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In his own words: Why I threw hand grenade at govt and committed career suicide

Sacked Queensland State Archivist Mike Summerell has sparked an integrity crisis for the Palaszcuk government. Here, Summerell explains in his own words why he threw a hand grenade into state politics

Feb 04, 2022, updated Feb 04, 2022
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has spent the week defending her government's record on integrity issues. (Photo: AAP).

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has spent the week defending her government's record on integrity issues. (Photo: AAP).

So what did I mean by career suicide…..well obviously I have committed it in terms of ever working for the Queensland Government again, but I am sure I did that a long time ago.

What I meant…..

First of all let me be really clear: In Queensland there are hundreds of thousands of Queensland public servants doing amazing jobs day in day out for Queenslanders … much of what they do greatly under appreciated.

I met so many amazing people dedicated to serving the interests of the Queensland public in my 5 years in Queensland. I also met many amazing senior officials with exactly the same mind set. Dedicated senior public servants are the norm, they are not the exception.  There are also, I am sure, many Ministers and MP’s with the same mindset.

But there is a reality to working at a senior level in Government which is the issue when the public interest clashes with the political interest. If you are looking to do something that could be viewed negatively politically …. even it if is the public interest, the problem becomes significant.

For some public servants a problem like this never happens. In most cases the Ministers and senior officials have the same goal of doing the right thing … they want to serve the Queensland public to the best of their ability.

But it is when a matter arises where the “doing the right thing” is potentially damaging or embarrassing politically. The reality is those senior public servants seeking to do the right thing over the politically convenient have a significant dilemma.

Former State Archivist Mike Summerell has thrown a hand grenade at the state government. (Image: ABC)

In my former role as State Archivist I had amongst other things a significant integrity role. I considered I had a duty to ensure the ongoing integrity of the public record in Queensland.

I considered it a fundamental for democracy that the actions and decisions of public officials and the factors that led to or influenced those actions and decisions were transparent and fully recorded. Provided with the full information those officials are then appropriately accountable to the people they are elected or employed to serve.

I didn’t care what you did, as much as I cared that people know what you did and why. As a public servant you are a servant of the public, you are not a monarch or dictator free to do as you wish.

I believed then and still do that the integrity of the public record is an absolute fundamental for a working democracy. You must know what the people acting on your behalf are doing and why. If you don’t like what you see, you can vote them out at the ballot or hold them accountable to your MP.

Unfortunately, occasionally my role would bring into focus things which were embarrassing or inconvenient for the government of the day. For me there was no grey area, it was a question what is the public interest, specifically what is the right thing to do to ensure the integrity of the public record. You hope and expect that the “right thing” was simply the “right thing” and it would be done. That is a fundamental of the Queensland Public Service code of conduct.

The Public Sector Ethics Act 1994 states:

In recognition that public office involves a public trust, public service agencies, public sector entities and public officials seek to promote public confidence in the integrity of the public sector and –

a. are committed to the highest ethical standards;

b. accept and value their duty to provide advice which is objective, independent, apolitical and impartial;

c. show respect towards all persons, including employees, clients and the general public;

d. acknowledge the primacy of the public interest and undertake that any conflict of interest issue will be resolved or appropriately managed in favour of the public interest; and

e. are committed to honest, fair and respectful engagement with the community.”

I think that really makes it simple – you do the right thing for the public interest. You do not put political convenience above the public interest.

The reality for senior public servants in Queensland, however, is that isn’t how it works. If you are faced with situation that is “negative” to the government of the day, you have the dilemma – do the right thing and you put your career in jeopardy.

Many will try everything they possibly can to find a compromise – do the right thing, minimise the political damage. But they know if they cause political damage, there will be a potential consequence.

Most senior public servants in Queensland have 5 years contracts – more accurately 3 years with a prospect of renewal after 2 years – essentially if you are good boy or girl you keep your job. If not you are likely to pay – and that is a significant threat for anyone.

Unfortunately if you damage the government of the day, that is obviously not going to be viewed positively by the Minister or Government of the day or indeed positively by the public officials above you trying to ensure their own survival.

As a senior public servant you know that. “I have a mortgage, I have a career if I upset those above me, when my contract comes up to be renewed I am likely to pay the price. That is the reality they face.

In many cases that dilemma never arises, but occasionally it does and unfortunately it happened often to me from late 2017 onwards. I tried frequently to find that compromise the same as everyone else … do the right thing … minimise the political damage … find a way to do the right thing and keep your job.

Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I think may have compromised too much, but for me in the end I tended to put “doing the right thing” above the politically convenient, hence my “career suicide”.

I think and I hope I put the public interest above the political interests of the government of the day, when they were in conflict, but I also do think I paid the price for that ultimately.

For many public servants they face that same dilemma and some choose to put career, mortgage, their families etc etc above doing the right thing for the public interest. They don’t like it and they will try everything they can to find that compromise, but it is the dilemma that many face.

My job or the public interest? Some simply decide to play the long game, try to minimise the damage and wait them out, and hope that the next Minister or whoever is someone who puts the public interest above the political interest.

They need to be protected – truly protected. Public servants; certainly those in integrity positions –  but I think ultimately all public servants need to be able to undertake their roles in line with the public ethics stated above.

I am not saying they have they right to undermine elected officials – that isn’t how our government works, but where something is clearly against the public interest they need to be able to stand up and provide “frank and fearless advice” freely and without consequence.

If the Minister or whoever has been fully informed, it still remains their decision and rightly so, but a sugar coated version should not be what is presented simply as it is what a minister wants to hear. That simply is the “Emperor’s new clothes”.

So that is what I meant by career suicide. What do I think should happen? As stated, public servants need to be protected from this dilemma. They need to be able to give frank and fearless advice and not feel they many suffer the consequences if they give an opinion or advice that the government of the day will not like or is embarrassing to them. The 5 year contracts need to go for a starter.

Integrity officials need complete independence – operationally and financially. They cannot be “threatened” or impeded by those they are seeking to monitor. Democracy needs to have checks and balances when some are given significant power over others.

Has Queensland got a problem? Of course it has – have the Inquiry being demanded and let’s have the conversation and air these issues and come out the other side with a truly more effective democracy.

Stop saying there is nothing to see here – everyone knows there is, so stop putting the political interest above the public interest. Do the right thing.

This article was written by former State Archivist Mike Summerell and published this week on his LinkedIn page.

 

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