The shake-up of the public service has had a false start, with more than 100 staff farewelled from one department, bound for another, and then told they were going nowhere.
- The Department of Agriculture held a party to farewell staff changing departments last week
- A day later, staff were told the move was cancelled after the Prime Minister’s intervention
- The staff face an uncertain future as the public sector braces for a likely broader overhaul
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had touted plans to overhaul the public sector but made an 11th-hour intervention last week to block the relocation of bureaucrats who oversee water policy.
Water staff at the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources were farewelled at a party last Thursday but one day later were told the move was off.
Mr Morrison’s intervention prevented staff moving to the Deputy Prime Minister’s department and left staff facing an uncertain future as the broader sector braces for a shake-up, which Mr Morrison is expected to announce imminently.
Multiple sources have told the ABC that changes to senior leadership within the department have been canvassed.
The union representing public servants labelled Mr Morrison’s actions “unprecedented” but his office insisted his actions were designed to keep public servants’ focus on drought-affected communities.
The original decision to move the staff was made after May’s election; more than 100 public servants within the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources expected to be relocated to the Department of Infrastructure, the department that will oversee the Deputy Prime Minister’s national water grid.
But the ABC has seen an email sent from department secretary Daryl Quinlivan to staff, dated November 29, that said staff would now remain in the Agriculture Department due to the drought.
“As all who have an interest in water are aware, the Basin water systems, regional communities and water users are under extreme stress at present because of the drought,” the email reads.
“These conditions aren’t likely to change in the immediate future. The Government has therefore decided that while there were benefits in co-locating water and infrastructure policy functions, the continuity of our drought, water and industry policy work is more important at this time.”
It remains unclear how much money was spent on preparing to relocate staff to the Infrastructure Department.
Mr Morrison warned in August he wanted to bring greater accountability to the public sector, in a wide-ranging speech that signalled an overhaul loomed.
Some of those changes are expected to be unveiled imminently but, according to high-ranking sources within the political and departmental arms of the Government, they appear unlikely to include the creation of a single “Department of Water”.
Policies linked to water are overseen by five different ministers, including three of the National Party’s most senior figures.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack is tasked with building dams, while David Littleproud is the Water Minister and also responsible for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
Bridget McKenzie is linked to the policy through her role as Agriculture Minister and Liberal Sussan Ley, the Environment Minister, is in charge of the Commonwealth’s environmental water holdings.
“And if there’s fish in the water, that goes to Jonathon Duniam as the Assistant Minister for Fisheries,” a departmental staffer told the ABC as they sought to highlight the confusion in the chain of command.
Prior to the election, Mr Littleproud held both the water and agriculture portfolios.
Mr Quinlivan, who is contracted to lead the department until the middle of next year, thanked staff who worked on the thwarted relocation and insisted the Government remained committed to improving the nation’s water infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has demanded the Government explain “what is going on” after the relocation of staff was cancelled.
The CPSU said staff working in the water portfolio of the department were shocked, confused and stressed to learn their relocation to the Department of Infrastructure was cancelled last Friday.
“Senior department management even threw staff a going-away afternoon tea on Thursday. By this time water staff had been assigned new passes, and new IT equipment had been purchased in the Department of Infrastructure,” CPSU national vice-president Lisa Newman said.
“That’s why our members were so shocked to receive an email from the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture on Friday stating the move would not go ahead.”
The Governor-General had signed off on the Government’s initial request to relocate staff on December 1.
“This is a last-minute change of plans is truly unprecedented,” Ms Newman said.
“We now have a situation where over 120 staff are left in limbo between departments with no information from the Morrison Government about when or if another Administrative Arrangements Order will be issued to reverse the machinery of government change.”
The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed Mr Morrison’s intervention in the matter.
“The Government has decided to pause movements of staff for now to ensure no disruption whatsoever to the delivery of support and policy in the critical areas of drought and water management given the conditions many farmers and towns are currently battling,” a spokesperson said.
“Our focus is on ensuring Australians facing drought and water shortages are getting what they need.”