Blogging Senate #Estimates (Feb 2014) (Part 9)

A few weeks ago reports came out about how a medical and health panel had been dismissed from advice to the immigration department. You heard nothing from the department. An FoI release inferred this was because of a conflict of interest for the individuals who provided such advice. Here is the AAP copy which ran in the Oz:

The 12-member Immigration Health Advisory Group was replaced by a sole adviser, military surgeon Paul Alexander, in December. The panel, which included psychiatrists, psychologists, trauma experts, nurses and GPs, had been providing independent policy advice to the federal government since 2006.

Documents, obtained under Freedom of Information by AAP, show immigration department secretary Martin Bowles was concerned about potential conflicts of interest by members of the panel.

When asked about this in today’s estimates hearing, Martin Bowles gave a rather different take.

He said the group worked well in a previous time period when there were relatively few people in detention centres. He said the advice he needed more recently needed to be more ‘nimble’. This was why he has a sole appointee, as changing circumstances required a different model of advice. He said the previous group were a “very good group of people” but the advice required now was different.

This is a perfectly adequate explanation and quite different to the picture provided in the FoI documents. Of course, perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle, we’ll never quite know I’d hazard.

This speaks to the issue of what is publicised and what isn’t. The initial silence following the newspaper articles make the department seem distant and withdrawn. It almost felt inferred in the discussion was dispersions on the motives behind the decision as well as the people who had provided advice. From Martin Bowles’ comments today, he has a very different take.

Incidents like this are a dime a dozen in the public service. Yet it is important to highlight that context often offers important nuance. Unfortunately, this simply cannot be provided in the majority of cases. The public service works for the government, not the media or even the public. This means ignoring media reports when required (often) and just ploughing through.

This is not to blame the public service or the media. Both have critical roles to play. Only to recognise that sometimes these roles do not complement each other. This is simply a gentle reminder there is often more than meets the eye in terms of what is reported and what can be reported.


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