Friday, September 27, 2013

An extraordinarily slack bureaucracy

Not too surprising from a bureaucracy that dates from 1944.  It's had a lot of time to decay

His mornings were reserved for royal correspondence.

His leave was timed for the British royal wedding.

Yet very few questioned why a 'Tahitian prince', who lived an extravagant lifestyle full of fast cars and beautiful people [adjectives which can be swapped] and would often slash HRH on the bottom of letters, was working at a Queensland government department.

His success, a Crime and Misconduct Commission report into fraud and accountability in the Queensland public service seemed to suggest, was the product of apathetic colleagues, disregard for policy and haphazard investigations.

He didn't just raise red flags; he cloaked himself with them and dropped them throughout Queensland Health.

Barlow pulled off Queensland's single largest fraud, stealing $16.69 million over four years, because those around him weren't doing their jobs.

A CMC report, released nearly two years after Barlow was arrested, found systemic failures allowed the flamboyant New Zealand expat to make 65 fraudulent transactions, transferring Queensland Health grant money to a company he had set up and entered into the grants system.

Despite an anonymous complaint accusing Barlow of defrauding the department being sent to the CMC in 2010, a substantiated misuse claim, a criminal history and outstanding warrant in New Zealand, a work history which included irregular hours, questionable reasons for sick leave, concerns over his corporate credit card use and a failure to deliver on projects, Barlow was not only allowed to skate by, he was promoted.

Staff continued to complain about Barlow's work – the poor quality briefing notes he produced, his constant absences from work, his irregular hours, his bullying (which included making staff members cry on a regular basis), his inability to meet project deadlines, his tardiness because he was waiting on tradesmen or having a personal training session – but “everyone seemed to laugh it off because 'it was Ho'”.

Barlow told the CMC he had no idea how much money he had defrauded through his fake grants scheme. He simply took more money when he needed it, which, given his Bollinger lifestyle and the gifts he spread around to friends, family, colleagues and managers, was often.

On December 8, 2011, a finance officer was trying to work out why the Community Service Purchasing [Barlow's team] budget would not balance.

He uncovered a $11 million payment made to Healthy Initiatives and Choices from the Minister's Grants in Aid program. Barlow's luck had finally deserted him, although he would later claim to the CMC that he had had decided it was time to be caught “tired of living a double [life]...[being] His Royal Highness”.

The officer not only queried the grant with a superior officer, he performed a company search on HIC through the Australian Business Register and found it was registered to Barlow.

Barlow wandered into work about lunchtime. He saw that his superior was missing from a scheduled meeting and noticed his electronic access had been blocked and his work phone had been wiped.

He told his assistant he was popping out for a bite to eat and never came back. He was arrested four days later and charged; in March this year he was sentenced to 14 years in jail. He will become eligible for parole in December 2016.

But his spectre still haunts Queensland Health.

Having ignored Barlow's brazenness, or just failed to carry out the proper checks and balances which had been put in place to stop the misuse of public funds resulted in 45 allegations against 11 Queensland Health employees, including Barlow.

Twenty-four allegations against nine officers, including the man at the centre of the storm were substantiated by the CMC – failing to follow procedure, failing to act as managers and failing to comply with policy meant one officer was sacked, another moved out of the department, while others became the subject of disciplinary action, including retraining.

The CMC has suggested the Public Service Commission review its guideline on gift giving – gifts coming from outside the service are monitored but gifts given by employees to colleagues are not.

High value gifts particularly if they flow from an employee to a manager, should be noted, says the CMC.

Tea cakes and flowers remain safe, but Barlow's generosity with colleagues included airfares, expensive bottles of vintage champagne and platinum sporting tickets.

“It is reasonable to assume in those sort of circumstances that that sort of gift giving could compromise a manager's ability to act objectively and energetically,” CMC Assistant Commissioner Kathleen Florian told the media.

Like all CMC officers, Ms Florian is not comfortable in front of the media.

She presented the findings of the watchdog's report with the monotone senior public servants across the world master early.

But with each revelation – the fake crown Barlow had bought to give credence to his story, the trust fund which suddenly “kicked in” to explain the multi-million dollar river-front apartment and corresponding lifestyle at the same time Barlow became increasingly protective and territorial over grant paperwork, the complaints which were made and haphazardly investigated, the different names, the poor work performance, the permission to take mornings off to attend to royal correspondence – having now been laid out in black and white, even Ms Florian had to offer an exasperated smile.

“Looking at it all on paper and analysing further the four year period, it does seem extraordinary that this fraudulent activity was not identified earlier,” Ms Florian said.

Not just extraordinary – an “appalling, sad indictment” of the public service under the previous Labor government, says the man who was put in charge of cleaning up the mess, LNP Health Minister, Lawrence Springborg.

“It is a black stain against the former Labor administration in Queensland,” he said.

Mr Springborg said things have changed. Criminal background checks for employees – even temporary ones – now extend to New Zealand. Three people are required to sign for any payment over $100,000, while grants have been reduced, with service agreements taking their place.

Employees have been reminded of policy procedure which has been tightened, while Mr Springborg said a culture of accountability is slowly being introduced.

He said that would mean promotions would occur on merit, not (as seemingly in Barlow's case) through length of service, confusion and a lack of ideas of what else to do with such a frustrating employee.

“Everyone would be amazed, shocked and saddened by a set of circumstances where someone who had been so poor at work, had to be disciplined and had actually threatened their subordinates, could get away with those sorts of things for so long and was able to work his way up the food chain,” Mr Springborg said.

“The warning signs were there, but they were never picked up, they were never picked up and it had been escalated to a fairly high area.”

But Mr Springborg can't guarantee it will never happen again.

“What we've got are better systems, better processes, better structures which are giving more accountability for the people of Queensland and I think people can have more confidence,” he said.

“No one can ever give guarantees, but if you have a good process and someone's found a way around the good process, then it is different than having no process at all.”

But perhaps Barlow summed it up best during his confession to investigating officers.

“A simple ABN search would have stopped this in the beginning,” he said.


Anthony Albanese is an 'intellectual lightweight': Mark Latham

Labor may be insisting that its days of personal attacks and bitter infighting over leadership are behind it, but it appears Mark Latham did not get the memo.

The former Labor leader and perennial heckler has launched a withering attack on wannabe leader, Anthony Albanese, calling him an "intellectual lightweight" and arguing that Labor needed to vote ABA - or "anyone but Albo".

In the wake of Labor's election loss earlier this month, Labor MPs have widely concurred that Labor needs to stop talking about itself, while Mr Albanese and Bill Shorten have so far been at pains to conduct a leadership contest that is free from the nastiness that characterised the Rudd and Gillard years.

But Mr Latham has broken the self-imposed detente in a column in the Australian Financial Review on Thursday, writing that "the caucus has deluded itself into thinking if everyone is nice to each other [for a couple of weeks] the big issues will go away".

The former member for Werriwa, who took Labor to the 2004 federal election before resigning in January 2005, said that instead of seeking a mandate for major policy and organisational change, Mr Shorten and Mr Albanese have been "paralysed by conservatism".

"So far, the leadership contest between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese has resembled a Nimbin MardiGrass festival, spaced out on mutual love and unreality."

Mr Albanese and Mr Shorten are currently campaigning for the Labor leadership under a new system where Labor members as well as the caucus get a vote.

On Thursday, Mr Shorten suggested he was likely to win the caucus vote but would not predict how the membership vote - where Mr Albanese is favoured - would turn out.

"I don't know how anyone could predict the outcome of the ballot for the membership of the party," Mr Shorten told ABC Radio.

"We'll have to see how the caucus members vote. A majority of them have indicated to me that they support me but this is a process also involving party members."

After criticising the campaign so far, Mr Latham goes on to tear strips off Mr Albanese in his column, arguing that when the former deputy prime minister launched his campaign in Sydney last week, he "gave one of the worst speeches in recent Labor history".

"It was a throwback to the 1960s, a narrow, insular pitch to the party's ever-shrinking industrial base. He had nothing to say about fiscal policy or boat people drownings. Other than in his transport portfolio, it is clear Albanese has not thought in any depth about public policy. He's an intellectual lightweight," Mr Latham writes.

The former Labor leader - who has previously labelled Mr Rudd a "once-in-a-century egomaniac" - went on to declare that Mr Albanese has been wrong on "every significant issue over the past decade".

"In effect, Albanese's political instincts are terrible. If he wins next month's leadership ballot, he will be a case study in inner-city, left-wing bunkum. His close links to [former NSW MP Ian] Macdonald will be electoral suicide for Labor."

"The caucus and party membership have no choice but to vote ABA: Anyone But Albo."

When contacted by Fairfax Media about Mr Latham's column, Mr Albanese's office had no comment.

But Mr Albanese responded via Twitter, posting: "So [union leader] Joe de Bruyn thinks I'm "rabid" on sexuality issues and Mark Latham thinks I don't have Leadership skills ........"

In the aftermath of the 2013 election, Mr Latham said that former attorney-general Mark Dreyfus should be Labor leader, arguing the party needed someone who had had a "real life outside of politics".

"If you took that logical, objective criteria, there's only one person who could possibly match it and that's Mark Dreyfus, the outgoing Attorney-General," he told ABC Radio.

"Now, [Mr Dreyfus] won't be running for the Labor leadership because he's not part of the gang. That's the sad thing about Labor Party - that objectively the person who could present a new face, a new outlook, won't even be thought of. We're going to go back to, what, Shorten: union, union, union. Or Albanese: warlord, warlord, warlord."

The membership vote closes on October 9 at 5 pm. The Labor caucus will then meet on October 10 for its vote, before the result is announced on October 13.


Coal seam gas opponents 'anarchists', says minister

The Federal Minister for Resources, Mr Ian Macfarlane, has slammed as "anarchists" some of the opponents to coal seam gas projects in NSW.  "They are anarchists, they don't respect people's property, they don't respect people's rights. They don't respect the law of the land.  "They go out deliberately to break the law."

The minister said he does not oppose people demonstrating but any opponents but they must respect the law, he said.

"If they try to spit on a state's MLA I think that is anarchy.

"If they go onto a farmer's property and trespass and won't remove themselves when asked I think that is anarchy.

"If they do not accept the science that (Professor) Mary (O'Kane, the NSW Chief Scientist) comes up with, if they don't accept the policy and they don't accept the law of the land, that's anarchy."

The newly installed resources minister is to visit the Northern Rivers district of NSW early next week, he said and he expects to encounter some of the opponents to the coal seam gas industry during that visit.

Mr Macfarlane was addressing an energy summit being held in Sydney in the wake of surging gas and electricity prices following restrictions to developing of the gas industry in NSW.


'Clean-eating' celebrity diet fad hits raw nerve

A GROWING number of young women across the country are embracing the latest "clean-eating" diet focused on raw, organic, vegan and abstract ingredients such as bee pollen.

However, the head of the federal government's dietary guidelines committee has warned that the latest dieting craze could have long-term health affects.

The clean-eating diet, boasting celebrity endorsement by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman, promotes the use of unprocessed and uncooked whole foods.

Amanda Lee said yesterday the fad, which has been embraced by young women seeking weight loss, could affect childbearing and lead to health problems in later years. While there was no consensus on what clean eating was among the different guidelines set by diet programs, most promoted no processed and refined foods, meat or dairy. "I worry mostly about the lack of food groups," Professor Lee said.

"It's definitely not good for health in the long term and if women are going to have babies they need to have a good source of calcium and iron.

"It worries me that something that is potentially harmful could become so fashionable."

There was no scientific evidence that organic food, which comes at a premium price, was better for your health, she said.

"People who eat organic food should only do it because of their concern for the environment," Professor Lee said.

Hayley Richards, 25, a student nutritionist and owner of Raw Karma vegan catering company, said the decision to "go clean" was a lifestyle choice and not a fad.

She said it was important that people following a clean-eating diet did their research to understand what they needed to eat to meet their nutritional needs.

"For me, it's about being as natural as possible with everything," Ms Richards said.

"It's not about just eating a salad for lunch -- you have to eat a lot of plant-based products so you can get what you need nutritionally. As a population we're over-eating, but we're not eating the right foods."

The National Health and Medical Research Council released updated dietary guidelines in February with a new focus on the obesity epidemic gripping the country.

They recommend men eat less meat and all Australians cut back on white bread, high-fat milk, soft drinks and takeaway food.


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