20 July 2023

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan announces resignation as unions label leadership review 'axe job'

| Claire Fenwicke
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ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan’s formal resignation will be announced later today. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Emergency Services Agency (ESA) Commissioner Georgeina Whelan has announced her official resignation from the agency in the wake of a damning review exposing allegations of bullying and poor conduct within the executive leadership team.

Assistant Commissioner Jason Jones will take over in the interim while longer-term recruitment gets underway.

More information is expected to become available when Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman addresses media later today (Thursday, 20 July).

Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether any disciplinary action is taking place – or will at all – against anyone in the leadership team following the independent examination.

The ESA falls under the Justice and Community Safety (JACS) directorate, and its director-general Richard Glenn was asked during budget estimates whether any disciplinary action or investigations were being conducted.

“The report doesn’t identify any particular individual in relation to any behaviours, and that’s because the report itself was on how the team works together, it wasn’t an investigation into individuals,” he said.

“[Also] I don’t discuss publicly actions we take in relation to any public servant in terms of investigation into conduct or otherwise – I don’t answer those questions in public.”

When further pressed by Greens MLA Andrew Braddock whether he planned on doing anything about the allegations of poor behaviour, Mr Glenn said he took the Walker Review “very seriously”.

He pointed out JACS had accepted all the recommendations from the report and would be implementing them in due course.

The cost of implementing the review is yet to be determined, but will be drawn from the resources of JACS.

It’s unclear at this stage who will be part of the oversight committee, but Mr Glenn said they would seek input from emergency services unions and it’s expected it would be headed up by a person independent of government.

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Unions have slammed the report, stating a lack of definition around who comprises the leadership team has tarred chief officers with the same brush.

However career firefighter, volunteer firefighter and paramedics unions have all expressed their relief the review highlighted toxic behaviour within the agency.

Paramedic members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) have twice passed no confidence motions in ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan, and issued a statement saying they felt the poor behaviour had “notably” existed throughout her tenure.

“TWU Ambulance members are disappointed that the Chief Officer of the ACT Ambulance Service (ACTAS) has effectively been ‘tarred with the same brush’ as the ESA by this report,” it said in a statement.

“Chief Officers within the ESA, who form part of the ESA Executive are not the problem. They are part of the solution!

The union stated its full confidence in the ACTAS chief officer, and accused Commissioner Whelan of actively not working with them to solve issues within the agency.

“Unfortunately, the ESA Commissioner remains disengaged with us, as a major stakeholder within the ESA,” it stated.

“Therefore, TWU Ambulance members continue to have no confidence in the Commissioner’s leadership … serious concerns consistently raised by the TWU with the ESA, JACS and the ACT Government remain in place and are either dismissed or are constantly stalled or delayed in being corrected.”

Rowan Scott, Mick Gentleman MLA, Georgeina Whelan Photo: Michelle Kroll Region Media

Unions have voiced their concerns that chief officers have been ‘tarred with the same brush’ in a review of the ESA’s executive leadership team. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Similar sentiments were also expressed by the ACT Volunteer Brigades Association (VBA), which represents most of the 510 volunteers working for the ACT Rural Fire Service.

VBA president Dr Allison Ballard said the findings in the report were “inconsistent” with the experiences of volunteer firefighters in respect to their direct leader.

“The Walker Review is just an axe job, it does not truthfully represent the way our volunteers see ACTRFS leadership. Clearly, it’s also not the way ACTRFS career staff view the chief,” she said.

The VBA has requested a rewriting of the report to better clarify who is part of the executive leadership team examined by the review.

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The next statutory review of the ESA arrangement is slated for next year, with Mr Braddock asking whether an external review should be conducted into the agency in light of the allegations.

Mr Gentleman said it wasn’t something that could be committed to at this time.

“We’re doing the review pointed to us from the Walker Report, and certainly as we reach the next step, we’ll look at that,” he said.

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It might appear to some that Geogeina Whelan and the ACT government are working closely together to protect each other. We note that they did this over the Orroral Valley fire, trying to shut down requests for investigations into the Army action before, during and after the fire started.

Minister Gentleman is as unhelpful, vague, uselss and lacking in transparency as usual. These issues need to be clarified now, for the sake of the people and their reputations as well as the working relationships and performance of the ESA. Clearly, he doesn’t care about any of this, doing nothing as is his usual practice.

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