PRIME Minister Tony Abbott has deflected opposition questioning over the controversial sacking of Agriculture Department Secretary Paul Grimes.
Dr Grime’s appointment was terminated last week after his relationship with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce became untenable.
Mr Joyce announced Dr Grimes had agreed with a report made under the Public Service Act 1999 - from the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet - that a relationship of strong mutual confidence between the Secretary and Minister was “not a realistic prospect”.
Yesterday during question time in Canberra, Opposition leader Bill Shorten asked Mr Abbott to explain his statement the day before and why he recommended the Secretary’s sacking, despite not being privy to all of the issue’s details.
Mr Abbott said in the previous parliamentary sitting fortnight, his Department Secretary drew to his attention the existence of issues between the Agriculture Department Secretary and the Agriculture Minister.
“I asked my secretary to look into this matter,” he said. “My secretary did so. He made a recommendation to me and that recommendation has been acted upon.”
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has been pursuing Mr Joyce over allegations of improper changes to Hansard, made last October, and subsequent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Dr Grimes’ sacking came after he wrote a letter on March 2, requesting a special Committee meeting to extend Senate Estimates to clarify issues around the FOI request. However, the subsequent hearing failed to provide any new information that implicated Mr Joyce in the Hansard allegations.
Mr Shorten also asked Mr Abbott to clarify reports that the PM's department contacted Mr Grimes a number of times about his request to convene an extraordinary Senate committee hearing, “to reveal the circumstances and truth about changes to the Minister for Agriculture's Hansard record”.
“Did the PM personally instruct his department to communicate with Dr Grimes or anyone in his office?” Mr Shorten asked.
Mr Abbott replied, “This matter was handled entirely by the secretary of my department; as it should be”.
Earlier in the day, Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor was calling upon the government to give a fuller and detailed explanation, as to why it was necessary to dismiss Dr Grimes.
He said the explanation was needed, “particularly given the Agriculture Minister in recent days has said he has a very good working relationship with the Department and has never had an angry word with Dr Grimes”.
Mr Fitzgibbon said “a whole range of questions remain” around the Minister’s decision to change Hansard, including why it took three Parliamentary questions and two FOI requests and a “counselling session” from Dr Grimes.
“These are important questions that go to public confidence in our Parliamentary and democratic system,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon questioned Mr Joyce during another boisterous question time session on Tuesday asking him to explain whether his “irreconcilable conflict” with Dr Grimes was related to his handling of the Hansard corrections.
However, Mr Joyce said he’d uncovered “further documents to assist the Member for Hunter” in his search for answers, including a media article relating to his resignation as Defence Minister in 2009, for breaching the ministerial code of conduct.
“I think the best article is by the ABC,” Mr Joyce said.
“The Member for Hunter said ‘I have at least two or three Judases in my midst and they have the grip on me’.
“So the question really needs to be who are the Judases on that side and who is the drip?”
Mr Shorten also asked the PM to advise the House what reasons he gave to the Governor-General for Dr Grime’s dismissal, as required under the Public Service Act.
Mr Abbott read the statement released by Mr Joyce’s office last Friday following the abrupt sacking.
“There's no question of wrongdoing by anyone here; simply the absence of the relationship necessary between a Minister and a departmental secretary,” Mr Abbott 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.
Sources have said that Mr Metcalfe had impressed during his time at the helm due to his result-driven focus for the department and agricultural industry, while Dr Grimes had a more bureaucratic style.
In a letter to staff last week, Dr Grimes said he was naturally disappointed to be leaving the Department but “I fully accept this decision”.
“In particular, I have agreed that the Minister would be better supported at this time by a new Secretary with a different background and set of policy skills,” he wrote.
“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.”
Phillip Glyde will be acting as Secretary until a new Secretary is appointed.