26 May 2023

Coalition senators get excited in estimates over a secretary's personal dress code

| Chris Johnson
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man at Senate Estimates wearing a rainbow lanyard

Infrastructure Secretary Jim Betts at Senate Estimates, sans tie. Photo: Screenshot.

The choice of shirt an APS department secretary chose to wear to a staff meeting has dominated much of two days of senate estimates hearings this week.

Infrastructure Department boss Jim Betts wore a t-shirt blazoned with an Aboriginal flag and the image of a black power fist while recently addressing his staff.

When fronting estimates on Wednesday (24 June), Mr Betts was ill-prepared for the onslaught of questions about his attire, but Coalition senators were eager to grill him about it.

The Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie raised the issue of whether such attire was an expression of Mr Betts’ position on the upcoming Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum.

The Australian Public Service has orders to be completely impartial on the subject.

“Is it correct that you wore a black power t-shirt while making a formal address to department staff recently?” Senator McKenzie asked the secretary.

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Mr Betts answered that he didn’t know what a black power t-shirt was and that he was just wearing a shirt with an “Aboriginal emblem on it” to express solidarity with First Nations people in Australia.

But Senator McKenzie and fellow Nationals Senator Matt Canavan cautioned the agency head that the APS had to be non-partisan over the Voice and that many of his staff had reported being uncomfortable with his attire at the meeting.

“If I go into any major corporate office in Australia, the Aboriginal flag is hanging there,” Mr Betts replied.

“I can’t believe – I didn’t prep for this over the weekend; I apologise.

“It has a variety of different meanings. In this case, it symbolises my signal of solidarity with Aboriginal staff within my department and, more broadly, in the community.

“That is not about any particular position on the Voice or the referendum.”

Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson had earlier asked Mr Betts why he wasn’t wearing a tie to the estimates hearing (he had on an open-neck business shirt and a rainbow lanyard), to which the secretary noted a number of senators had not worn ties to this week’s hearings.

The matter didn’t end on Wednesday, however.

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During Thursday’s session (25 June) of the same committee hearing, Senator McKenzie got stuck into the APS Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer about the matter.

Was he aware of the secretary’s attire and had he spoken to him about it?

Dr de Brouwer – 10 days into his new job – would not be drawn on whether he thought the t-shirt was appropriate, but he confirmed he had discussed it with the Infrastructure secretary.

The commissioner said Mr Betts had informed him that he was showing a commitment to First Nations staff, some of whom had felt threatened in the current debate.

“He was very clear that his intention was not to act inconsistently [with the impartiality requirements] and he was sorry if there was any misunderstanding about his commitment to it,” Dr de Brouwer said.

“His clear intention was to express support for staff … I’m not providing a commentary … around his clothing.”

But Senator McKenzie suggested “non-verbal communication” such as t-shirt images could be viewed as expressing support for a particular political view.

“Look at it in the context of the Attorney-General secretary addressing staff wearing a ‘Free Julian Assange’ t-shirt, or Mr [Andrew] Metcalfe (Agriculture secretary) wearing a ‘Vegans for the Voiceless’ PETA shirt,” she said.

“If a leader comes to a staff meeting wearing a political statement, that is not appropriate. Wear it to a rally.”

At that point, Finance and Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher chimed in to insist that APS leaders had a role in showing support for staff who felt threatened and unsafe.

“It’s going to be difficult to navigate, but it absolutely has to be done because the amount of racism [directed towards public servants and politicians over the referendum] is at the next level,” Senator Gallagher said.

“I think there is a reasonable acceptance that the secretary was trying to show support to staff.”

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One’s dress is a mark of respect for the people or groups you meet. A breach of a dress code in an official setting is a clear mark of disrespect.

It has been long standing public service ethic that public servants should not wear religious or political badges or clothing. Indigenous causes are obviously political and a secretary should abstain from any related display no matter how innocuous.

We have one of the best public services in the world for independence and impartiality, let’s keep it that way.

Bob the impala1:21 pm 26 May 23

One’s dress is a mark of local conformity as chosen for the occasion.
Public servants have been wearing religious badges or clothing forever, from crosses to clothing styles to headwear. You seem to have no idea.

If indigenous issues are “obviously political”, Petronius, then we can mark you on the side of “obviously race-obsessed”.

By the way, have you checked that “independence and impartiality” with the Robodebt Royal Commission recently?

If I was him, I’d be considering turning up to next Estimates in a t shirt, shorts and thongs.

Huge national debt, cost of living pressures, housing affordability crisis, etc. and Coalition Senators at Senate estimates throw a hissy fit over fashions.

Coalition Senators triggered by a show of principle. Unsurprising.

Good on Katy Gallagher for being a voice (no, not that one) of reason. The participants of this particular committee should have stuck to more important areas of inquiry. This is just knit-picking for points. What a waste of time for all involved.

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