Monday, May 27, 2024

The opaque department tasked with protecting Australia's democracy facing allegations of a toxic culture

 Transparency - Secretary, Rob Stefanic

Department of Parliamentary Services boss Rob Stefanic denies relationship with his deputy while her boss

Parliament House department exempt from Freedom of Information laws dubbed an 'anomaly' that needs to change

Parliament boss grilled over ‘toxic’ workplace culture

The windows at Parliament House have undergone extensive cleaning in recent weeks.

Sunlight is literally permeating the home of Australia's democracy like never before.

Senate estimates offered a brief peek inside one of parliament's most opaque corners, but don't expect a transparency overhaul

Under Malcolm Roberts’ questioning, Rob Stefanic, the head of the federal government department tasked with overseeing Parliament House, denied being in a relationship with his deputy, but refused to say whether he'd been in one with her before creating

Australian parliamentary services boss denies romantic relationship with deputy despite declaring conflict of interest

DPS’ Robert Stefanic insists noone he gives a pass to is a lobbyist but refuses to list them, then suggests he had to breach his own privacy policy to give 1 eg. for “context” David Pocock presses on if accountability processes are in place Stefanic “No I don’t believe so”

“No I don’t believe so”

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

It's the government department tasked with protecting Australia's democracy, yet within it bubbles accusations of a toxic culture, the silencing of dissent and the routine cover-up of problems.

The department governs Parliament House but some of its staff are so suspicious and fearful of those running it, they regard by it as a workplace where "the walls have eyes".

The ABC has spent months speaking to public servants — past and present — plus politicians and their staff from both sides of the political aisle, as well as people who have worked across a range of professions at Parliament House, all of whom would only speak under the condition of anonymity.

Repeatedly and without prompting the word "toxic" was offered about the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS).

And yet efforts to scrutinise its operations, its management and practices are practically impossible — by design.

That's because DPS has been granted extraordinary and unique isolation from standard methods of scrutiny — and by someone who once promised to meet the public's higher expectations.

The department is exempt from Freedom of Information laws — a change Anthony Albanese, as the then leader of the House of Representatives, introduced as an "interim measure" more than a decade ago.

Rob Stefanic at Senate estimates

To its critics, DPS has largely been overlooked in the reckoning that happened at Parliament House in recent years, where a spotlight has been shone on the culture and treatment of staff following Brittany Higgins's allegation of rape in a ministerial office.

Inside the department, there's a sense of despair that little has changed in the three years since a landmark report described DPS "as being particularly driven by fear" and said there was a culture of silence in the parliamentary departments that had a "chilling effect on reporting misconduct".

But few — if any — in the government are showing an appetite to bring about changes at a department that receives hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds annually.

It comes amid reports that the boss of the department, secretary Rob Stefanic, had a relationship with his deputy secretary, Cate Saunders.

Neither Mr Stefanic nor the parliament's powerful leaders — Speaker of the House of Representatives Milton Dick and President of the Senate Sue Lines — are willing to offer any information about how they managed a relationship between the department's two top public servants, who collectively earned close to $1 million.

The ABC put 14 questions to DPS about its culture, the disclosure of Mr Stefanic and Ms Saunders's relationship and the department's approach to information requests. The bulk went unanswered.

"The Secretary maintained a professional working relationship with Ms Saunders for a number of years before her employment by Services Australia in April 2023," a DPS spokesperson told the ABC.

"The Secretary declares all relevant relationships in the appropriate manner."

However, Mr Stefanic offered further comments following a chance encounter the day after DPS supplied its written statement. Unprompted, the secretary said he hoped "nice things" were being written about him before dismissing the allegations as "gossip and rumour" — words not included in the statement his department issued.

The ABC put a further 18 questions to Mr Dick and Senator Lines, and received a two-sentence response.

Even information requests to gain insight into the maintenance of Parliament House's iconic flag pole have been repeatedly rejected by the department. In March last year, facing furore about flying a tattered flag about Parliament House, the presiding officers confirmed the lift to the top of the pole was "urgently undergoing maintenance" yet the ABC has been denied any requests to gain further information about the maintenance program

Stefanic said he was impressed with the dedication and professionalism of “most of” his staff and intended to build on the department’s capacity based on his experience running the equivalent agency in New South Wales.

Public service intrigue

Further intrigue out of the Department of Parliamentary Services over that romance between Secretary Rob Stefanicand his former deputy secretary Cate Saunders, who left the public service last year – and with what we hear was a generous exit package. 
DPS has been silent for days on whether or not it’s investigating the circumstances of that package, known internally as an incentive to retire payment.
The issue is whether or not it was signed off by Stefanic himself, and whether or not their relationship had been declared by then.
In the meantime, another curiosity. Stefanic was questioned by Senator Jane Hume at an estimates hearing in February about Saunders’ departure. 
He took two of those questions on notice, both concerning her sudden secondment to Services Australia in April last year, which is where her career with the commonwealth ended. 
Stefanic also took a slew of other questions on notice during his appearance at estimates that day, all of which have been answered in full and are now available for perusal on the parliament’s website. 
Stefanic’s department actually manages the system that organises and displays those answers, which is convenient.
And so isn’t it just darn strange that out of all the questions that have been answered and uploaded to the website, the only ones missing are those pertaining to the exit of Saunders? 
Not that we’d dare to peddle in conspiracies, but the silence of the department, and these other crumbs we’re picking up … they might just be starting to form a trail.

Questions on notice outstanding for DPS Secretary Rob Stefanic

Cate Saunders, former deputy secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services.


You can bet a few questions are being asked over the exit of the very senior Parliament House bureaucrat Cate Saunders, who served as deputy secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services from 2019 to October 2023. 
We understand she left that role on very good terms and with a substantial exit package to boot. These days she’s completely separated from the bureaucracy, where she spent almost two decades of her career; now she’s working as a sales associate, selling property with a boutique Canberra real estate agency. 
A lesser known footnote, however, is that Saunders was in a relationship with her boss, DPS Secretary Rob Stefanic, who was mentioned in this column last year over a questionable decision to ban bottles of wine being left on tables during functions in the Great Hall.
We called him a fun-sponge for that order and he wasn’t too fond of the designation, but he defended the decision in light of a blistering review released at the time around parliament’s workplace culture. 
Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services Rob Stefanic. Picture: AAP
Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services Rob Stefanic. Picture: AAP
And lo, speaking of workplace culture! Nothing overtly wrong with an office romance, to be sure, but one might ask exactly who cleared Saunders’ exit package and whether or not that person was indeed Stefanic and if the relationship had even been declared at that point. 
A DPS spokeswoman told us that Saunders took a secondment with Services Australia in April last year and that she left the public service during that period. “The secretary maintained a professional working relationship with Ms Saunders for a number of years before her employment by Services Australia in April 2023,” she said. “The secretary declares all relevant relationships in the appropriate manner.” 
Responses, we might add, that hardly clarify the two most important questions at hand, namely whether the relationship was declared in a timely manner, and whether or not Stefanic signed off on the package for Saunders – known internally as an “incentive to retire” payment.
Senator Jane Hume had the good sense to ask about Saunders’ absence from the table during budget estimates in February. Stefanic, answering those questions, took them on notice – and we’ve heard nothing of them since.

The Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services Rob Stefanic had barely gotten through his opening statement on Wednesday to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External territories when the construction work at Parliament House got in the way. 
Addressing the committee, chaired by Canberra MP Alicia Payne, Mr Stefanic was updating how the tour bookings for Parliament House had moved online. 
There was then a crash of metal. 
Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services Rob Stefanic was interrupted by a crash. Screenshot.
Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services Rob Stefanic was interrupted by a crash. Screenshot. 
This was quickly followed by a one word shout of surprise and frustration.
After a quick pause, Mr Stefanic tried to continue, but there was again a crash. With the camera on him, the secretary smiled. 
Ms Payne indicated a short suspension was needed, while broadcast staff said they could not hear anything. 
Before a suspension was called, Mr Stefanic said he was going to give Parliament House's "property people" a call.
Turns out there is construction work going on nearby in the building. 
The committee which is hearing from national institutions on Wednesday resumed a short time later. 
With a smile, Ms Payne quickly declared the construction matter had been "sorted out" and apologised. 
However, Mr Stefanic said he thought it was he who should be apologising for the disruption.

Ex-Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins has accused top-ranking bureaucrats of "trivialising" the issue of workplace abuse after senior staff revealed they had not watched a training video created after her alleged rape by a former colleague.

The Department of Parliamentary Services signed off last week on new procedures for responding to serious incidents in the building.

The 13-minute video was produced after Ms Higgins went public in February with allegations a former co-worker raped her in Parliament House in March 2019.