Halton proves her mettle in marathon grilling

Verona Burgess
Canberra Times
Saturday, 3 August 2002

HAS anyone learnt any lessons from the children overboard affair? Jane Halton has, according to Tuesday's hearing (supposed to be the last) of the Senate inquiry.

Ms Halton, former chairwoman of the Prime Minister's people-smuggling task force and now Secretary at Health, spent about seven hours giving evidence.

A slightly lonely figure at times, the abiding impression she left at the end of the day was one of sheer guts, for a start; stamina, courage, fearlessness, caution and ruthlessness; a ready wit, an ability to reach agreement without rancour. She exhibited many of the characteristics which tend to distinguish Secretaries from the rest.

A key difference between Labor Senator John Faulkner and some of his colleagues is that when it comes to public servants he plays the issue and not the person unless severely provoked.

Ms Halton did not exactly provoke him, but she certainly marked out her territory. It was a marathon battle of wits. Politicians don't come tougher than Senator Faulkner and public servants, apparently, don't come tougher than Ms Halton.

Some progress was made from the Labor point of view in regard to highlighting differences between her evidence and that of three others, including her former first assistant secretary in Prime Minister and Cabinet, Katrina Edwards. But, of course, Ms Halton didn't concede a millimetre.

No further light was shed on why Prime Minister John Howard thought the SIEV X had sunk in Indonesian waters.

There was evidence of no love lost between Ms Halton and then Defence minister Peter Reith, who had rung her several times about the unloading of the Manoora and Adelaide. As for lessons learnt:

Senator Faulkner: I have one last question very briefly, Ms Halton. Do you take any lessons from this whole episode as, at the time, a very senior officer of the Commonwealth but now as the Secretary of a very large department? Have any of the experiences been valuable from that point of view?

Ms Halton: Invaluable, senator. It is fair to say that I and the senior officers in the department have had a number of lengthy conversations about the lessons to be learned here about documentation, about the role of advisers and a number of other lessons. Indeed, I have written to the senior executive in my current department about standards in relation to record keeping and a number of other issues, for precisely those reasons. I think you know that my current department has a bit of a history of issues in relation to record keeping, and I have been very minded to reinforce with them what I think are some of the issues. I have been able to speak from personal experience about the circumstances in which one may be if one finds oneself involved in an issue which at the time does not look particularly important but which in retrospect becomes an issue of some controversy and some public interest. It is fair to say that we have an SES planning day tomorrow for all of the officers in my department, and one of the things I am going to say in my prepared notes the first thing tomorrow morning goes to these issues.

Senator Faulkner: Very briefly, what would you say in relation to the first issue, record keeping? Have you gone further than just identifying its importance and significance? I am sure we would all understand that, but have you gone any further and looked at how that might be improved in terms of your experiences from this issue?

Ms Halton: I have told my senior officers that, in the next round of performance agreements, issues about attention to record keeping and keeping a proper trail in relation to particular decisions will be things that people are assessed against. We have talked about the need to be very clear about those things being filed and available. There is a series of lessons here. I would not want to give you the exhaustive list, because I will miss something, but I think it is also fair to say that secretaries more broadly have canvassed this issue, and I think it is something that we are all very aware of.

Senator Faulkner: Finally, what lessons do you learn in the area of ministerial advisers?

Ms Halton: The instruction I have given my staff is that advice provided to officers is to be provided, in writing, to ministers.

Senator Faulkner: All advice?

Ms Halton: That is not to say the normal traffic of conversation but, in terms of matters of moment, in terms of issues of decision, in terms of the business of government, there needs to be a paper trail and it needs to be to the minister.

Senator Jacinta Collins: So executive authority resides with the minister?

Ms Halton: That is quite correct. I think one of the difficulties for us in today's world is that information moves much more quickly than it did in the Public Service of 20 years ago, and that may mean that we slow down a little bit. But in terms of prudence of public administration, I have made it very clear to my senior staff what I think is appropriate . . .

Senator Faulkner: And accountability of ministerial advisers? Is that part of it?

Ms Halton: There has been a discussion about that issue.

Senator Faulkner: Very quickly, are there any views you can share with us about that?

Ms Halton: I think that what has been canvassed are the facts of the situation and how to deal with that, which goes to advice to ministers.

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