FEDERAL Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has announced that Dr Paul Grimes will step down as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture.
Mr Joyce said the decision follows a report under the Public Service Act 1999 from the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, with which Dr Grimes agreed, that a relationship of strong mutual confidence between the Secretary and Mr Joyce was not a realistic prospect.
"I would like to acknowledge the longstanding contribution of Dr Grimes to public administration in this country at the Commonwealth, State and Territory levels," he said.
"I thank Dr Grimes for his work in my department and wish him well in his future endeavours.
"Arrangements for the position of Secretary will be announced in due course. In the interim, an experienced Deputy Secretary from the Department, Mr Phillip Glyde, will continue to act as Secretary."
Shadow Agricultural Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said on Wednesday that he understood Dr Grimes had taken leave following a controversial Senate Estimates hearing the previous week, and would not be returning.
“Now it's only a matter of determining how he (Dr Grimes) goes,” Mr Fitzgibbon said at the time.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he also understood the relationship had completely “broken down” between the Department Secretary head and Mr Joyce.
Tensions between the minister and department head peaked when an unprecedented Senate Estimates hearing was held last week to address Dr Grime’s concerns about the processing of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
The FOI centred on Mr Fitzgibbon’s ongoing allegations that Mr Joyce misled parliament over Hansard corrections from October last year, relating to drought support for farmers.
Today, Mr Fitzgibbon said Dr Grimes deserved credit for standing up to “the unprincipled practices of his Minister” for which he had “paid the price”.
“Paul Grimes was left with no choice but to confront his minister about the Hansard controversy and the way he (Barnaby Joyce) has drawn his departmental officers into the charade,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“Dr Grimes did the right thing and stood up to protect the integrity of his officers and paid the ultimate price.
“And all this took place in an attempt to cover up firstly the doctoring of the Hansard but later potentially, at least, Barnaby Joyce’s involvement in it and if so his possible misleading of the parliament.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Dr Grimes was also “intimidated” into pulling back on evidence he gave at last week’s special Senate Estimates hearing in Canberra.
He said that alleged intimidation also included senior Coalition Minister Eric Abetz appearing to face the Committee alongside departmental officers, in place of Tasmanian Senator Richard Colbeck to represent the Minister for Agriculture.
“We also know that the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s department was constantly ringing Dr Grimes after sending his letter to (NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan) asking to reconvene the Committee,” he said.
“Outside the glare of the committee, Dr Grimes may have left something behind, in answers to questions on notice, that the minister has every right to be concerned about.”
A request for comment and clarification on the contact with Dr Grimes ahead of the Committee meeting last week has been sent to Mr Abbott’s office.
Dr Grimes opened the special estimates hearing last week with a brief statement saying he hoped the forum would provide a good opportunity to put several matters to rest on the FOI request.
He said there was “no question” errors occurred within his Department about how it assisted the minister’s office in processing an FOI request, directed to the Agriculture Minister.
“On all the facts that I am aware of, the officers concerned have acted to the best of their ability in good faith,” he said.
“They are all good public servants - in fact, they are excellent public servants - who have big futures ahead of them serving the government of the day.”
Dr Grimes said, unlike some Departments, the Agriculture Department did not have the experience of managing a significant volume of FOI requests, “addressed solely and directly to the Minister”.
“It is in this specific area that errors have occurred and improvements will need to be made to our systems so that they function more effectively in the future,” he said.
It’s understood tensions between Dr Grimes and Mr Joyce have been strained since he was first appointed to replace Andrew Metcalfe shortly after the 2013 federal election. Mr Joyce only learned of the snap move, after it was announced by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Dr Grimes was formerly Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Secretary and is understood to clash with Mr Joyce over key philosophical views, on environmental issues.
During last week’s hearing, Senator Heffernan said in his view, the Department Secretary addressing a letter on Committee business to individuals, rather than the Chair and Secretariat, without the Minister’s knowledge, was “a step over”.
Dr Grimes said, “I would note that, Chair”.
Senator Heffernan also said, “as a person from down in the bush, I think this is a bullshit process”.
“This is a storm in a teacup - all human endeavour includes mistakes,” he said.
“I do not know what the political game is but I am amazed that this has blown into some sort of an episode.”
Senator Heffernan said he’d also gathered “reams” of examples in the last three weeks of Hansard changes, including whole paragraphs being changed, which “may be a wake-up call to everyone”.
“I do not think we should particularly go there,” he said.
“I think everyone has the message.”
Last week, Mr Joyce rejected suggestions he and Dr Grimes were experiencing conflict, given the unusual nature of the additional Senate Estimates hearing.
“I have a very professional relationship (and) I’ve never ever been in a discussion with Mr Grimes where we have even so much as raised our voices,” he said.
Mr Joyce has been contacted for further comment by Fairfax Agricultural Media.
Dr Grimes and the Department have also declined to comment.