Australian Public Service Commissioner Lynelle Briggs — as anticipated by Crikey on Wednesday — has declined to undertake an investigation of allegations that the Department of Health and Ageing lied to a Senate Committee investigating the circumstances surrounding a review of Positron Emissions Tomography in 2000.

Ms Briggs wrote to Tasmanian doctor Rob Ware earlier this week. Dr Ware has for several years pushed for an investigation into the review and changes that were made by the Department after it was completed without review committee members being informed. Special Minister of State John Faulkner asked the APSC to investigate the Department’s provision of false information to the Senate Community Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the PET review. Senators Lyn Allison and Christine Milne called the Department’s behaviour under Secretary Jane Halton “wrong, disingenuous and unhelpful, at best”.

Briggs has used Parliamentary privilege as an excuse not to investigate the issue, blaming advice from Senate Clerk Harry Evans:

On the basis of this advice I have concluded that I am limited to any inquiry into the matters you have raised. Under Parliamentary process allegations that false or misleading evidence has been provided to a Senate Committee are matters for the Senate to inquire into… Mr Evans has confirmed that any alleged interference or obstruction of committee process is a matter for the Committee of Privileges… At this stage I do not see that I have any further role in these matters.

Briggs’s failure to investigate serious allegations of politically-motivated obstruction of a Senate committee by senior public servants — which is a flagrant breach of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct – creates the absurd situation that Senators who sought an investigation by the specialist agency with responsibility for such breaches have in effect been told to do it themselves. It is buck-passing of the most blatant kind and a significant shift in accountability for public servants: it will now be up to Senate committees — chaired by Government senators – to investigate claims that public servants have not cooperated with those committees. Government senators are hardly likely to have an incentive to investigate politically-motivated obstruction by public servants, which is usually intended to protect or prevent embarrassment to Ministers.

The response will take the heat at least temporarily off Jane Halton, who it is expected will not have her contract renewed when it expires in October. Dr Ware has told Crikey he will be pursuing the issue with Mr Evans to establish what the Senate Clerk thinks of Briggs’s interpretation of his advice.

Peter Fray

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