Public servants do their best to fly under the radar. One of the last places they want their names to appear is parliamentary Hansard, especially when it's linked to anything controversial.
Independent senator Rex Patrick did not hold back from naming a federal bureaucrat on Tuesday, under parliamentary privilege in the Senate, when he raised one of the Australian Public Service's latest decisions against releasing documents under freedom of information laws.
An official from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, who Senator Patrick identified as Angie McKenzie, had refused him access to national cabinet documents.
His request was limited in scope, covering the agendas, minutes and records of decisions of the initial 10 cabinet meetings, excluding documents that were already released but including the full minutes of the national cabinet dated March 15, 2020.
One of the reasons Ms McKenzie gave for the refusal was that, in her view, the documents were exempt under cabinet secrecy rules.
The decision drew Senator Patrick's ire because it followed an Administrative Appeals Tribunal finding in August that the national cabinet was not a subcommittee of the federal cabinet. Justice Richard White's judgment didn't necessarily mean all national cabinet documents would be released under freedom of information laws, but it presumably would mean they could no longer be refused because of cabinet confidentiality.
Ms McKenzie, an assistant secretary at PM&C, nevertheless found the national cabinet was a committee of the federal cabinet for the purposes of the FOI laws. She said she reached the view in light of evidence available to her, not all of which was available to the AAT in making its judgment.
FOI officials make their decisions without much public scrutiny, despite their positions of influence. Senator Patrick has raised the stakes in naming one of them in relation to his request.
He has seemingly reached the view that Ms McKenzie needed to be held accountable in some way. He called her incompetent and politicised. PM&C on Wednesday strongly rejected Senator Patrick's comments, calling them untrue and saying Ms McKenzie "operates with the highest levels of integrity and probity".
"Unjustified personal attacks, such as this, against officers of the APS directly undermine public confidence in Australia's democratic institutions, and impact on the welfare of individual staff."
If the public service wasn't aware of this already, Senator Patrick's Senate speech on Tuesday can leave them in no doubt. Bureaucrats believed to be politicised will have their names raised in Parliament and immortalised in Hansard, no matter how much they want to avoid the spotlight.
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