Former Agriculture Department Secretary Dr Paul Grimes (left) at the specially convened senate estimates hearing in March last year shortly before his sacking, alongside former Liberal Minister Eric Abetz.SHADOW Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon is maintaining heat on Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce to come clean on unanswered questions over the controversial axing of Agriculture Department head Dr Paul Grimes last year.
Mr Fitzgibbon wants a letter released that’s linked to Dr Grime’s sacking and allegations the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister misled parliament over hansard changes in October 2014 when answering a drought support question.
The Shadow Minister said the actual content of Dr Grime’s letter was unknown but he understood it contained “character assessment” of the minister’s actions during the altering of an official hansard record that reflects on the integrity of the Department and parliament.
The letter has been subject to a Freedom of Information request that the Department initially rejected but an appeal to the Australian Information Commissioner agreed it could be released.
However, earlier this month the Department revealed it had now applied to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to review decisions made by the Information Commissioner regarding departmental FOI decisions, to refuse access to a document.
A spokesperson said the matter would now be considered by the Tribunal – which may be after the pending election – and the Department had no further comment on the matter.
Mr Fitzgibbon said Mr Joyce had “done everything in his powers” to prevent the document’s release including “running interference” in Senate estimates hearings and taking legal action to keep it private.
But he said the only conclusion to be drawn from that ongoing resistance to release of the letter was that the minister “had something to hide”.
In addition to Dr Grime’s “character assessment” of Mr Joyce, he said the correspondence was potentially the “smoking gun” which proved the house was misled in October 2014.
“If Barnaby Joyce hasn’t misled the house and stands by his claims he can easily clarify the situation by releasing the letter,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said his political rival “deliberately embellished” his answer to a question he asked about drought support measures in October 2014 and then “substantially amended” the hansard record, or allowed a staff member to amend it, with his knowledge, then denied doing that in the parliament.
“The crux of the issue here is that a very senior and respected public servant lost his job over the affair and there’s a letter that Barnaby Joyce instructed to be deleted from the system,” he said.
”The letter should be released in the public interest which might clarify exactly what went on with this whole Hansard-gate affair.”
At Senate estimates in October 2015, former senior Department officer Phillip Glyde said he understood the email was deleted at Dr Grimes’ request.
But Mr Fitzgibbon said the letter was a public document that should not be allowed to be expunged from the government’s records.
He has also called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to uphold the government’s ministerial standards by releasing the letter for public scrutiny.
“Barnaby Joyce is now deputy Prime Minister of the country and I think even higher standards apply to him but this thing could very quickly be put to rest by a simple release of the letter,” he said.
Dr Grimes was transferred to the Agriculture Department after being head of the Environment and Water Department following the shock sacking of Andrew Metcalfe by the new Abbott administration, despite his strong performance after only nine months in the job, shortly after the 2013 federal election.
However, Dr Grimes experienced a strained relationship with the minister mostly over policy priorities and implementation.
Before his shock departure in March last year, Dr Grimes called a special additional hearing of Senate estimates where it was foreshadowed he was set to make controversial revelations relating to the hansard saga.
But no such accusations eventuated and the hearing largely focussed on ways of improving FOI handing processes between the Department and the minister’s office.
A week later, Mr Joyce announced that, following a public service review, Dr Grimes would step down as Department Secretary and had agreed a relationship of strong mutual confidence between the pair “was not a realistic prospect”.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the sacking cost the Australian taxpayers $700,000 and has also expressed concerns people were “spreading the word” that Dr Grimes was facing mental health challenges, at the time.
“I have no reason to believe Dr Grimes was suffering mental health challenges but even if he was, to use that in the context of this rather robust debate is well and truly below the belt,” he said.
In an email to Department staff following his sacking, Dr Grimes said he agreed the Minister would be better supported “at this time” by a new Secretary with a different background and set of policy skills.
“After failing to properly take care of my work and private life balance over recent years I am planning to take time off on leave for the next few months,” he said.
At the extra Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee hearing requested by Dr Grimes last year, Chair and NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan said “I think this is a bullshit process”.
“This is a storm in a teacup – all human endeavour includes mistakes,” he said.
Senator Heffernan said he’d also gathered “reams” of examples of hansard changes, including whole paragraphs being changed, which “may be a wake-up call to everyone”.
At the time, Mr Joyce said the actions taken by Mr Fitzgibbon to pursue accusations of impropriety around Hansard changes had amounted to “nothing”.
“He talks about it as if it’s Watergate; he talks about it as if it’s the extra gunman from the grassy knoll; he talks about it as if it’s the riddle of the enigma machine,” he said.
“And then after the issue has been dealt with in the chamber, has been talked about during senate estimates, has been investigated by the speaker of the house and has an extra senate inquiry today – what have we got? Nothing.
“I don’t know what on earth the member for Hunter is banging on about.
“And I’ve come to the conclusion that the member for Hunter doesn’t know what the member for Hunter is banging on about.”
Former Deputy Secretary Phillip Glyde told Senate estimates last year the Department had admitted it had not handled an FOI request on the issue that was directed to the minister rather than to the department, very well, which led to a review and subsequent procedural changes based on its recommendations.
But Mr Fitzgibbon said if the letter wasn’t released “I’ll pursue to the highest court in the land” and would “secure it one way or the other”.
“You would think that politicians would have learned by now that the cover-up is always worse than the crime,” he said.
“We don’t know exactly what is in that letter, but we do know that the Prime Minister and the now Deputy Prime Minister have been very determined that we never see that letter.
“If Barnaby Joyce misled the House of Representatives deliberately he is in contempt of the Parliament.
“Now if there’s nothing to fear from the letter, why not simply release it?
“There’s a very real possibility that the letter reveals the minister’s involvement in the amendment of hansard.”
Dr Grimes has declined to comment on the matter.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.