For the once-admired Australian Public Service, estimates hearings now regularly serve up examples of how untransparent and incompetent it has become. So the first day of the current round of additional estimates hearings showed, which begun Monday.

First there was the Australian Public Service Commission. Last October, APSC head, industrial relations hardliner John Lloyd, was busted emailing his former colleagues at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). His emails showed him providing research assistance for the IPA and whining about Labor’s Penny Wong. At the time, Labor asked the APSC to provide a log of Lloyd’s contacts with the IPA. But the APSC refused to do so, claiming “to provide the information requested would require an unreasonable diversion of APSC resources”.

Yesterday Labor asked why it was so hard to put together a list of calls and emails between Lloyd and the IPA? Had the APSC checked how many there were before deciding it was too massive a task to perform? No, senior APSC bureaucrat Clare Page told Wong. Why couldn’t she just do a search for “IPA” in Lloyd’s emails in Outlook? Well, Page said, there had been problems with the archiving function in the APSC’s email system. When, she was asked, and had it been resolved? Last year, Page said. So had they done a search in Lloyd’s emails since it was fixed? No, she hadn’t. Wong turned to Lloyd. Would he go and check his emails? Lloyd prevaricated and took the question on notice. “My contact with the IPA is very irregular,” he added.

Hang on, Wong said, you can’t have it both ways. Either collecting emails and phone call details would be so massive a task that it would be an unreasonable use of resources, or Lloyd’s contact was “irregular” and thus not very frequent. We thus have Schroedinger’s Emails: in their non-observed state, “irregular”. But once subjected to observation, they multiply into a vast number that make it too costly to properly count them. 

At the same hearings later that day, Prime Minister and Cabinet — ostensibly the best of the best of bureaucrats — were grilled about one of the government’s ongoing efforts to ensure Phillip Ruddock will remain on the taxpayer teat, the secret religious freedom inquiry (for which Ruddock has been paid $31,000 so far). Wong and Labor’s Jenny McAllister wanted to know about how PM&C had set up the inquiry, which had its origins in the government trying to head off a revolt by reactionaries on Dean Smith’s marriage equality bill last year.

PM&C were, alas, unable to help and took virtually every question on notice. An officer was present to talk about how the inquiry was going now but the officer who had handled the establishment of the inquiry was, we were told, no longer around. The PM&C bureaucrat who explained this was most apologetic. Wong was genuinely angry, and complained that PM&C, supposedly the top department, was unable to answer basic questions. Question after question was taken on notice, dozens of times — all conveniently enabling the department to dodge scrutiny of how the secret inquiry was devised, how Ruddock was appointed, how it was decided it would work.

The conveniently departed bureaucrat is at odds with the ethos of the public service, that employees hold offices within it separate from their personal selves and they may come and go, but the department is continuous and accountable. Wong isn’t the first politician to jack up at how bureaucrats invoke the “sorry but the person you need isn’t here” excuse. Last year, Dean Smith, undertaking an inquiry in his Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit into infrastructure spending, cracked the shits when a bureaucrat appeared before him and in an opening statement told his committee:

I and my colleagues at the table from the department were not involved in these processes in 2014. So please be aware that we do not have anybody at the table who was familiar with all of the detail.

Smith complained, “This is becoming a common theme, certainly in the brief time that I have been the chair: officials coming before the committee who are not involved with the subject matter of the audit report, attempting to disassociate themselves from the work that was done.” As Auditor-General Grant Hehir noted at the hearing, “The department is an ongoing thing, and the responsibility of officers in the department is for the totality of its activities, not just for things when they were around.”

Then again it might currently be difficult for PM&C. According to its org chart, there are 27 acting or unfilled SES positions in the department currently, a remarkable number. Maybe that’s why the investigation of Australian Border Force commander Roman Quaedvlieg — which Immigration secretary Mike Pezzullo artfully punted responsibility for to PM&C yesterday — has taken nine months without a resolution in sight.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey