Government draws the curtain on public service scrutiny
State Government agencies are refusing to confirm the existence and employment status of individual public servants who are the subject of stories of public interest, including those in relatively senior positions.
InDaily recently received a tip that one of three public servants named in the Nyland Royal Commission in 2016 had been reappointed to a position in charge of a child protection facility.
In 2016, the three staff – Shane Sterzl, Katherine Decoster and Lee Norman – were placed under internal departmental investigation for their roles in a “toxic workplace culture”, as the royal commission put it, which “discouraged staff from raising their concerns about children and colleagues, and punished those who did step forward”. Norman, according to Nyland, was involved in promoting Shannon McCoole, whose crimes against children precipitated the royal commission.
The Labor Government at the time confirmed the three had been suspended pending an investigation.
Now, though, a curtain has been drawn.
We asked the Department for Child Protection and Minister Rachel Sanderson whether any of the three remained at work in the department, the results of the original investigations, and whether it was true that one had been appointed to a position in charge of a child protection facility.
They refused to answer, citing privacy rules.
The Minister said: “I have sought assurances from Department of Child Protection Chief Executive Cathy Taylor that due process and a thorough investigation was undertaken following the Nyland Royal Commission and any issues with staff have been addressed, with the safety of children the utmost priority.”
Taylor told InDaily that it is “not appropriate to provide specifics about individuals”.
“The Department for Child Protection (DCP) takes all allegations of staff misconduct seriously. The safety and wellbeing of children and young people in our care is our main priority.
“At the time that these allegations were raised, a thorough investigation was undertaken and any issues of misconduct or underperformance have been addressed. Staff members who return to work following a disciplinary process are required to undertake re-training with clear expectations established.
“All employees currently working within DCP residential care facilities have been assessed and deemed psychologically suitable. Given confidentiality and privacy requirements, it is not appropriate to provide specifics about individuals.”
When pressed about why it couldn’t discuss individual staff, the Department didn’t refer to privacy legislation, but rather a Premier’s Department circular released in 2016 (see pages 6 and 7), which Commissioner for Public Sector Employment Erma Ranieri says binds all Departments in relation to the disclosure of information about public sector employees to a “third party”.
Last year, SA Health – on several occasions – refused to confirm the names and positions of senior managers in responses to InDaily’s questions about matters and people of public interest already on the record.
Public servants, however, have access to an internal directory of their colleagues. One helpful insider has informed us that two of the three DCP employees named in the Nyland Royal Commission remain on the department’s books. Sterzl and Norman are both listed in internal directories and appear to be working in senior positions in the residential care section of the Department. Sterzl does, indeed, appear to be supervising a facility, while Norman is listed as a senior youth worker.
Before last year’s election, Steven Marshall promised to “restore open and accountable government for all South Australians”.
Major development remains in limbo
Also less than forthcoming with actual information is the state’s Planning Minister Stephan Knoll who is sitting on the paperwork for extending development approval for one of the state’s biggest urban development projects.
As we reported last year, planning approval for Walker Corporation’s controversial Buckland Park development expired in October last year.
While the developer has asked for an extension and Knoll says he has a favourable view of the project, he still hasn’t signed the extension.
A spokesman says he is “still working towards a decision”.
Last year, Knoll said: “This development has a lot of merit and I am currently considering granting an extension for development approval.”
Walker Corporation says everything is hunky dory.
“Our existing approval remains in place and the project is proceeding as planned,” a spokesman said today. “Earthworks are starting next month, basically the starting point of the construction stage.”
Which begs the question of why we have a planning system if a project can proceed despite an expired development approval.
The answer is likely in the God-like powers of the Minister in relation to major developments.
Buckland Park was first given major project status in 2007 by then Labor Planning Minister Paul Holloway, before being given development approval in 2014. Since then, the project has been subject to delay after delay, and extension after extension to its development approval.
Walker insists the 12,000-home, 1300-hectare project, dubbed “Riverlea”, will be the biggest residential development in South Australia for more than 35 years.
Buckland Park has long confounded those interested in the planning system.
Back in 2010, the industry itself – via the Planning Institute of Australia’s SA branch – said it was “bewildered” by the Government’s decision to approve the project.
“While PIA SA understands the need to release land, the remote Buckland Park is not an appropriate location for a development of this scale,” it said at the time.
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