AMBIGUITY clouds the controversial and abrupt departure last week of Dr Paul Grimes as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture.
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce announced in a statement last Friday that Dr Grimes will “step down” as Secretary - but in a letter to staff the outgoing department head said his appointment had been "terminated".
Despite the contradiction, Dr Grimes conceded the Agriculture Minister would be “better supported” by the appointment of another Secretary.
“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.
“Phillip Glyde will be acting as secretary until a new secretary is appointed. I have enormously enjoyed my time working with you over the past 18 months."
Mr Joyce said the decision followed 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 myself 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."
An inevitable parting
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon predicted Dr Grime’s exit to Fairfax Agricultural Media last week.
It came after tensions between the Minister and department head piqued when an unprecedented Senate Estimates hearing was held the week before 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.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he understood the relationship had completely “broken down” between Dr Grimes and Mr Joyce.
On Friday, he 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.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Dr Grimes was also “intimidated” into pulling back on the evidence he gave at last week’s special Senate Estimates hearing in Canberra.
“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.
Mr Joyce told Fairfax Agricultural Media he’d never had an acrimonious or elevated discussion with Dr Grimes.
“I accept what he has said that, in all relationships, sometimes different people with different skill-sets may be competent with those skill sets, but sometimes they don’t match,” he said.
“I’m certain Dr Grimes will go on and do bigger and better things, in other fields.
“And for me, the first thing is when people talk about a relationship not working perfectly, the best thing to say is nothing.”
Mr Joyce said he had a good working relationship with his department which was “no better reflected than with the deputy secretary” Mr Glyde who was appointed acting Secretary.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do (and) the main thing is not to miss a beat with the work we’ve got to do,” he said.
“The Department hasn’t missed a beat and neither I nor Dr Grimes would want it to.
“We want the Department’s work to continue on because this is not about us; it’s about the people in agriculture, who we represent.”
Mr Joyce also challenged Mr Fitzgibbon to disclose any actual information he had on the Hansard allegations.
“Joel – if you know something that no one else knows, put it on record and say it for God’s sake,” he said.
“Otherwise admit your actions are destructive and pointless and purely political.
“It’s so annoying and it doesn’t matter how many times or ways I’ve tried to tell Joel Fitzgibbon that I had no knowledge of them (staff members) changing the Hansard.
“The only action I took was to correct the record and change it back but it remains a fascination of Mr Fitzgibbon - and at times I think it’s the only contribution he’s ever going to make to agriculture.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Tony Abbott should be sacking Minister Joyce, “not the respected Dr Grimes”.
Strained from the start
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.
Tensions have also flared between Mr Fitzgibbon and Senator Heffernan over the Hansard saga.
On Friday, Mr Fitzgibbon accused Senator Heffernan of trying to intimidate him via a phone call to his media liaison officer Natasa Sikman the previous evening.
He alleged Senator Heffernan called Ms Sikman, claiming he was “the devil”, and wanted to discuss the Shadow Minister’s Hansard claims.
Senator Heffernan also caused controversy during the 17-day period negotiating the balance of power after the 2010 federal election when he called Independent MP Rob Oakeshott and also claimed to be “the devil”.
But Mr Oakeshott’s wife answered the phone and hung up, which led to a complaint about potential intimidation during the delicate negotiations.
However, Senator Heffernan later claimed the reference to being “the devil” was a standard joke he made when phoning people.
He is also known to answer the phone claiming to be the “Junee Correctional Centre” which is a reference to the facility in his home town, in rural NSW.
But Mr Fitzgibbon said Senator Heffernan’s reputation for being the Liberal party’s “Mad Uncle” carried a double standard.
“If I did some of the things that he (Senator Heffernan) gets away with - or even said some of the things Barnaby Joyce says and gets away with - I’d have to resign,” he said.
Senator Heffernan said he generally had a good rapport with Mr Fitzgibbon but the Labor MP’s interpretation of the phone call to his staffer was “nonsense”, and that he was only passing on the facts about Hansard corrections and how Labor had also been responsible for making significant changes to official records.
He said he told Mr Fitzgibbon “this is a bullshit process” but stricter procedures around Hansard processes may come out of it.
“I said I was ‘the devil’ calling from the ‘Junee Correctional Centre’,” he said.
“It was just a joke and that’s all. I’m not into threatening people; but I don’t mind a bit of fun.”
A respected public servant
Labor MP and former Agriculture Minister Tony Burke issued a statement on Friday acknowledging Dr Grimes’ departure.
“I worked closely with Paul during my time as Minister for the Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities,” he said.
"In every dealing I had with Paul he was the epitome of the frank and fearless public servant. Paul’s advice was without exception thoughtful, incisive and unashamedly independent.
“His departure is a significant loss to the Australian Public Service.”
Labor Senator Penny Wong said the sacking of Dr Grimes was “absolutely appalling”.
She said a respected public servant appeared to have been sacked because he “didn’t want to join in the cover-up that his Minister was engaging in in terms of the changes to what was said in Parliament.”
“What this demonstrates yet again is this government is prepared to go after anybody and any measure of accountability that they see as standing in its way,” she said.
“I think it is outrageous and I think Australians look very unkindly on this sort of behaviour, and I certainly think this is a matter the Parliament should be pursuing.”
Dr Grimes and the Department have declined to comment to Fairfax Agricultural Media.