Public servants judge and jury over next-up political bosses

Jun 28, 2022
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Spare a thought for Michael Coutts-Trotter, the Secretary of the NSW Premiers Department. He has been asked, in effect, to decide which of several versions of how John Barilaro was appointed “on merit” to a cushy $500,000 trade commissioner job in New York most closely approximates the truth.

One way or another, someone – a premier, a minister, perhaps a public servant – will have to fall on their sword. Different accounts of what occurred – and we have not heard all of them yet – cannot be reconciled.

What happens will be closely watched in Canberra, and not only from ordinary curiosity about the NSW political road toll. One does not have to go very far into the recent history of Commonwealth government to find political interference in decisions which should have been made by public servants. It was a Morrison government speciality – the more remarkable for the way in which ministers, from the prime minister down, were entirely unembarrassed when sprung. They regarded such interference, even when it seemed (inter alia to the Auditor-General) as a form of droit de seigneur.

Even now, no coalition political survivor has yet expressed a word of regret about the culture of jobbery, partisan rorting of public money and abuse of duties of public stewardship. They ought to – if only so that they can put on their angry faces when they accuse the new Labor government of doing the same.

Some survivors – Barnaby Joyce for example – have warned of the end of civilisation if impending integrity legislation limited its continuance. The call for public integrity legislation – as much, if not more of a cause among Greens and independents as for Labor – has come as a reaction to obvious cronyism, responsiveness to party donors and mates, and partisan appointments.

With Commonwealth integrity legislation – promising to be tough and standard-setting on the way – why would Commonwealth political observers have their eyes fixed on the Barilaro case in Sydney?

First, it’s because NSW already has integrity and anti-corruption legislation – as well as processes for investigating it that the Commonwealth means to emulate. The Barilaro appointment has yet to be referred to ICAC, but a referral seems obvious. He won’t be the target. It will be about how he was appointed. But I wouldn’t have hopes for much tenure in his new job. During Barilaro’s political career, he made no bones about thinking that being in government gave authorisation to spend the spoils as one saw fit. Though this is not the alleged sin currently under investigation, an ICAC inquiry into his post-political appointment would provide a fascinating insight into his buccaneering style.

The task confronting Coutts-Trotter involves the risk, for others, of political death. In theory he could even bring down his political master, Dominic Perrottet – a good conflict-of-interest reason why people in his position should refuse to accept commissions to perform political inquests – unless they plan to follow the example of former Commonwealth PM&C boss, Phil Gaetjens.

Another good example of the problems of a public servant having power of life and death over a political mater can be seen with the case of Amy Brown, from the department Barilaro once controlled. She put into action a Barilaro announcement of the creation of four trade commissioners, hiring a head-hunter firm to produce a short list for a departmental panel to interview. Early interviews identified a worthy candidate for the New York job; this woman was told she had the job by the (soon-to-be-departing) premier, Gladys Berejiklian.

Then suddenly the appointment was off, and the successful candidate was paid compensation for not getting the job. And, suddenly, at least according to the correspondence, if not the ministerial accounts, it was decided that the external appointment process would be aborted, with the appointment being made by ministers. And, it emerged, that John Barilaro was involved. He was interviewed for the position by Ms Brown and judged by her better than any of the international field. Once he knew that, he resigned. His position was secure soon after, but was not announced until recently. Contrary to the email trail, the impression was given that he had emerged in an ordinary way from an independent open selection process.

Ministers asked question insisted that it had not involved ministers. Nor had it been through cabinet, even by way of notification. Nothing to see here, folks. But soon there was an unravelling, not least after the Legislative Council demanded departmental correspondence about the process. That is what Coutts-Trotter will have to review. He can hardly avoid considering whether a public servant can really be independent and at arm’s length when determining the suitability of her actual boss of the moment. But then again, he is in much the same position, in relation to Perrottet, himself.

In a bad modern tradition, hardly an independent or arms-length review

Coutts-Trotter is not in a Phil Gaetjens situation, able, in effect to delay and defer making any inquiries at all in the higher interests of protecting his minister – prime minister, Scott Morrison. Once any embarrassing political question was placed in Mr Gaetjens’ bottom drawer, no boss ever exhibited the slightest anxiety for a response, or curiosity about the outcome of the Gaetjens’ deliberations, if any, or even when he might expect it. And Morrison was never silly enough to promise that the results of any report, if received, would be able to be seen by the public, whether for the purpose of considering Morrison’s integrity, or the thoroughness and diligence of Gaetjen’s investigation.

By contrast, Dominic Perrottet, the NSW premier, has asked for a speedy report on the Barilaro appointment, and has promised that after he has received it, it will soon be on public issue. No doubt that reflects some confidence that the inquiry will show none of his fingerprints on the appointment. Indeed, he would be seriously embarrassed if it were to show that he had any advance knowledge of the appointment, or of the process by which it occurred.

Perrottet had initially distanced himself from any involvement in the appointment, even of having rubber-stamped a decision made by others through the cabinet. He said, wrongly, but probably on advice, that the decision had been made by a public servant after interviews by a panel, without any political involvement at all. Put simply, it had been decided that Barilaro was the best man for the job.

The eyebrow-raising began after people wrestled with the notion that Barilaro could be the best man for any job in the public service. Then there was the fact that, no doubt by coincidence, Barilaro had interviewed for the job only a short period before resigning as deputy premier, and that the decision had been announced almost immediately after the resignation. Had it reflected some deal, some wondered. If so, was it proper, unexceptionable and legal? Or corrupt?

We don’t know if the NSW inquiry will overshadow the Pezzullo inquiry into the behaviour of Home Affairs officials, Navy officers and Border Force over the disclosure on election day of the interception at sea of Sri Lankan boat people. That news – the timing of which showed every evidence of contrivance for election purposes — was promptly, at prime ministerial direction disclosed to Liberal Party campaign people who sent telephone messages about it, quoting Navy officers, to voters in marginal seats.

Judgment should be withheld until all the facts are known – whether from the publication of the much-awaited Pezzullo report, or from glosses supplied by others, including politicians, with an interest in the outcome. As yet, the government has not committed to a public report – and one can imagine any number of guilty parties insisting that national security considerations within it mean the public should never know. On the other hand, the Labor government, intended victim of the extremely dirty work, which is of Zinoviev letter proportions – was not, and is not amused. It is in no mood to forgive anyone who ought to have a guilty conscience, or who conveniently absented themselves at vital moments of its execution.

Nor should it be. Some public service observers have deduced that the new government has no plans for a reorganisation of Home Affairs, other than the already announced shift of the AFP back to Attorney-Generals. When announcing new departmental secretaries, the prime minister issued a full list of the present complement, which included Pezzullo and a number of others about whom questions have been asked, such as Brendan Murphy.

I should be slow to make such deductions. Pezzullo was once a Labor staffer (for Kim Beazley jr and Gareth Evans) but is short of contemporary admirers, whether for his personality or his management style. On the other hand, those weighing his future will doubtless be considering the “message” peremptory sacking would send to asylum seekers, no doubt much amplified by the opposition. The Pezzullo report will tell what happened, including when, why and who was involved, but it will also say something about departmental leadership, supervision and culture, and, it is to be hoped, something about the value for money, and timeliness, of the intelligence apparatus inside the department.

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