On May 27, 2004 Labor Senator Kerry O'Brien gained a rare acknowledgment from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone.
The scene was a Senates Estimates Committee hearing. O'Brien was asking how in the Commonwealth's new arrangements for the administration of Aboriginal Affairs, ATSIC and ATSIS staff would be "mapped" to mainstream agencies, including the new Office of Indigenous Policy Co-ordination.
O'Brien asked if he was correct in his understanding that the Howard Government's criticism of ATSIC "... does not extend to its staff or to ATSIS staff - that there is no criticism of the performance of the staff in this challenging area of public policy and program delivery?" Vanstone was direct.
"The government's view in relation to ATSIC is, as a whole, certainly not directed to the staff," she replied. "It is a question of the structure and whether the structure was ever able to deliver the hopes people had for it."
O'Brien could not recall any "... such acknowledgement before". "I suppose staff can take that as an acknowledgment now," he observed. He then asked: "How has staff morale been affected by these proposed changes?"
The question also drew a glib concession from agency head Wayne Gibbons. "Staff morale has been affected," Gibbons conceded. "Anything that draws a cloud over job security for staff has that impact. As long as that uncertainty remains, morale is low," he added.
Gibbons admitted the agency would still have a problem with morale until "... we have reached the end of the mapping exercise and staff are assigned to their new functions and are in the new organisations". This, he said, was understandable.
Gibbons was less forthcoming when asked a more direct question a few moments later by Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett. The key to staff morale, he said, was to "... clarify where they are going and get them focused on the new activities as quickly as possible".
"Has it been made clear," Bartlett asked, "that when it is said that ATSIC has failed it did not reflect any dissatisfaction with the staff?"
Gibbons replied: "In the many meetings with staff that I have had and that my senior managers have had we have been very careful to draw a distinction between their role as public servants administering programs in accordance with policies and rules determined by the board, or the government or ATSIC."
Gibbons might have changed his rhetoric by May 2004, but I distinctly recall when he came into ATSIC in late 2003 he left no-one in any doubt he considered it a second rate organisation. I don't recall any qualification or distinction. He was there to shake the joint out: and shake it out he would.
The question of staff morale has never again been raised in Senate Estimates, either with him or his disaster-prone Minister. More's the pity. There's a story there ... and it isn't pretty.
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