For more than a month, the Oz-car affair has been the subject of intense political debate, with high profile careers on the line. Now, with the tabling of the ANAO report, there are issues for government agencies to consider and clear messages for any companies wanting to deal with government.
The affair began with explosive revelations at the Senate Economics Legislation Committee on 19 June. These revelations came in evidence from a Treasury Senior Executive, Godwin Grech, who was in charge of the government’s OzCar Program. Evidence alleged that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had sent an email requesting preferential treatment for an Ipswich car dealer John Grant. The evidence was seized upon by opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull who called for resignations of the Prime Minister and Treasurer.
Immediate investigations revealed the email to be false. Last week Grech admitted to misleading the Opposition Leader and forging the email.
While the affair in itself has been the subject of significant media comment, there are important questions relating to a possible breakdown of the usual checks and balances. Some answers began to emerge with the tabling of the ANAO report last week.
The audit made the following conclusions:
- The Prime Minister and the Treasurer had not given favourable treatment to Mr Grant. “There is no evidence that the Prime Minister was aware of the representation, or that the Treasurer or his Office applied any pressure on Treasury to give this dealer more or better assistance than others.”
- While the Treasurer had received an unusual number of emails about the progress of Mr Grant’s application, these appear to be the result of “Reply to All” where the Treasurer was copied in to subsequent emails following an initial email “at the initiative of the Departmental Liaison Officer in the Treasurer’s Office”.
- “There was not a clear delineation between the policy and implementation phases given the urgency and evolving environment which required ongoing policy formulation. In this context, Treasury’s approach to the development of the policy was sound, utilising independent expert advice and involving input from a range of key stakeholders. However, there was less attention given to management of the implementation of the policy measure.”
- The under‐resourcing of the implementation phase of the policy placed at risk the anticipated policy outcomes. It also placed a considerable workload on Mr Godwin Grech, the Treasury official primarily responsible for the development and implementation of the policy measure, particularly in light of his medical condition.
- ANAO’s examination of the implementation phase of the policy also raised serious questions as to whether the Code of Conduct has been breached by Mr Grech.
Following the tabling of the ANAO report, there were a number of media statements by the Opposition that it was indeed appropriate for Mr Grech to brief members of the Opposition prior to the Senate Committee. These statements were emphatically rebuffed later in the week by Public Service Commissioner Lynelle Briggs. She took the unusual move to issue a press release to clarify the position on the “rights and obligations of Australian Public Service Employees”.
She stated “It is extraordinary and quite wrong that comments are being made claiming that it is reasonable for public servants to give Government information to Opposition parties. This isn’t normal practice, nor is it usual practice, and it is not whistleblowing”
“Leaking involves the unlawful release of official information and is a breach of the Code of Conduct. Leaking, whatever the motive, destroys the trust between the Government and the public service and makes it harder to carry out our responsibilities. It undermines public confidence in the independence and non-partisan nature of the public service and is unacceptable practice for any public servant”, she said.
The Oz-car affair clearly illustrates the importance of probity and public service values. While it would be a bad outcome to see a knee-jerk reaction toward excessive bureaucracy, it is clear there are boundaries of proper process that should not be crossed.