Minister oversaw culture of bullying, says former chief of staff


The Department of Finance confirmed that since 2015 Mr Wyatt has had 10 employees cease employment with him, resulting in $189,750 in severance payments.

Ms Johnson, Mr Wyatt’s fourth chief of staff in three years, was fired by the minister five weeks after she moved into his office. She had raised concerns about Mr Wyatt’s office with the office of then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and was sacked immediately when Mr Wyatt found out. She no longer works in politics.

The experienced staffer, who worked for several other Coalition ministers sucessfully, had lodged a formal incident report on the bullying of junior staff and the impact on their mental health. She has also raised concerns about repeated procedural failures and lengthy delays in responding to mounting concerns within the community about the aged care system.

In one instance, staff were asked by Ms Gelo to bury information that showed complaints about aged care institutions were rising rapidly.

“In a conversation with the boss he is keen for this [aged care complaints statistics] to get out this weekend,” an email from Ms Gelo to staff shows. “So it would be good to drop this on Saturday because the focus in the media will be about the NEG [National Energy Guarantee].”

The Coalition was battling an internal rebellion over the energy plan at the time, weeks before it was scrapped and Mr Turnbull was ousted from office.

Ms Johnson said constant threats from Ms Gelo to other staff “ground the office to a halt” and “nothing got done”. The Department of Finance heard that staff received emails from Ms Gelo, which copied in an email address to which the whole office had access, labelling them “incompetent” and had documents thrown in their face after being described as “hopeless” and the “weakest link” in office conversations.

Ken Wyatt.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

At the same time, aged care and Indigenous health specialists were prevented from consulting with stakeholders, two other former staff members confirmed. The chief of staff was barred, unusually, from accessing Mr Wyatt’s diary and his meeting requests were held in a folder handled only by Mr Wyatt and his personal secretary.

At one stage, the folder went missing, leaving hundreds of requests unanswered two months before the aged care royal commission was called. Documents show that as of August 9, 2018, more than 250 pieces of ministerial correspondence had yet to be signed by Mr Wyatt. Health Minister Greg Hunt was increasingly relied on by the Turnbull government to run the portfolio.

In another instance, emails show a staff member was forced to personally pay back a $430 hotel bill for Ms Gelo after she said she did not like the taxpayer-funded accommodation she was booked into.

Documents show Mr Wyatt personally signed off on all of Ms Gelo’s $108,743 in travel in a year, an amount on par with that of cabinet ministers. Ms Johnson said she had never seen such a practice in her two decades in Parliament. Conventionally, the chief of staff would sign off on all travel but this was crossed out in Ms Johnson’s contract.

I can’t explain to you how dysfunctional that office was.

Ms Gelo now goes by the name of Paula Smith and is a senior consultant with the lobbying firm Australian Public Affairs, a role she began after the May election. Ms Gelo said she had “nothing to say” about the nature of her relationship with the minister and was “trying to get on with her life”.

Through her lawyers she denied all allegations and threatened to take legal action, and also denied any inappropriate relationship with the minister.

“Why aren’t you putting these questions to the minister? At the end of the day, the minister decides how to run his office,” she said.

Mr Wyatt is now responsible for steering through a highly charged referendum on Indigenous recognition, a process he described a “too important to fail”. He strongly denied any inappropriate relationship with Ms Gelo but would not comment on internal office and staffing matters.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have confirmed five other staff corroborated Ms Johnson’s account to the prime minister’s office over a 48-hour period in the final days of the Turnbull government. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann’s office was then informed that an investigation would be launched.

When he was approached about the investigation by Mr Turnbull’s office, Mr Wyatt threatened to quit the ministry. He later floated triggering a byelection, putting the Turnbull government’s one-seat majority at risk. Labor had also urged him to defect and an email shows him praising its candidate in his seat of Hasluck.

Scott Morrison became prime minister a week later on August 24. Mr Wyatt was promoted to Minister for Indigenous Australians in the post-election cabinet reshuffle in May.

“He had defection talks with Labor, threatened to call a byelection and then gets promoted to cabinet,” said Ms Johnson. “Seriously, like it’s just crazy.”

A spokesman for Mr Wyatt noted that, unlike the minister, “many Coalition ministers decided to retire from Parliament at the 2019 election”.

“Minister Wyatt remained to contest and win his marginal seat,” he said. “This is a clear demonstration of the minister’s commitment to the people of Hasluck and the Liberal Party.”

Ms Johnson said that when she raised her complaint with Mr Morrison’s office after he became prime minister she was told that she had “done the right thing” by his senior policy adviser and that it would be taken care of. The senior policy adviser, who The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have chosen not to name, said the conversation was in regard to her welfare rather than future employment.

By October, she said, former Liberal Party director Tony Nutt, who was handling staffing arrangements for Mr Morrison, told her: “It’s complicated when staff members become close to ministers.”

Mr Nutt disputed the account, stating he had told her: “From time to time ministers in various governments become close to staff in the office and they rely on them more than others.”

The following week she received a phone call from another of Mr Morrison’s senior advisers while travelling in a car with a friend.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott MorrisonCredit:AAP

“You have really tarnished your reputation and opened a Pandora’s box,” Ms Johnson said the senior adviser told her. “Paula is not going anywhere, because if she goes, Ken goes.”

“It was an extraordinary phone call to have,” said Ms Johnson. “As a chief of staff, I had a duty of care to ensure the health and safety of employees under Commonwealth legislation. It was my obligation to report bullying. I did the right thing.”

Ms Johnson’s friend, who continues to work with the government and asked to remain anonymous, has verified her account of the call.

The final investigation into allegations, which included interviews with 10 staff members, by external firm CPM cost taxpayers $37,000. The CPM report was delivered to Mr Wyatt in December but remains locked away. A Freedom of Information request was rejected last week.

In response to questions from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age about Ms Johnson’s claims a government spokesman said: “Our Government takes all allegations of inappropriate behaviour seriously and adheres to the employment and work health and safety policies publicly available on the Ministerial and Parliamentary Services website.”

“As is long standing practice, we do not comment on individual staffing matters, which are treated confidentially to respect the privacy of employees.”

But the Department of Finance confirmed that, under the Members of Parliament Act, only the employing minister had the power to decide if any further steps should be taken.

“Consistent with the policy, the employing parliamentarian is responsible for taking any actions,” the department said.

Dhanya Mani, a former Liberal staffer who has led calls for reform in the wake of sexual assault allegations within political offices, said the legislation provided “unilateral control to parliamentarians to decide what rules apply to them” and had the potential to create a “clear conflict of interest”.

“All of the power rests with the parliamentarian,” she said. “In an already difficult situation, the complainant has to contend with the fact that they have absolute vulnerability.”

Ms Johnson said “until this issue is taken seriously” the taxpayer will continue to fund “investigations that remain secret and workers compensation claims”.

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