Secretary denies being bullied and leaving Minister's office in tears

April 1, 2024

Monday 1 April 2024
Chris Johnson

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil was thrown a lifeline by the boss of her own department during a Senate committee hearing late on Wednesday (27 March) – over a reported heated discussion between the two.

Department of Home Affairs Secretary Stephanie Foster outright denied the Minster had bullied or verbally abused her, despite media reports saying she had left a meeting with Ms O’Neil in tears.

Sky News reported that Ms Foster was summoned to Ms O’Neil’s office to explain why she had released documents that answered questions about the crimes committed by immigration detainees who had been released on order of the High Court.

Ms O’Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles are thought to be furious at Ms Foster’s decision to disclose the information.

The Home Affairs Minister was doggedly grilled in the House of Representatives during the final parliamentary sitting day before the Easter break over reports the secretary had left her office in tears.

Ms O’Neil repeatedly stated she worked “very closely” with her department.

But Deputy Opposition Leader Sussan Ley was relentless, and asked whether the Minister had apologised to Ms Foster.

“I refer to media reports about interactions between the secretary of the department and the ministers she serves …” Ms Ley said.

“I ask the minister again – did she verbally abuse the secretary, causing the secretary to leave her office in tears?”

Ms O’Neil didn’t do much to deny it.

“This question has been asked in a number of different ways, I have answered in a number of ways, all of which have been accurate,” the Minister said.

“I would say to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, I enjoy a very close and warm relationship with the secretary of my department, she is a public servant of decades of standing, serving the national interest in our government.

“It’s why I supported the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint her to this position, and we continue that warm and collaborative relationship.”

It was later that evening, however, when Ms Foster herself rejected the suggestion Ms O’Neil had bullied her.

Describing the reports as baseless, Ms Foster told the hearing the Minister had never acted that way towards her.

“At no point at that occasion or ever has Minister O’Neil verbally abused me,” Ms Foster said.

“I have corrected the record on the issue of verbal abuse because it was in the media today, and it’s a very public and relevant issue and it is utterly untrue.

“The issue for me as a public servant is whether or not I am influenced in the way in which I answer questions or approach Senate estimates and the answer is an unequivocal no …

“The strength of the relationship between ministers and their staff depends on being able to have trusted conversations.

“Neither Minister O’Neil nor Minister Giles nor any of their staff have ever attempted to interfere with the way I handle estimates.

“They are, in fact, scrupulous in making it clear that the way in which I answer questions and the approach I take to estimates is my call.”

The Opposition is not leaving the matter there, though, with Liberal senator James Paterson – who had been pursuing the issue in the Senate – taking to ABC radio on Thursday (28 March) to demand details of the conversation, suggesting Ms Foster had been ordered to deny the incident ever happened.

In the Wednesday night hearing, Senator Paterson grilled several Home Affairs officials, accusing them of “trying to obfuscate this committee, and not provide information which is in the public interest” and doing so at the behest of ministers.

“Anyone watching this hearing will see an apparent attempt to cover up and protect the government’s interest,” Senator Paterson said.

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