29 May 2024

Secretive department gets its laundry aired at Budget Estimates

| Chris Johnson
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Department of Parliamentary Services Secretary Rob Stefanic

Department of Parliamentary Services Secretary Rob Stefanic copped a grilling at Senate Estimates yesterday. Photo: LinkedIn.

Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services Rob Stefanic has faced a barrage of budget estimates questions over his relationship with a former deputy secretary of the same department, Cate Saunders.

DPS is one of the government’s least accountable agencies. It’s not subject to Freedom of Information laws, it won’t say who is sponsoring lobbyists to Parliament House, and it doesn’t take part in the APS Census.

But its leaders had to endure persistent scrutiny during the Tuesday (28 May) Senate estimates committee hearings.

Accusations of a toxic culture, a reign of fear from the top down, and a practice of perpetual bullying were all put to the secretary during the day-long inquisition, and he repeatedly dismissed them.

“No evidence has been provided as to what those issues actually are apart from hearsay,” he said early in the hearings.

“The DPS staff census since 2016 has been on an upward trajectory on all its measures.

“That is not reflective of an agency that has a toxic culture or issues to the extent that are just thrown around liberally without any basis or evidence.”

Since 2019, DPS has opted out of the APS Census but does its own, although it doesn’t publish the results.

Specific but anonymous quotes from “scared staff” were put to the secretary throughout the hearings, all of which he denied knowing about.

But it was his personal life and the possibility of a conflict of interest that the committee was most keen to uncover.

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Declaring that it was “simply not relevant” whether he was in a relationship with Ms Saunders while she was employed at DPS between December 2017 and October 2023, Mr Stefanic subsequently stated they were not romantically involved when Ms Saunders was appointed as his deputy.

But he didn’t say whether the two were in a relationship before or after that point.

“I’ve endured repeated violation of my personal privacy based on an alleged public interest,” he said.

“I’ll readily address questions about my integrity as is relevant to public confidence in my role; however, respectfully, I’m not prepared to subject … my family to further privacy incursions.”

But the questions didn’t stop.

Liberal senator Jane Hume was relentless in seeking an understanding of the relationship and how the situation was handled.

Ms Saunders was seconded to Services Australia for six months, but just four months into that posting was given a retirement incentive to leave the Australian Public Service last year.

Mr Stefanic said he always acted appropriately “at all times” and was not involved in the appointment of Ms Saunders to a $420,000 deputy secretary position in his department, nor when she was handed a $315,000 exit package from the public service.

After seeking advice from the APS Commissioner in June last year, Mr Stefanic declared a conflict of interest. But he confirmed there was no documentation of that declaration.

“On the basis of perception, there certainly was discussion about Ms Saunders working in another agency if that would assist management of it,” he said.

“As mentioned, I had no role in initiating any process from there.”

It was not until June last year that Mr Stefanic disclosed the perceived conflict of interest to the parliament’s presiding officers.

The secretary insisted that he never believed he had a conflict of interest regarding his relationship with Ms Saunders.

“It was more about managing a perception of a conflict of interest than an actual conflict of interest,” he said.

“Whether it is a perceived conflict of interest or an actual conflict, it is lodged as a conflict of interest … the language is unfortunately quite black and white.”

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Under continued questioning, Mr Stefanic said when the perception of a close relationship between himself and Ms Saunders played out in the media and fed the rumour mill, he felt obliged to lodge a conflict of interest declaration.

“What there was was a close friendship,” he said.

Current deputy secretary Jaala Hinchcliffe said Services Australia negotiated Ms Saunders’ exit payment but the $315,000 was paid by DPS because Ms Saunders was a permanent employee of that department at the time.

Clerk of the Senate Richard Pye was also grilled in the hearing over advice from the Prime Minister’s Office for staff appearing before estimates to be less than forthcoming with their answers.

Liberal senator Simon Birmingham asked Mr Pye about a leaked document advising executives to only use publicly available information or refer to questions on notice.

The Clerk said it was “lovely” that someone had thought to put together a template for all departments, but he didn’t agree with all the content.

“I thought it had some useful parts, but I think it also provided some advice that I wouldn’t have provided myself,” Mr Pye said.

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If you end up in a relationship with a member of senior management in the APS it is remarkable how your career suddenly takes off.

I knew a girl who went from APS3 to the top of EL2 in about 6 months just by being “exceedingly friendly” with the much older SES band 2 for her section.

@Ken M
So why didn’t you lodge an appeal – you were obviously more efficient and better qualified for the role than she?

Beause an EL2 role paid less than a quarter of my salary at the time and working in the APS would have been a massive step backwards for me. Why does me knowing of unethical behaviour in the APS upset you so much?

@Ken M
It doesn’t upset me, I just wonder if your implication is totally accurate.

Heywood Smith11:47 am 30 May 24

And you know this how? Recipient of an unfair promotion.

Heywood Smith11:48 am 30 May 24

No you dont Ken, that’s a crock..

Heywood Smith11:51 am 30 May 24

EL2 paid paid less than a quarter of your salary?? So you now claim you were on circa $520k a year, SES Band 3 or thereabouts (more in todays climate) , and yet couldn’t do anything about this claimed nepotism… Your story has more leaks than a busted hose!!

Heywood Smith11:52 am 30 May 24

Ignore him… He claims this EL2 was earning 25% of his salary!! Ken M was on approx $520k a year, a senior SES, yet couldn’t do anything about his (fictitious) claim.

Actually I was in sales and averaged significantly more than 520k a year. Stay mad about it.

The event was bad enough that the SES was moved on and subsequently “retired” shortly thereafter.

Imagine foaming at the mouth because somebody saw wildly inappropriate conduct in the APS. LOL

Heywood Smith1:53 pm 30 May 24

Sales role in the APS? Do tell… I’m unaware of any sales-based roles in the APS.. But then again, we can be whoever and whatever we want on the internet!

Where did I say I was in the APS? I merely stated that I knew of an instance where a relationship with senior APS had lead to unearned promotion. You have failed at basic comprehension. Probably explains why people earning more than basic APS wages seems outlandish to you. LOL

devils_advocate9:56 pm 30 May 24

Gosh the low-income transfer payment recipients are out for blood tonite! For reference yes, in the private sector highly productive people are rewarded for their productivity. Many less productive folk tend to seek refuge in the opaque APS, with no clear performance targets or accountability.

Of course they will never admit this, and all sorts of justifications will be advanced to say it isn’t so. However the above incredulity and lack of awareness of a world outside the APS proves the point neatly.

What a weird thread.

Although now I’m wondering what Ken was doing at the time when he “saw” this behaviour. Basic comprehension of what was actually written and all.

I knew a guy who claimed to be Batman, he had a cape, mask and everything. Must be true. I saw them.

Wait till the D team that makes up the APS work out that base salary doesn’t even have to make up the bulk of ypur renumeration.

“Many less productive folk tend to seek refuge in the opaque APS”
I guess if you measure productivity as the level of contribution to the “bottom line”, then public servants, such as doctors and nurses in the public health system, emergency responders (firefighters & paramedics), teachers, members of the military and so on just don’t cut it. Nevertheless, I think even you would have to accept that these professions have a very real “awareness of a world outside the APS”.

Also, I’ll wager that respect for the profession is probably something that doesn’t enter into your assessment of “worthiness”.

Ken M
I’ll take that “D team that makes up the APS”, such as doctors and nurses in the public health system, emergency responders (firefighters & paramedics), teachers, members of the military, over someone who “was in sales” every day of the week.

Heywood Smith9:54 am 31 May 24

Kens responses are much like a ‘pick your own adventure’ book… One minute he knows of an instance of nepotism, then he claims to have been on well over $500k/year doing sales in the APS, but alas, now he never stated he was in the APS. So in summary, Ken never ‘saw’ anything, he saw this topic then decided to let his imagination run wild, claims to have been there without being there whilst earning a squillion dollars selling ice to the eskimos.

JS, what APS level are these doctors, nurses, firefighters and military personnel? Or are you being deliberately dishonest? I think we all know the answer.

Heywood, continuing to dig that hole isn’t helping. Your fantasy story attempting to hide your failure of basic comprehension skills is fooling nobody. Take the L.

Heywood Smith12:23 pm 31 May 24

Ken M, you posts within this very thread clearly outline the fantasy world you live in…

Secondly, part of your question to JS – what APS level are these doctors, nurses… Seriously.

devils_advocate1:28 pm 31 May 24


Ken M’s original response specifically said “working in the APS would have been a massive step backward…”

I.e explicitly stating that he was in the private sector

Clearly there is an adverse selection problem in the APS when it comes to reading ans comprehension

That Canberra bubble sure is hard to see out of!

@Ken M
“ what APS level are these doctors, nurses, firefighters and military personnel?”
Oh I don’t know, perhaps doctor class 1, nurse level 2, firefighter grad 2 and so. They are paid from the public purse, hence they are public servants. How does that show me to be dishonest?

Perhaps you need to sell your obfuscation of facts in another market – I’m not buying it.

Huge assumptions made in the obvious absence of all of the information, to which you would have been unlikely to have access.

Clearly he was external and selling to the APS which means; 1) He had access to a limited amount of relevant information, so made assumptions to fill the gaps; 2) He could have earned that much; 3) Sales is where con artists and liars do very well, not suggesting that he is one, just that these practices are common in that field in the pursuit of high salaries and/or commissions.

devils_advocate3:13 pm 31 May 24

“Clearly he was external and selling to the APS which means; 1) He had access to a limited amount of relevant information, so made assumptions to fill the gaps;”

Where does it say anywhere that he obtained the information through his professional connections with the APS? Aspects of that information would be gazetted btw


Conceptual and analytical -does not meet standard

Judgement – requires development

Overall assessment: unsuitable

JS, anybody that isn’t severely deluded is buying it though, and laughing at your ridiculous attempt to equate doctors with some APS5. You know very well that doctors are not APS employees. For a start, health workers are state funded. Then in Defence there is also a very clear delineation between military and APS. You’re being either purposely dishonest, or are just clueless and making things up.

@Ken M
You obviously haven’t heard of the Chief Medical Officer then? Also while not strictly in the APS, defence force personnel are definitely public servants and definitely much higher on the public respect scale than a salesman.

The Chief Medical Officer is still not an APS position. Can you just stop telling lies? You ard ridiculous.

devils_advocate11:07 pm 01 Jun 24

Gosh talk about clutching at straws. Sometimes it’s better to just admit you’ve been caught out as having no awareness of life outside the APS bubble, and severely lacking in conceptual and analytical skills, rather than trying to double down on your mistake and come up with increasingly bizarre scenarios.

A completely innocuous observation was rendered, and APS drones took offence, and hilarity ensued. Time to draw a line under it and save further embarrassment.

@Ken M
The Chief Medical Officer may not fit your definition of being an APS position, despite the fact that Professor Paul Kelly is a public health physician and epidemiologist employed by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care, i.e. a public servant

However, check out P16:
Seems like your “D team” also comprises designations of Medical Officer Class 2, 3 and 4. I will concede I got it wrong when I referred to Doctor Class 1.

And devils_advocate is right, “Time to draw a line under it and save further embarrassment” for you – I am moving on.

devils_advocate2:24 pm 02 Jun 24

The only ones who should be embarrassed are those that are so ensconced in their Canberra bubble they can’t imagine a life or pay scale outside the APS

Really? I thought that was good use of “conceptual and analytical skills” to provide the answer to the question Ken M posed.

As for the “Canberra bubble”? Perhaps ingrates, like you, should be thankful for the APS. Where would you be making your money if Canberra was not a public servant town?

“I am moving on”

Next minute….

“I just have to get the last word in”.

He just can’t stop telling lies, folks. LOL

devils_advocate7:12 pm 03 Jun 24


“Where would you be making your money if Canberra was not a public servant town?”

Literally any jurisdiction I please. That’s what happens when you have in-demand, tangible skills that go beyond re-writing the same mundane briefs day in day out with no meaningful measures of performance or any consequences.

People with actual skills that are valued by the market aren’t beholden to the sheltered workshop of the APS.

Oh now I understand. Money trumps ethics.

So, it’s convenient for you to make your money in a jurisdiction where your clients are either employed by, or rely on for employment, the APS – an institution, and its people, for which you have no respect.

Each to their own. That seems a good point to draw an end to this thread. I’m done.

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