Parliament’s Department of Cover-Ups faces bullying claims, tangle of lawsuits

by Michael West | Aug 3, 2021 | Government

The Government department which covered up the security report into the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins is also the department found to have a culture of bullying, and is also the department whose staffer is threatening multiple legal actions against small publishers and other Australians. What is going on at Parliament House? Michael West investigates the Department of Parliamentary Services.

The alleged rape of former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins in the office of a Morrison Government Cabinet Minister shone a harsh light on the culture that exists in the offices of politicians. It has also pulled back the veneer of the government department charged with the responsibility of running Parliament House and managing the 1,040 staff engaged in the service of Australia’s elected representatives.

The Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) has faced heavy criticism following revelations it covered up the security report into the Brittany Higgins incident. Then, a DPS security guard, who was on duty when Higgins and her alleged assailant arrived at Parliament House, told ABC’s Four Corners program it was normal procedure when two apparently heavily intoxicated staff members were granted access to a ministerial office at 2:00am.

On 15 February 2021, Higgins courageously went public with her allegations, telling her story to and the Ten Network’s The Project, telling them she had reported the incident to the Federal Police.

Four days later, another person who works in that building, a Parliamentary Library researcher in his mid-sixties named Geoff Wade, downloaded an image of nine, seven-and-eight-year-old children and posted it on his Twitter feed. These children took after school Chinese language classes and Wade informed his 14,000 followers the class times, days and locations these children could be found. 

The since deleted image was published by Wade at 10:49pm on a Friday. 

The image had been downloaded from the Canberra Chinese School website without the knowledge or consent of the school or the parents of any of the children.

Both the school principal, Suzie Cong, and at least one of the parents reported the matter to the Australian Federal Police. A Freedom of Information request reveals that one of the complaints against Wade was made at 7:30pm on the February 25.

That parent directly communicated with DPS Secretary Rob Stefanic on at least three occasions and Wade’s boss, the head of the Parliamentary Library Dr. Dianne Heriot, at least twice. There were ten emails exchanged with the Department’s First Assistant Secretary Liz Luchetti.

The Department was informed that Wade had been reported to the Australian Federal Police and, the day after that police complaint, Ms Luchetti emailed a parent saying the DPS was conducting its own investigation into Geoff Wade. 

Wade is a staunch China hawk – and a contributor to anti-China think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) – and presumably did not consider he was in breach intellectual property laws by publishing images without consent.

The motivation for his actions is to showcase connections between China and Australia and what he deems to be potential national security threats. Yet, in doing so, he has not only breached copyright laws, and peoples’ privacy, but has also threatened the livelihoods of three independent publishers, as well as the Chinese community leader Susie Cong and UTS professor James Laurenceson by threatening no less than five defamation actions.

A contributor to this website Michael West Media, Marcus Reubenstein, had written two articles about Wade, questioning why the DPS allowed him to maintain his Twitter feed during office hours. Those articles were published on his own independent website APAC News, as well as public policy website Pearls and Irritations and one of the stories ran in this publication. 

One of those articles was directly in relation to the Department’s inaction over Wade’s posting of children’s images.

In April, Canberra law firm Meyer Vandenberg sent defamation threats, on behalf of Wade, to this publication, also to Reubenstein, 86-year-old John Menadue who publishes Pearls and Irritations, Professor James Laurenceson and Suzie Cong, the school principal who’d complained to the DPS and the Federal Police about Wade some weeks earlier. 

The threat to Laurenceson and Cong was merely for tweeting a link to Reubenstein’s articles.

Not only was the Department aware that its employee’s activity had been brought to the attention of the Australian Federal Police, in correspondence with Michael West Media, the Department acknowledged it consented to him suing five individuals, including one of those who’d reported its employee to the police.

As for the action against John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations. Menadue is an eminent Australian who was chief political advisor both to former prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. He was also at one time chief executive of Qantas, head of News Limited at Holt Street in Sydney and Ambassador to Japan. Tinkering with the idea of retirement, at age 86, and just about to move house, John Menadue was in no mood to fight an expensive lawsuit, whose funders were unknown.

So it was that, although not “sorry” in the slightest, Menadue ran a modest apology and drew curtains on Wade’s legal threats. The other four targets of Wade and Meyer Vandenberg have refused to capitulate.

Despite the bullying legal letters, there has been no real effort by Wade, his lawyers Meyer Vandenberg or DPS to negotiate an amicable resolution to what has become a huge mess. Rather, heavy-handed threats and a list of demands which, were they not to be satisfied, would be followed by expensive legal action, actions which could destroy their targets financially.

The riddle in all this is why this Canberra law firm would take on five potentially multi-million legal actions on behalf of a researcher in the parliamentary library. Who was funding it? Wade is also a contributor for ASPI, which is the most aggressive voice in Australia for an arms race to meet the military threat from China. All five targets of Wade’s actions have a track record of criticising the Government’s aggressive approach to China and criticising those such as ASPI and Wade who espouse a military build up and overplay the threat of Chinese militarism to Australia.

ASPI’s social media strategic blunder

Asked whether another party such as ASPI, or associates of ASPI, was funding the suite of actions, or would fund them, Meyer Vandenberg’s partners declined to comment. ASPI has also declined to comment despite repeated requests for this story.

The Reubenstein case

Within two weeks of receiving his legal threat from Wade, journalist Marcus Reubenstein announced he would counter-sue Wade over a series of 22 Twitter publications made by Wade which he claimed carried false and defamatory imputations, principally that Reubenstein had been engaged in foreign interference on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

Such activity is criminal behaviour and there is no evidence to support the allegations. By lodging a case in the Federal Court, Reubenstein has opened himself up to a judicial review into these allegations of foreign interference.

Based on analysis of Wade’s Twitter account, since he began working at the Department of Parliamentary Services in 2014, the DPS staffer and ASPI correspondent has sent at least 20,000 Tweets during office hours. 

According to Reubenstein’s Statement of Claim, all but two of Wade’s publications were made during, or shortly after, normal work hours at the Department.

Reubenstein is also suing Wade’s employer the Department of Parliamentary Services. The claim states Wade is employed as a “Researcher, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security” and he tweets almost exclusively on foreign policy, defence and security issues in relation to China. 

The publications about Reubenstein were made during work hours and involved subject matter which Wade was paid by the Commonwealth to research. Beyond that, Wade’s boss Dr. Dianne Heriot followed Wade’s Twitter account from her own account and in March told a Senate Estimates committee that a library researcher did operate a Twitter account as part of his normal duties and she had requested him to “pause.” 

Reubenstein’s lawyers argue, “The unnamed library researcher could only have been Mr Wade” and “[Heriot] knew or ought to have known of the content of Mr Wade’s Tweets.”

DPS knows nothing

Rather than settling this matter, which is the case in more than 95 percent of defamation proceedings, the Commonwealth has decided to stand by Wade’s actions and expend public resources to defend Reubenstein’s claim.

It will potentially spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, effectively denying it had any control over an employee who used government resources to send out more than 20,000 Tweets. 

The last time the Federal Government elected to have such a matter heard in court was in 2019, when it dragged Immigration Department employee Michaela Banerji through the High Court which ruled she could be sacked for operating a Twitter account under an alias in her own private time.

Human rights lawyer, Greg Barns has said, “The inaction of the Commonwealth in relation to Mr Wade’s use of social media to launch and prosecute a highly political campaign points to the gross unfairness that Ms Banerji suffered for using social media to rightly criticise the inhumane policies of the Federal Government towards asylum seekers.”

“What Mr Wade’s case shows is freedom of speech appears to be OK if the government employee is not criticising the federal government. This is gross hypocrisy.”

It would appear the Commonwealth is now lining up a small independent journalist to be the next victim of this hypocrisy. 

Reubenstein is a vocal critic of the government’s China-threat narrative and that has brought him to the attention of right-wing politicians like Liberal Senator James Paterson, who sits on the two committees which have direct oversight of the DPS and the Parliamentary Library. 

Nine Newspapers reported in May that Paterson was referring to Reubenstein when he used parliamentary privilege to allege the Parliamentary Library was under attack by a “[Chinese] state sponsored or initiated” campaign. 

Reubenstein’s defamation case is not simply about suing someone over offending comments or hurt feelings. He has been accused of running a criminal enterprise and those accusations are in a series of publications made by a Commonwealth employee during government work hours.

Along with the other threats, this amounts to a situation where the employee of a government department, DPS, and a contributor to a think tank funded by the Commonwealth and by foreign weapons makers, is threatening to ruin the livelihoods of two small independent publishing enterprises (Menadue conceded to settle to bury the matter), and a school principal and academic who merely retweeted stories which they believe to be true and in the national interest.

The threats have been made via Canberra law firm Meyer Vandenberg which acts for the Government and has acted for ASPI in the past. Meyer Vandenberg partners Alisa Taylor and Archie Vandenberg have been asked to respond to questions on a number of occasions but have refused to engage on the issue except to continue their threats. Their law firm is on the Federal Government’s Legal Services Panel and has picked up at least $22m in Government work.  

DPS Culture

Since 2012 there have been three separate inquiries into the operation of the Department of Parliamentary Services, none of them flattering about the culture and management of the department.

In June Labor Senator Kimberly Kitching told the Canberra Times “The days of senior people at DPS being a law unto themselves are over”.

She was a part of an inquiry into the operations of the Department of Parliamentary Services which even the majority government members of the committee revealed had “systemic issues relating to workplace culture in Parliament House”.

In Additional Comments made to the review, Labor Senators Kitching and Tim Ayres wrote, “There is, however, a long history of complaints from staff about middle and senior management, allegations of conflict, bullying and inappropriate behaviour, poor communication and organisational dysfunction.

“ ‘Organisational culture’ is not an excuse for poor performance, inappropriate conduct or conflict.”

The CPSU (Commonwealth Public Sector Union) made a submission to the inquiry which was damning of the workplace culture. It alleged there was a culture of “Bullying, harassment and cover ups” within the DPS.  A survey of its members found that 94 percent had witnessed, or been victims of, workplace bullying. 

Some 89 percent who reported harassment incidents to DPS senior management said the Department’s response was insufficient or negligible.

The CPSU told the committee, “responses to the CPSU survey, particularly from members in the Research Branch of the Parliamentary Library [where Wade is employed] were consistently critical… a lack of accountability from management in DPS is evident. It has been acknowledged by management that there is no clear control over workflow, made worse because management have little visibility of it”.

In giving evidence to the inquiry, DPS Secretary Rob Stefanic dismissed the CPSU complaints as “false.” 

The Human Rights Commission is conducting its own inquiry into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces and responses to “incidents of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.” 

It received more than 300 submissions, 72 percent of those are from female staff members. 

Editor’s Note: numerous approaches have been made to DPS to engage on the issues raised in this story. The Department has consistently refused to respond properly to questions. Requests for interview with Rob Stefanic and Diane Heriot have also been declined.

This publication is being threatened with legal action by Geoff Wade’s law firm Meyer Vandenberg. The partners of Meyer Vandenberg have also declined to engage in meaningful attempts to resolve the dispute and have failed, on several occasions when asked, to respond properly to questions raised in this story.

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Michael West established Michael West Media in 2016 to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. West was formerly a journalist and editor with Fairfax newspapers, a columnist for News Corp and even, once, a stockbroker.

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