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Labor seeks to compel bureaucrats in DPC probe

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The State Opposition will seek to establish a select committee to further investigate claims Premier Steven Marshall raised questions with a senior public servant about the “impartiality” of his cabinet office days before five staff members with links to former Labor ministers were shifted out of his Department.

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Labor says it hopes to compel Marshall’s chief of staff James Stevens as well as senior public servants to give evidence, after acting Department of Premier and Cabinet boss Erma Ranieri today confirmed she’d rejected requests for bureaucrats, including human resources director Scott Boehm, to front parliament’s powerful Budget and Finance Committee.

Ranieri, who faced the committee today along with cabinet office director Ruth Ambler, said she had refused the request in order to “keep senior people accountable for how they run their sections”.

Ambler was quizzed about her decision to shift five cabinet office bureaucrats out of not only the office, but the department altogether.

The staff members – Margot McInnes, Bea Delaney, Paul Larder, Amy Butler and Liam Golding – had all previously held roles within the offices of senior Labor ministers, including former Premier Jay Weatherill.

They all remain in the state public service, although none remain within DPC.

Ambler said the decision to remove them had been taken by her, in consultation with former chief executive Don Russell and his interim replacement, Ranieri.

Russell was sacked by Marshall just days after the state election in March.

“I’m a proud public servant, and I believe very much in abiding by the code of ethics,” Ambler told the committee.

“I made a decision that to ensure the impartiality of cabinet office those individuals needed to be moved to other positions.”

She said the office had to be “seen to be impartial”.

Ruth Ambler. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Ambler conceded that she had met with Marshall on the Tuesday after the election to discuss the new Premier’s plans for his cabinet office, which included holding two cabinet meetings a week instead of one.

She said Treasurer Rob Lucas was also present, along with Stevens and Marshall’s economics advisor Richard Yeales.

But she insisted that staffing arrangements were not canvassed at the meeting and no individuals were referred to.

“We had a discussion with him about ensuring the impartiality of cabinet office,” Ambler said.

“There was a discussion about the importance of impartiality of cabinet office and what we could do to support the new government [but] I had no discussion about transferring or anything else… I had no discussion about individuals with the Premier and his staff.”

Ambler said she “couldn’t recall the exact words that were spoken” at the meeting, or who raised questions about impartiality.

“It was a discussion about the impartiality of cabinet office in the context of the Premier wanting to restructure how cabinet works,” she said.

“I did not have a discussion with the Premier about him retaining people in his office [but] there was a discussion that there were some people who had come from the former Premier’s office into the cabinet office.”

She told the hearing Marshall “asked whether there were people who were in the former Premier’s office who had come into cabinet office… and it was a very short discussion about impartiality of the cabinet office”.

“He asked me a question about it, and I said I didn’t actually have all the details,” she said.

She denied she was asked “to draw up a list” of names but confirmed “there was mention that there were some people in cabinet office who had come from the former premier’s office”.

She said she subsequently formed the view that those people should be transferred into other departments.

Ranieri concurred, saying: “I took the view that they could be transferred – should be transferred – to other roles within the Government”.

She emphasised that “public servants are servants of the crown [and] can be moved anywhere within reason”.

Ambler confirmed the discussion about cabinet office impartiality with Marshall and his colleagues prompted then-DPC deputy chief executive Tahnya Donaghy to raise questions with Stevens.

Her contract was terminated days later by Ranieri, who told the committee she had no knowledge that the discussion – which occurred before her own appointment – had taken place.

She said Donaghy later asked Ambler to confirm in an email that she had had nothing to do with the redeployment of the five cabinet office staff. Ranieri said that request was made less than an hour after Donaghy’s contract had been terminated.

Manager of Opposition Business Tom Koutsantonis told media after the hearing that the evidence was “stunning” and “raised more questions than we received answers”.

Labor’s committee chair Kyam Maher said he was “extremely concerned about some of the questions left unanswered, about the Premier raising issues in very early meetings” with his departmental staff.

“The Opposition will move to establish a select committee to further investigate this issue,” he said.

He said there was “precedent” for political chiefs of staff to be called before committees, with Weatherill’s former CoS Simon Blewett previously fronting an inquiry into his office’s handling of the child protection matters that prompted the Debelle Royal Commission.

“It seems to me there are more questions that need to be answered,” Maher said.

InDaily has sought comment from Marshall’s office.

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