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The head of the Department of Parliamentary Services is under renewed pressure after the Senate privileges committee last night issued a damning report against her department over the use of CCTV within Parliament House to monitor a staff member providing information to Labor Senator John Faulkner.

The issue erupted in May at estimates hearings when Faulkner, after questioning DPS secretary Carol Mills and staff of DPS, which operates Parliament House, referred the matter to the committee, with legal advice from Senate Clerk Rosemary Laing that the use of CCTV might have constituted contempt. DPS has avoided a finding of contempt, but only because of the availability of an “alternate remedy” — the Committee found there were grounds for such a finding.

The incident was sparked by an investigation into who left an abusive note on a DPS staff member’s desk on the night of February 18 this year, which involved examining CCTV footage. That led to the discovery the suspected staff member (who denies leaving the note) had left material under Faulkner’s door.

Mills is a controversial figure, after her appointment as the Clerk of the UK House of Commons was put on hold earlier this year amid ferocious criticism, including from Laing. The committee found major discrepancies between DPS records and the evidence provided by Mills to estimates — particularly her claim that she had only heard about the staff member putting material under the door of Faulkner’s Parliament House office on the day Faulkner raised it with her at estimates. DPS material shows Mills knew about the matter on February 27, which prompted the committee to say:

“The submission and additional documents cast considerable doubt upon the evidence given by the Secretary. The committee has not been able to reconcile the evidence given at the estimates hearing with the submission and documents which DPS has subsequently provided, and considers that the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee was misled about the Secretary’s knowledge of the events that led to this inquiry.”

This was, the committee found, “a serious breach of accountability and probity”.

The committee also complained that DPS’ submission to the inquiry refused to address the issues the committee had asked it to respond on, preferring to make the legal case that nothing untoward had happened. However, the email traffic around the incident obtained by the committee is, as the committee says, “illuminating”, with DPS staff involved in the investigation discussing whether the provision of material to Faulkner, who was “in opposition”, was grounds for finding the staff member had not behaved with appropriate public service impartiality. The emails contradict the submission provided to the committee by the DPS.

The committee also found that DPS had violated the CCTV code of practice currently in place, in particular that the approval of the presiding officers had not been obtained for the release of the CCTV images to the staff, which the committee saw as the department usurping the correct role of the presiding officers in deciding matters affecting privilege and the work of senators and members.

The committee decided that DPS had met the first criteria for a finding of contempt — that the matter involved “reasonable protection for the Senate and its committees and for senators against improper acts tending substantially to obstruct them in the performance of their functions” — but not the second, that there be no alternative to a finding of contempt. Instead, the committee recommended a new Code of Practice be developed “which restores the focus on matters of security and safety, and emphasises accountability to the Presiding Officers and the Parliament, with appropriate regard for the primacy of the powers, and immunities of the Houses and their members”.

For now, however, the focus will be on the committee’s remarkable finding that the head of the department charged with running Parliament appears to have misled a Senate committee on a matter that nearly earned a finding of contempt.

Mills’ office has been contacted for comment.

Peter Fray

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