TOM BURTON. Gaetjens makes a mockery of public service standards.(AFR 3.2.2020)

The head of the Prime Minister’s Department,Phil.Gaetjens,has effectively green-lighted behaviour that would not be tolerated in the public service he leads.

If a fish rots from the head, then the finding by the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet that there was no basis for suggesting political considerations were the primary determining factor for allocating $100 million in sports grants makes a mockery of the Australian Public Service commitment to the highest ethical standards among its leaders.As head of the public service, Phil Gaetjens is the one who sets the standard for others to follow. By finding political considerations were not the primary reason for the awarding of the grants, he has directly conflicted the Australian National Audit Office finding that 61 per cent of successful applicants would have failed if the minister and her office had not intervened with their focus on marginal seats.

The audit office report could not have been clearer: “The award of funding reflected the approach documented by the Minister’s Office of focusing on ‘marginal’ electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be ‘targeted’ by the Coalition at the 2019 Election.”

The secretary was asked to review the ministerial guidelines, but the minister and the sport bureaucrats are also bound by a legal requirement to act ethically.

The Public Governance, Performance and Accountability  (PGPA) Act is the bedrock of accountability, transparency and integrity for the commonwealth public sector.

It requires public servants and ministers to act “properly”, which is defined to include “ethical” behaviour.

The ANAO has issued specific guidance on what this means for grants and has emphasised “the geographic distribution of grant activities as a measure of equitable distribution and as an indicator of party-political bias in the distribution of grants”.

In this regard the audit office found widespread political pork barrelling, with 47 per cent of funds for first-round applicants going to politically targeted seats.

Influential advice

It only got worse in the latter rounds, with some clubs that had not even applied given grants in the run-up to the 2019 election.

While Gaetjens was told to just look at the ministerial guidelines, the optics of the head of service ignoring the obvious prima facie breach of the PGPA act is a dreadful look.

The recent Thodey Australian Public Service review found trust in government has almost halved over the past 20 years from 48 per cent to 26 per cent.

Trust is the glue that enables the APS to do its job and when ministers are given a free pass by the head of the APS for what prima facie looks to be clearly unethical behaviour, it becomes deeply cancerous.

As David Thodey put it: “Scepticism is part of a healthy democracy but extreme low trust is detrimental. It compromises the APS’ capacity to provide services to citizens, to regulate effectively and to provide well-informed and influential advice.

While there are many drivers of trust in the public sector – including reliability, responsiveness, openness, better regulation and inclusive policy-making – the OECD identifies integrity as the most crucial determinant.

To build trust in the public sector, all participants in the system – the APS, Parliament and ministers (along with their advisers) as well as third parties – must operate with high levels of integrity. Their actions are all interlinked, and how they operate – the standards they uphold – must be considered.”

As head of the service, and custodian of APS integrity, Gaetjens has let pass ministerial behaviour, which frankly fails both the “pub test” and the ethical test. If any of his other secretarial colleagues or senior executives had so acted, it would have seen them out the door in minutes.

As we have seen in the US, if the public sector gives its executive masters a free rein to prosecute political advantage, dressed up as OK public purpose, then we green-light a whole set of behaviours that ultimately corrupt the very democracy our governments are meant to serve.

Tom Burton has held senior editorial, and publishing roles with The Mandarin, the Sydney Morning Herald, and as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review. He has worked in Government, specialising in the communications sector. He has won three Walkley awards. Connect with Tom on Twitter. Email Tom at [email protected]

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