ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan finishes up her tenure in the top job today (21 July), four years after being appointed the agency’s first woman in the role.
Her shock resignation came in the wake of the Walker Review calling out issues in the executive leadership team – but some say the ESA will find itself without a leader yet again in the years to come unless bureaucratic and structural issues are addressed.
ACT United Firefighters Union secretary Greg McConville said while Ms Whelan’s departure was a chance to “reset” the agency, it didn’t solve its underlying issues.
“We have a high degree of respect for [Ms Whelan], she’s worked tirelessly, she’s put a lot of effort into trying to make this organisation work,” he said.
“I don’t think this problem goes away with individuals, I think this problem is dealt with structurally … no matter who we put into this role, if the operational difficulties aren’t addressed we’ll find ourselves here again in a number of years’ time.”
The ESA’s recently faced several organisational pressures – not just the Walker Review but also a scathing Auditor-General report into the procurement of its new hybrid electric fire truck, and the Emergencies Act under review coming up.
“[We also have] enterprise agreement negotiations next year where many of the things that we bargained for haven’t been delivered – it is difficult for any individual to survive that level of pressure,” Mr McConville said.
“I would say that the organisational settings were wrong, and I would say it would be very unlikely that anyone would survive a full tenure in the organisation structure as it is now.”
Assistant Commissioner Jason Jones has been appointed to guide the agency until a new full-time Commissioner is found.
However, there are some questions over the suitability of his appointment, given the Walker Review and Mr Jones’ involvement in the procurement of the hybrid electric fire truck.
“If [the cultural issues] start at the top, it’s very obvious it must include the next level, but to what extent does it permeate to levels below that?” Mr McConville asked.
“I think that Mr Jones needs to swim in a very narrow lane in present times, particularly given the Auditor-General delivered some very critical recommendations and findings around a procurement process which I understand he was intimately involved in.”
The government refused to answer questions on whether anyone within the ESA leadership team is facing investigation in the wake of the review’s findings, citing privacy reasons.
Mr McConville said while he understood this, it appeared the executive was being held to a different standard to everyone else.
“If our members were on the receiving end of allegations of that kind, they would be investigated, they would be stood down either with or without pay, they would be subject to very rigorous processes … and there would be very difficult consequences for them,” he said.
“I just can’t see that same standard [being] applied to the executives, not only in the ESA but across the ACT Government generally.”
Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman said he felt it was appropriate to use Mr Jones’ skills until a permanent Commissioner was found.
“I think there’s a separation between the Auditor’s report into the electric fire truck and his leadership capabilities at ESA,” he said.
“The findings don’t point to any one person at ESA, the findings were quite clear that all of us need to pull up our socks and work better for the future of the Emergency Services Agency.”
Mr Gentleman commended Ms Whelan for her years of service, stating she had spoken with him about her decision to step down a week ago.
“It’s an opportunity for a bit of a refresh at the ESA … and I’ve had some feedback already from key players suggesting this is a nice way forward, and an opportunity for Georgeina Whelan to be with her family and think about her future as well,” he said.
“I think she was doing a tremendous job, but she wants to see the ESA that she loves thrive into the future, and I support that.
“She said to me she wants some clear air for the ESA to be able to grow and I think she’s really made a decision that will help us go forward.”
The ESA also released a statement on Ms Whelan’s behalf, in which she thanked everyone she had worked with.
“We have had our share of challenges along the way, the 2019-20 Black Summer, COVID-19, Super Cell Storms and international and interstate deployments in support of our colleague first responders. Time and time again you have always delivered on our commitment to the community,” she said.
“Leading such a passionate, determined and committed organisation has been a career highlight for me.”