30 May 2024

Secretive department gets its laundry aired at Budget Estimates

| Chris Johnson
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Department of Parliamentary Services Secretary Rob Stefanic

Department of Parliamentary Services Secretary Rob Stefanic copped a grilling at Senate Estimates yesterday. Photo: LinkedIn.

Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services Rob Stefanic has faced a barrage of budget estimates questions over his relationship with a former deputy secretary of the same department, Cate Saunders.

DPS is one of the government’s least accountable agencies. It’s not subject to Freedom of Information laws, it won’t say who is sponsoring lobbyists to Parliament House, and it doesn’t take part in the APS Census.

But its leaders had to endure persistent scrutiny during the Tuesday (28 May) Senate estimates committee hearings.

Accusations of a toxic culture, a reign of fear from the top down, and a practice of perpetual bullying were all put to the secretary during the day-long inquisition, and he repeatedly dismissed them.

“No evidence has been provided as to what those issues actually are apart from hearsay,” he said early in the hearings.

“The DPS staff census since 2016 has been on an upward trajectory on all its measures.

“That is not reflective of an agency that has a toxic culture or issues to the extent that are just thrown around liberally without any basis or evidence.”

Since 2019, DPS has opted out of the APS Census but does its own, although it doesn’t publish the results.

Specific but anonymous quotes from “scared staff” were put to the secretary throughout the hearings, all of which he denied knowing about.

But it was his personal life and the possibility of a conflict of interest that the committee was most keen to uncover.

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Declaring that it was “simply not relevant” whether he was in a relationship with Ms Saunders while she was employed at DPS between December 2017 and October 2023, Mr Stefanic subsequently stated they were not romantically involved when Ms Saunders was appointed as his deputy.

But he didn’t say whether the two were in a relationship before or after that point.

“I’ve endured repeated violation of my personal privacy based on an alleged public interest,” he said.

“I’ll readily address questions about my integrity as is relevant to public confidence in my role; however, respectfully, I’m not prepared to subject … my family to further privacy incursions.”

But the questions didn’t stop.

Liberal senator Jane Hume was relentless in seeking an understanding of the relationship and how the situation was handled.

Ms Saunders was seconded to Services Australia for six months, but just four months into that posting was given a retirement incentive to leave the Australian Public Service last year.

Mr Stefanic said he always acted appropriately “at all times” and was not involved in the appointment of Ms Saunders to a $420,000 deputy secretary position in his department, nor when she was handed a $315,000 exit package from the public service.

After seeking advice from the APS Commissioner in June last year, Mr Stefanic declared a conflict of interest. But he confirmed there was no documentation of that declaration.

“On the basis of perception, there certainly was discussion about Ms Saunders working in another agency if that would assist management of it,” he said.

“As mentioned, I had no role in initiating any process from there.”

It was not until June last year that Mr Stefanic disclosed the perceived conflict of interest to the parliament’s presiding officers.

The secretary insisted that he never believed he had a conflict of interest regarding his relationship with Ms Saunders.

“It was more about managing a perception of a conflict of interest than an actual conflict of interest,” he said.

“Whether it is a perceived conflict of interest or an actual conflict, it is lodged as a conflict of interest … the language is unfortunately quite black and white.”

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Under continued questioning, Mr Stefanic said when the perception of a close relationship between himself and Ms Saunders played out in the media and fed the rumour mill, he felt obliged to lodge a conflict of interest declaration.

“What there was was a close friendship,” he said.

Current deputy secretary Jaala Hinchcliffe said Services Australia negotiated Ms Saunders’ exit payment but the $315,000 was paid by DPS because Ms Saunders was a permanent employee of that department at the time.

Clerk of the Senate Richard Pye was also grilled in the hearing over advice from the Prime Minister’s Office for staff appearing before estimates to be less than forthcoming with their answers.

Liberal senator Simon Birmingham asked Mr Pye about a leaked document advising executives to only use publicly available information or refer to questions on notice.

The Clerk said it was “lovely” that someone had thought to put together a template for all departments, but he didn’t agree with all the content.

“I thought it had some useful parts, but I think it also provided some advice that I wouldn’t have provided myself,” Mr Pye said.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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