There are some signs of ill-judgement creeping into the Government’s performance. They are relatively minor, and have minimal resonance outside Canberra, but if left to accumulate they will start shaping impressions of how this Government operates. And they won’t be positive.

The longest-running of them is the stupid awarding of the contract for media management at the 2020 summit to a company owned by Joel Fitzgibbon’s press adviser Christian Taubenschlag and his wife Tara. The contract should have been put to a quick select tender process of the kind undertaken in the public service all the time. However, on the weekend, John Lyons in The Australian revealed that the Prime Minister’s executive officer Annie O’Rourke had suggested that her friend and former colleague Tara Taubenschlag’s CMAX Communications be given the contract.

Evidence presented by PM&C officials at Estimates in May suggests the link between O’Rourke, Ms Taubenschlag (who was then identified by her maiden name, Daley) and her husband was not made clear to PM&C officials by PMO staff — whom we now know was Ms O’Rourke. If there was no intention to mislead on her part, it suggests a significant lack of judgement and experience. Government procurement is a minefield at the best of times, and when people start rushing things — and the 2020 summit preparations were extraordinarily rushed — the mines start going off.

The matter has been referred to the Government staffing committee for consideration at the request of Special Minister of State John Faulkner, where it remains. Faulkner has said that the Government will “learn from this experience”, but given that two months have passed without action in relation to the matter, there seems to be a lack of urgency about demonstrating that anything has been learnt. CMAX is on the lobbyist register as currently representing the Grains Council.

The tangential involvement of Joel Fitzgibbon in the CMAX stuff-up has enabled the Opposition to draw a link — tenuous at best — with the lapse of judgement by Fitzgibbon in allowing an academic and part-time staff member to tag along on his trip to Afghanistan. Fitzgibbon has emerged as one of the Government’s most solid performers, and checked with the military on the propriety of allowing Scott Holmes to accompany him (with the latter paying his way), but the resulting “Joel’s joyflights” headline was unnecessary and easily avoided.

Peter Garrett’s refusal to let his departmental officers attend hearings of the Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts Committee’s inquiry into the solar rebate means test is a more serious matter. Departments frequently — though not always — make submissions to Senate committee inquiries and then appear at hearings. Garrett belatedly asked Environment officials to defer both their submission and their appearance on Friday on the basis that he wanted more time to consider the submission (or, quite possibly, the Prime Minister hadn’t got around to reading it).

It looked a lot like the Government had something to hide on the issue, and Simon Birmingham correctly pinged Garrett for ducking scrutiny. It’s another mis-step in the government’s handling of the solar rebate issue, and again unnecessary. The Government’s position is sound — in the absence of an uncapped rebate program or additional funding (and the Opposition, which has made considerable mileage from the issue, has not indicated where additional funding would come from), there has to be some rationing of rebates to ensure they are not used up within a financial year. But that explanation has been lost amid cries of woe from the solar panel industry and some smart exploitation of the means test by Greg Hunt.

Moreover, it suggests the Government doesn’t trust its own bureaucrats. Ultimately the means test decision was made by Ministers, and bureaucrats aren’t required to discuss such decisions. Nor are they in the habit of dropping their Minister in it when they front committee inquiries. The risk-averse option might have been to block their appearance, but Garrett should have let them attend and explain the change to the committee, deferring all questions about the rationale for the policy to him. That’s the normal way the game is played.

The Garrett one hurts more than the others because it reflects the control freakery that the Prime Minister is constantly accused of, and suggests a gap between the Government’s ostensible commitment to a “pro-disclosure” culture and its real instincts when confronted with possible political embarrassment. These people need to relax. A lot.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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