Utegate Ends With A Whimper

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The scandal that was never in fact a scandal has been put to rest today by the release of the Auditor-General’s report into the affair.

It now takes a little effort to remember what the sound and the fury were all about back when this story first broke in June.

At the time, Malcolm Turnbull orchestrated a concerted attack on the Prime Minister and the Treasurer over their handling of the "OzCar" Special Purpose Vehicle, which had been set up in late 2008 to provide finance to car dealers who were caught up in the global financial crisis.

As we now know, Turnbull was being backgrounded by a mole in the Treasury, a Liberal-sympathising senior bureaucrat named Godwin Grech. Grech is the central figure in this scandal. An experienced Senior Executive Service member, Grech was given the job within Treasury of implementing the OzCar scheme. With little time and few resources to get the job done, Grech ended up working 75–85 hour weeks, which put him under serious personal stress. To make matters worse, Grech was not a well man. In February he spent time in Canberra Hospital for an obstructed bowel, his seventh obstructed bowel episode since 2005.

It seems as though Grech cracked under the strain. Already concerned about the way the OzCar scheme was being set up, Grech began to believe he was being unduly pressured to give favourable treatment to Labor mates of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, such as Ipswich car dealer John Grant.

It’s not unusual for bureaucrats to experience misgivings about the policies they’ve been told to implement. It’s difficult to believe that someone like Jane Halton, who was the bureaucrat in the firing line during the "children overboard" affair, wasn’t at least tempted to blow the whistle on Peter Reith and spill her guts at Senate Estimates hearings. Halton kept her cool. Grech, by contrast, started meeting with senior Liberals to background them on the case. Indeed, Grech apparently wrote down for Turnbull the questions he should ask the Prime Minister in Question Time.

But what Grech did next is highly unusual. Unable to provide the Liberals with a smoking gun proving there was some kind of inappropriate pressure from the Prime Minister to arrange finance for John Grant, Grech simply made it up — forging an email and then sending it to himself in a ham-fisted attempt to create an incriminating paper-trail that could be used against the Prime Minster and his senior adviser, Andrew Charlton. Grech then turned up to Senate Estimates and gave what can only be described as highly rehearsed testimony which was intended to lead directly to the smoking gun he himself had planted.

Grech’s actions, and by extension those of Turnbull and other senior Liberals who fell into his trap, were both breathtakingly cunning and mind-blowingly stupid. They were cunning because the elaborate trail of parliamentary questions and falsified evidence was carefully constructed to make it look as though Rudd and Swan had something very serious indeed to hide. But they were also stupid, because it should have been obvious that a matter this serious would be thoroughly, exhaustively investigated.

Once investigated, as we have seen, Grech’s intricate fantasy quickly unravelled.

Today’s report by the Australian National Audit Office confirms much of this, although we are yet to hear Turnbull’s full version of events. It clears the Prime Minister and the Treasurer and the staffers in their office such as Andrew Charlton (whom Malcolm Turnbull so famously advised on the importance of integrity in public life). It found that "each representation received by Treasury was made through an appropriate channel" and that further, Grech himself may have breached the Australian Public Service’s Code of Conduct. In a fitting irony, it even appears as though Grech did indeed give at least one dealer inappropriate treatment: "a supporter of, and donor to, the Liberal Party of Australia, with other records made by [Grech] stating that he was ‘Lib’."

If there is a moral to this tawdry story, it is that politicians should be very wary of bureaucrats bearing gifts. But so eager were Turnbull and his advisers to land a knock-out blow on the Prime Minster, they paid no heed to the potential risks of believing an obviously aggrieved and unwell man who clearly had an axe of his own to grind.

We can learn other things, too, from a close reading of the Auditor’s report. For one thing, Australia’s politicians and bureaucrats are not the lazy fat-cats they are often made out to be. On the contrary, a picture emerges of an almost obsessive work culture, in which staffers and senior officers work long, weary hours on difficult, thankless tasks, in which group emails on relatively minor policy and operational matters are CCed to many senior officers and even faxed to the nation’s Treasurer on weekends. Given the extreme workloads that many of our nation’s senior executives suffer, what should surprise us is that so few of them follow the unfortunate Godwin Grech in losing the plot.

A final thought should be spared for Grech, who will almost certainly be sacked over this incident and may well be charged for his clear breaches of several laws relating to government officers. While his actions in this case have been inappropriate, it’s also fair to say they happened during a time of intense personal strain. It should not be acceptable for anyone in our society to be forced to work 75–85 hour weeks merely to discharge their responsibilities. That kind of workload is a form of workplace bullying in and of itself.

And if the brutal attrition rate in his own office is anything to go by, one of the most demanding bosses in the country is the Prime Minister himself.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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