didn’t do, the matter is left open to the following speculations:

  1. That they didn’t speak to Campbell or anyone else about the nature of her involvement in the Robodebt: That would be carelessly inconsistent with sound personnel management to say the very least.
  2. That they spoke to Campbell and other relevant parties and discovered nothing untoward: That would be merely incompetent.
  3. That they spoke to Campbell and other relevant parties, obtained an idea of the nature of her Robodebt involvement but went ahead with the appointment: That would be – well, make up your own mind.

When the Holmes Royal Commission report hit the deck in the middle of 2023 to no one’s surprise Ms Campbell copped a few critical comments. She may also have been included in the report’s sealed section of recommendations about disciplinary and other action.

While arrangements have been made for those sealed recommendations to be considered, before that process had been completed Ms Campbell’s salary was suspended, a massive financial penalty, with the Prime Minister saying that it had been done by his Department and “other relevant authorities.” Campbell resigned from the public service a couple of days later.

In light of the Prime Minister’s reported remarks, his Department was asked who made the suspension decision and pursuant to what legal powers, what were the formal reasons for it, why was it made now and not as part of a comprehensive consideration of Ms Campbell’s circumstances arising out of the Royal Commission and was Ms Campbell, in the interests of natural justice, given the opportunity to put her views. In reply, the Department provided a “background, not for attribution” comments, an unusual and imaginative refinement of standards of public service accountability. An example, perhaps of innovative agility or agile innovation that reduces accountability to zero.

Suffice to say the Prime Minister’s explanation of the suspension of Ms Campbell’s salary might not have been fully on the money, as it were. Indeed, it is understood that the decision to suspend Ms Campbell’s pay was taken by Mr Moriarty. Of course, there’s little point in asking him about the whys and wherefores as when it comes to disclosing information on ticklish matters, the Department of Defence can be relied upon to adopt a clam-like posture.

There are solid grounds for suspecting that the appointment of Ms Campbell to the Department did not meet the normal standards required for other appointments in the public service.

Those suspicions are not weakened by the refusal of Dr Davis and Mr Moriarty to answer straightforward questions about what they did or didn’t do.

That’s a pity because it’s important for the public to have confidence in the public service staff selections for which citizens are paying and if officials won’t tell them, then they have a right to be suspicious.

And it’s a double pity when some of the most senior officers in the public service have difficulty in living up to the virtues of openness, accountability and the “pro integrity culture” they often so ardently espouse. As ever, the real test of transparency and integrity is how frank and open officials are prepared to be when there are suspicions that things might not have gone well.

In a report in October 2020 the Auditor-General said that “a culture of integrity in an organisation flows from the standards set by its leaders.” That’s a good point as satisfactory standards will be set not by fancy words and boasting but by what senior officials have done or not done and how appropriately they’ve accounted for their actions or not. Those responsible for the appointment of Ms Campbell and the suspension of her salary have got little to write home about.

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