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News & Trends - Pharmaceuticals

Department of Health rewarded despite law breach: Integrity crisis in public sector exposed

Health Industry Hub | June 28, 2024 |

A damning report on the state of ethics and integrity in the Australian public sector has revealed widespread non-compliance with legal and regulatory standards.

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit Committee Chair, Julian Hill MP, underscored the gravity of the findings, emphasising, “Complying with the letter of the law while ignoring the intent does not cut it.”

“Too often the public sector is falling short of the high standards of professionalism required of it. Risk tolerance for non-compliance is unacceptably high and ‘getting things done’, even if it involves cutting corners, has sometimes become more important than complying with the law.

“In particular, it was concerning to hear during the inquiry that even when officials were found acting contrary to finance law, multiple witnesses and entities referred to a ‘lack of malintent’, to having ‘acted in good faith’, and ‘delivering on decisions of government’. This is plainly and unambiguously wrong.” Mr Hill stated.

Despite breaches of finance laws in the Department of Health’s handling of former Health Minister Greg Hunt’s hospital grants project, government officials received corporate ‘Congestion busting’ awards. This included expenditures made without legislative authority, blatantly disregarding legal advice.

The Committee has therefore recommended that the Secretary of the Department of Health and Aged Care, Blair Comley, formally reviews the appropriateness of the ‘congestion busting’ awards in light of the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report, and considers whether the awards for this project should be revoked, in particular from senior officers involved.

Mr Hill expressed dismay over the frequency of such breaches, stating, “The Committee has observed over many years, including through this inquiry, a pattern of persistent resistance to accountability across the public sector.”

The report also highlighted a persistent lack of accountability mechanisms across government agencies, with inadequate frameworks to ensure adherence to both the letter and spirit of the law.

To address these issues, the Committee outlined eleven recommendations aimed at reinforcing probity and ethics within the public sector. These include developing comprehensive Integrity Frameworks and enhancing the Australian Public Service Commission’s role in defining and measuring organisational culture as it pertains to probity.

“The key, however, to ensuring the public sector acts with probity and integrity is overwhelmingly not the rules per se – it is ethical leadership: the ‘golden thread’ that binds and animates the system in a positive direction. Ethical leadership must be demonstrated at all levels, especially by accountable authorities and senior officers,” Mr Hill emphasised.

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