What if a public servant rorted sports grants?

Canberra Times: 31 January 2020

If Bridget McKenzie were a public servant, she would already have been suspended on several misconduct offences, and more than likely facing termination. The standard the Morrison government has applied to itself and its ministers falls well short of what is expected of the 150,000 people working in the Australian Public Service.

Let's take the ministerial code of conduct, for starters. It states that ministers must disclose personal interests (such as club memberships) but also that "ministers must observe fairness in making official decisions ... taking proper account of the merits of the matter". But the only issue that the Prime Minister is concerned with is the matter of the minister's membership of a clay shooting club, not the political interference in an independent process.

We know that the Audit Office found that the "award of grant funding was not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice". As a result, grant success was not based on merit, but proximity to electoral success.

This week I've been reflecting about what would have happened to a public servant, one of the CPSU's members, in the same situation. And the answer is accountability. Because in the APS, you have an obligation to act with integrity in your employment, act with care and diligence, take reasonable steps to avoid any conflict of interest and disclose details, and use Commonwealth resources in a proper manner.

Breaches to the code of conduct occur when public service staff: Do not disclose conflict/or relationships with groups money was given to; Do not follow advice; Bring the Commonwealth into disrepute; Do not act with care and due diligence at a senior level; and Do not avoid all real and or perceived conflict of interests.

So had a public servant - say, a Sports Commission employee - made the same decisions about appropriation of taxpayer money based on their political or personal interest, what would be happening? They would currently be suspended, as well as facing code of conduct proceedings, sanctions and, more than likely, termination.

If disrespect and hypocrisy were a KPI, Scott Morrison's ratings would be much better than they are. This "sports rorts" scandal demonstrates not only the blatant disregard by this government for proper process and fair use of taxpayer money, but also a blatant disregard for the role and advice of the public sector. The minister's office circumnavigated the independent Sports Australia process, and now the Prime Minister is disrespecting the Auditor-General's Office by disputing and ignoring its independent findings and launching his own investigation.

There has been an audible national eye-roll at how the Prime Minister and his government have handled this saga. This scandal not only weakens the community's trust in politicians, but also unfairly undermines the trust the community should have in the ability of the public sector to deliver for the community.

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An APS employee watching this scandal unfold would have little confidence the Morrison government respects their role. Indeed, Scott Morrison's performance at the National Press Club on Wednesday also showed his disregard for our public service. He said that politicians "are part of our communities" - adding "we live in them. We engage there every day". I fail to see how that is any different to our hard-working public servants, whose roles exist to serve our communities.

More troubling to date is that the only disciplinary action threatened by the government is against any public service employee who may have leaked the damaging colour-coded spreadsheet. It beggars belief that this government is more concerned with how the public got to know about the scandal, rather than the conduct of the minister in question.

It's clear that the government will only hold its ministers to account if it is under extreme political pressure, and the standards of integrity and process that apply to the public sector are not matched by its political masters.

This sorry saga is a clear example of the need for a federal body to investigate issues of corruption and political inference. There is clear and compelling evidence that supports the case for a federal ICAC. After this rort, it's required to give the community confidence in the process, and it must be a national priority.

Melissa Donnelly is a lawyer and the national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, the union that represents all Australian Public Service staff.