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"It's in a sorry state": More senior jobs axed at morale-sapped trade agency

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Some of the state’s most senior bureaucrats were offered psychological counselling before being escorted from their building in a public service purge that is still ongoing at the troubled agency that sells South Australia to the world, InDaily can reveal.

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The Marshall Government yesterday announced a new chief executive for the Department of Trade, Tourism and Investment, with former Senior Trade and Investment Commissioner for Austrade Leonie Muldoon set to take the reins.

However, InDaily understands at least two more senior executives have been shown the door in recent days, including Case Management and Regions director Martyn England and Raju Narayanan, who headed up the department’s international engagement with India. InDaily has attempted to contact both men.

It’s understood the latter’s contract, which ended in June, was not renewed after Narayanan was handed short-term extensions with no guarantee of future employment since a longer-term contract expired last year.

Narayanan’s departure has prompted concerns over the Government’s commitment to India as a trade and investment partner, particularly with Prime Minister Scott Morrison talking up stronger ties.

Brian Hayes QC, who drafted the former Labor government’s India strategy, said it was “a great shame that India’s gone off the radar, as far as I can see”.

“It’s a policy position I suppose, that’s the impression I’ve got… but it’s a great pity, particularly as the Federal Government has ramped up its engagement.”

He said the recent sector review by former New Zealand Finance Minister Steven Joyce, whose recommendations have prompted the agency’s restructure, appeared to have driven the shift in priorities.

“He didn’t feel India was an immediate market that should be engaged with,” he noted.

“I do think India is a country that we can’t afford to ignore, in terms of trade and investment and sporting culture and the arts.”

A departmental source told InDaily the Marshall Government “doesn’t recognise the India strategy” of its predecessor, despite India being Australia’s “fastest growing tourism market”.

“The momentum that’s been gained over the last few years will suffer as a result of recent changes,” they said.

It’s understood senior figures in the Government have “expressed to certain people that India will be in [greater] focus should they win the next election”.

The most recent departures follow an exodus of top-level talent, as reported by InDaily in April, which included Health Industries SA chief Marco Baccanti, Lino Strangis, the executive director of International Engagement, Trade, Immigration and Higher Education, the Director of Future Industries and Advanced Manufacturing Andrew Cooper, financial services and capital markets director Mario Pegoli and Jing Li, the Director of International Investment Attraction and former head of the China Team at the now-defunct Department of State Development.

After InDaily’s report, the department immediately confirmed the departures internally, and has since parted ways with China International Engagement director Quentin Bai, who now works in a Commonwealth role.

One departmental source who did not want to be identified said rather than a “proper handover”, several executives who had attended an afternoon future planning session were summoned to attend a meeting at 8.30am the next morning.

At that meeting, they were handed a letter and told “You’ve been served a notice, you’re now being escorted out of the building immediately”.

The source said the lack of a handover of responsibilities was “a huge loss to the state” in terms of intellectual property.

It’s understood one of the executives, Cooper, had recently returned from a trade mission to Europe, where the SA Government had a booth at a trade fair.

“He didn’t even get a chance to finish his trip report,” InDaily was told.

“That trip cost the Government a significant amount of money.”

One of the ousted executives said they were “given an opportunity to respond to our dismissal [but] we all said no”.

“There was an opportunity to say why you shouldn’t be dismissed, but it’s just the process… at the same time, they take your building pass, your [work] credit card, your work phone – as if you’re gone already, so what’s the point of responding? You know you’re gone, there’s no coming back.

“It’s a waste of time even responding… you need to reserve some dignity and self-respect.”

Executives were also asked if they required psychological counselling before being escorted off the premises.

“We were treated as children rather than professional executives…that’s a bit of a sad feeling,” the source said.

The executive departures are in addition to several senior bureaucrats taking voluntary redundancy as the department seeks to cut costs.

One of those estimated that would account for well over a dozen more departures, saying: “The department’s in a bit of a sorry state.”

“Morale, I would have to say, is the worst I’ve experienced in my years in government,” the long-serving employee said.

“The new government doesn’t appear to have a clear agenda or strategy for their trade and investment area – maybe the new chief executive has been brought in to forge that.

“While people might have complained about [former minister] Martin Hamilton-Smith, he did have a clear vision and a strategy… this Government doesn’t yet appear to have any idea.

“All the good work that was done for many years just collapsed really… I didn’t want to spend my time there any more.”

That view was echoed by another senior executive who said any meaningful activity in the agency “probably stopped six months before the election” in 2018, and has yet to properly recommence.

“All we’ve been doing is waiting for the Joyce Review,” they said.

“And now it’s the implementation of the Joyce Review stage… [the department] hasn’t been utilised at all.”

Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister David Ridgway responded in a statement that the Liberal Government “is wholly committed to growing the SA economy and creating local jobs through a targeted strategy of increased exports, trade and investment and we are delighted to have appointed Ms Leonie Muldoon as the Department’s new Chief Executive to help lead our efforts on this front”.

“There is strong resolve, dedication and positivity across government towards achieving our Growth Agenda, following the Joyce Review, and I look forward to seeing some excellent results,” he said.

But others within the agency warned the cost-cutting was still continuing.

“I don’t think everybody in the system now will continue – they’re probably looking to remove a few more,” one said.

InDaily sought confirmation of the specific jobs axed in recent days from the agency. A response from a departmental spokesman said: “Following a review of the South Australian Government’s international and interstate engagement bodies and functions (the Joyce review), the Department for Trade, Tourism and Investment is focused on helping grow South Australia’s economy through investment and trade opportunities.

“This work will be done via a sectorial approach as outlined in the Joyce review and in partnership with South Australia’s network of international offices.”

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