Senior public servant gravy train: all profit and no accountability

by Rex Patrick | Mar 2, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

Fat cat salaries, a post-career gravy train at their disposal and ‘gongs’ pinned on chests? Rex Patrick looks at the senior echelons of the public service to see how they’re faring in these ‘difficult’ times.

PM sign off

Prime Minister’s Sign Off (Source; FOI)

Ms Stephanie Foster was appointed acting Secretary of Home Affairs on 25 September after Michael Pezzullo was stood aside and a Public Service Commission investigation commenced into his highly inflammatory text message exchanges with Liberal Party power broker Scott Briggs.

At the time, Ms Foster was the associate secretary of immigration within Home Affairs.

Two months later, on 28 November she was appointment to the full role and a $928K salary.

It was not even a competitive appointment. Whilst the Prime Minister was advised of options to appoint a secretary, he chose a ‘direct approach to a single preferred candidate’ noting Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil MP, preferred Ms Foster be directly appointed.

Without competition, without testing to see if there was a better candidate, Ms Foster was given an almost million-dollar salary, access to an elite gravy train when she eventually retires, and an almost certain Order of Australia.

Fat cat salaries

Secretaries of Federal departments are paid somewhere between $830K and $977K.

Senior public servant salaries

Secretaries salaries (Source; Remuneration Tribunal)

These are extraordinary amounts given the Prime Minister receives $587K, Cabinet Ministers receive $388K, and Senators and MPs receive 225K.

Their salaries are nothing short of outrageous given those are public service positions, with emphasis on the words ‘public service’. It’s not supposed to be about profit.

It’s not as though these positions are ones where an approach to the market is made to get the best of the best. In almost all cases, those who are selected for these positions are simply promoted from within the public service, where they’ve spent most of their lives avoiding any career advancement risk and just picking up a pay packet from the taxpayer every fortnight.

And it’s not as though these positions are where accountability is an ever-present factor in the conduct of duties. Public services, State and Federal, are accountability voids. When a public program blows out by billions, no-one is held to account. Promotion often follows. The ‘Peter Principle‘ of promotion upwards to an employee’s level of incompetence, and indeed well beyond that, is deeply embedded across Australian Governments.

Sitting beneath the Secretaries are approximately 3000 Senior Executive Service personnel In 2002 the base salary received was between $186K and $253K for Band 1, between $253K and $327K for Band 2, and between $339K and $484K for Band 3.

SES Median salaries

Median Salary for the SES 2018 and 2022 (Source: APSC)

But wait, there’s more

When secretaries and senior executive service personnel leave their highly financially rewarding public service positions, especially for secretaries, a gravy train awaits.

And there’s no need to worry about market competition – why depart from a system devoid of competitiveness – the work is handed out without the need to tender.

A few recent examples illustrate the situation.

  • Since leaving as the Defence Secretary in 2017, Dennis Richardson has received four contracts totalling $1,091,300. Each of the four contracts were awarded by ‘limited tender’; that is, only one person was asked to apply.
  • Since leaving as the Finance Secretary in 2022 Rosemary Huxtable (trading as Focal Point Consulting Trust) has received 15 contracts totalling $1,462,902. 14 of those 15 contracts was awarded by ‘limited tender’. Only one contract for $37,500 was by way open tender.
  • Former DFAT Deputy Secretary Richard Maude (trading as Volatile World Consulting) has had three contracts, worth $215,997.6, awarded to him by limited tender since departing the public service.
  • Former Deputy Secretary Steve Grzeskowiak (trading as SG Advice and in his own name) was recently awarded three contracts with his former agency for $967,000; again, all without a competitive tender.

Nuclear waste. Fifty years of searching, still nowhere to dump it.

It literally pays to be known.

These examples are but the tip of the iceberg. A whole article could be written just on the vast revolving door that is the Defence Department.

It’s a jobs-for-mates rort that needs to be curtailed. Secretaries have extremely well paid lieutenants to guide others in the tasks currently carried out by former public service leaders in consultancy roles. We need to be growing expertise in the public service, not outsourcing it.

Then comes the medal

In 1997, former Prime Minister Paul Keating declined to accept an award of Companion of the Order of Australia, saying he believed honours should be reserved for unrecognised achievers.

It’s not a view shared by senior leaders in the public service. Awards are being thrown about left, right and centre.

Much has been said about the Orders of Australia awarded to Secretary Kathryn “Robodebt” Campbell and Michael “Political Text” Pezzullo.

In a recent Senate debate, Senator Lambie drew attention to the awarding of an Order of Australia to Defence Secretary Moriarty following the multi-billion debacles he has presided over, and his complete failure to hit Defence workforce targets.

Dumb Ways to Buy: Defence “shambles” unveiled – former submariner and senator Rex Patrick

It’s become routine for top public servants to nominate each other to be made Officers of the Order of Australia. AOs come in the public service ration packs, it appears.

But when awards just flow with ease for public servants who have just been doing their extremely well-paid jobs, it devalues the Honour Award’s currency.

A reckoning needed

The public service has put the public offside.

Ordinary Australians who pay their taxes from salaries that don’t compare to the government fat cats have seen the likes of RoboDebt and too many other debacles and scandals. Opinion polls show that trust in government and the public service has plummeted. People are disgusted with the ivory towers that have been created in the upper echelons.

There has to be change.

Meanwhile, it looks like we’re stuck with a system of no accountability.

At the most recent Senate Estimates, newly minted Home Affairs Secretary Stephanie Foster was asked about the review of integrity and governance arrangements for the management of regional processing contracts (conducted by no other than Dennis Richardson). Senator McKim asked who was going to be held responsible for the serious of egregious mistakes identified in the report.

Ms Foster, in words Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud of, responded:

“So … what I’m focusing on is what we need to do to ensure that the department’s contracting arrangements are fit for purpose … we have dealt with the historic problems in those contracts in our current processes.

“I did speak with Mr Richardson … about this issue of responsibility … he said it would take the wisdom of two Solomons to identify the complex arrangements and over the length of time with which individual officers and at what level accountability should rest. I asked him explicitly whether he felt … that there was unfinished business which as a new secretary I need to prosecute. His response was no.”

No thought to look at the line of well-paid officials who signed off on the regional processing contracts, or the well paid officials who were directly responsible for the management of them.

It’s all too hard to do accountability.

All the attending officials at Senate Estimates sighed a breath of relief when the Secretary said ‘no’ to accountability. Stay calm, nothing has changed.

Mike Pezzullo. The demise of a Canberra’s “most powerful, divisive, and yet indestructible bureaucrat”

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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