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'You're toast': Axed public service exec says he was warned before election

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A former Labor candidate sacked from his senior public service role after last month’s state election says it was made clear to him before he put his hand up to run that he would be removed in any case if the Liberals seized power.

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Rik Morris, a former media adviser to Labor premiers Mike Rann and Jay Weatherill, was shown the door at the Department of Premier and Cabinet late last month.

He was the department’s executive director, with responsibility for “cross government communications, citizen engagement and international relations”, after the 2014 election, having previously worked as general manager of the SA Tourism Commission.

The decision to remove him was taken by interim CEO Erma Ranieri, who told InDaily at the time: “It is my priority to ensure the Department continues to provide exemplary and valued support to the Premier and his Cabinet, and assists with the implementation of the Government’s election commitments… it is my determination that this decision is required to best fulfil these substantial responsibilities.”

The Premier only has the power to hire and fire top-level public servants, with all other personnel decisions falling to departmental chiefs.

Morris told InDaily the sacking came as no surprise and he believed that was the inevitable outcome regardless of whether he decided to run as Labor’s candidate in the north-eastern suburbs seat of Florey.

“Obviously I knew that by running I was very firmly putting the head on the chopping block [but] some [Liberal members] had made that clear prior to that decision that my head was on the chopping block anyway, so I didn’t really have anything to lose.”

Morris alleged “one of their new ministers” had told him at a function some months before the election that ‘you’re toast when we’re in’.

InDaily contacted the frontbencher alleged to have made the comment, who said he had “no knowledge of any conversation with Rik”.

Morris did however concede that “having run as a candidate my position would be – not untenable, but difficult to justify for an incoming government”.

“Which I can’t argue against – I’m not an idiot,” he said.

Labor candidate for Florey Rik Morris, with MLC Tung Ngo (left), presenting a cheque to the Vietnamese Catholic Community of SA during the campaign. Photo: Facebook

InDaily asked the Premier’s office whether any direction was given by the incoming Government about Morris’s tenure, and if not whether Marshall would have been happy to work with him at DPC. The Premier’s office responded that “employment at that level is a matter for the CE”.

In response to a series of written questions, including whether she was aware of any threats made to Morris about his continued tenure before he ran for Florey, and whether the decision to terminate his employment was based solely on his decision to run, Ranieri said in a statement: “This decision was required to ensure the Department continues to provide exemplary and valued support to the Premier and his Cabinet, and assists with the implementation of the Government’s election commitments.”

“I received acceptance from Mr Morris regarding this decision, and personally thanked him for his contribution to the Department, public sector and the South Australian community,” she said.

“It is inappropriate to speculate around staffing decisions and I have nothing further to add.”

Morris’s sacking, along with that of departmental deputy chief Tahnya Donaghy, followed the removal of four CEOs by new Premier Steven Marshall, including in his own department, where Weatherill’s handpicked supremo Don Russell was shown the door.

Morris said he was not surprised by Russell’s departure, saying the former Paul Keating advisor was “a long-serving Labor man over a number of years and as CE of DPC he was always going to be moved on”.

But he said he was more taken aback by the decision to move on others, such as Attorney-General’s Department chief Ingrid Haythorpe and Sandy Pitcher, who headed the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources.

Haythorpe and Donaghy are now teaming up to start their own consultancy firm, Peg Consulting.

“I didn’t see [any of] them as overtly political,” Morris said, describing them as senior executives “serving their minister faithfully” over several years.

“That’s your job – it doesn’t mean you’re a card-carrying member of the party,” he said.

“My concern is that if you cut too deeply into the public sector, you lose a lot of corporate knowledge, and my personal opinion is that Sandy and Ingrid were pretty high-performing CEOs and important senior women in the public sector who were demonstrating there’s a place at the top of the tree for women who got there on merit.

“They weren’t party members who were given a special leg-up – they got there through their own hard work and talent… you could express a lack of surprise at my being identified [for removal], but I certainly think it’s surprising they went for them – and went so quickly.”

Morris’s LinkedIn profile says he is now a director at ‘The Intermediary’, a public affairs, media, marketing and communications consultancy.

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