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A rum state of affairs

By Ken Phillips - posted Friday, 25 March 2011

As a new Premier of New South Wales Barry O'Farrell will face a mountain of challenges few leaders of governments in developed democracies face.

It's not just that O'Farrell will inherit a legacy of corruption, scandal and wasted taxpayer money, but the very structures of how government functions and the cultures around them in NSW are damaged. The problems are multi-layered and interconnected.

Two stories perhaps paint the picture. In the 'sex and money for planning approval' scandal that rocked the City of Wollongong, one developer who was interviewed early in the inquiry was genuinely surprised at all the fuss. In all the years the developer had operated in NSW, from his perspective, what he had done was simply 'normal business'.


Former NSW Federal Court Judge Marcus Einfield has just been released from jail after being convicted for making a false statement with the intent to pervert the course of justice. He was interviewed in 2009 as he drove to court to hear his sentence. In the interview he continued to profess his 'goodliness' and how much he stood up for the 'oppressed' in society. It was as if he hadn't even heard the words of the convicting judge who described his actions as striking "at the heart of the administration of justice."

The developer and Einfield both displayed a disconnect from reality and the normal morals and ethics of society - even when publicly caught in wrong-doing. It's a disconnect that's not isolated to individuals in NSW, but has spread through the administration of NSW government. Take some examples:

The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption has described the corruption inside the NSW rail authority RailCorp as systemic. ICAC has been exposing the soliciting for and payment of bribes inside RailCorp since 1992. But ICAC says that RailCorp fails to fix the problem. In other words, RailCorp knows that corruption is embedded in its culture and practices - yet it's incapable of stopping the practices. This demonstrates a monumental collapse of normal public service systems of control and ethics.

Outright corruption displays the extreme end of damaged NSW public sector professionalism. But its ugly sides crop up in other ways. The NSW WorkCover Authority is a glaring case study:

Since 2008 WorkCover has been facing allegations of repeated bullying and harassment of its own staff. Yet this is the public service authority that is responsible for investigating, prosecuting and preventing bullying in NSW workplaces. In 2010 WorkCover was again accused of covering up evidence of internal bullying and another inquiry was announced. Early this year the NSW Greens claimed the problem continues and called for a parliamentary inquiry.

I'm not surprised to hear the bullying allegations. In 2006 I reported on the treatment of small business people in NSW being audited by WorkCover for workers compensation premium payments. I meet many small business people being audited, studied their files and can only describe the behaviour of WorkCover as allegedly that of harassment with WorkCover allegedly in breach of its own legislation.


One such victim was June Gibson. She's a grandmother and her husband was a bricklayer. WorkCover claimed other self-employed brickies he did jobs with were his employees. They moved against the Gibsons resulting in the loss of their house. They are now in rental accommodation - their retirement nest egg destroyed. WorkCover continues these attacks against small businesses today.

WorkCover is also responsible for NSW work safety prosecutions. Their behaviour is appalling. A senior NSW judge accused NSW WorkCover in the 'Gretley' case (2006) of engaging in 'persecution' rather than 'prosecution' and of 'having compromised the processes of this court'. When the High Court effectively found the NSW Occupational Health and Safety laws to be unconstitutional in the Kirk case (2010) the High Court also discovered, for example, that WorkCover had breached the Evidence Act. WorkCover has not demonstrably revisited prosecutions to undo injustices.

It is evident that the NSW WorkCover public service has lost its sense of justice, fairness, propriety and professionalism. It has descended into a dysfunctional environment where bullying and harassment both internally and externally toward the people of NSW is systemic. When I last wrote about this, NSW WorkCover responded seeking to defend their operations. But nothing they said seemed to reflect a grasping of the points I made above.

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About the Author

Ken Phillips is executive director of Independent Contractors of Australia.

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