Australia Day weekend was eventful in WA. We made headlines all over the country as Neale Fong, CEO of our Health Department, Australia’s highest paid public servant, fell earthward. Almost as if art and ceremony were mimicking life, Fong had lit the sky brilliantly for a short moment. Yes, just like the fire crackers that illuminated Perth’s skyline later in the day. And then the light and colour were gone. Fong is to collect his outstanding $43,000 in lieu of four weeks notice but apparently, no one wants him to show up for work for a single hour.
Have I made a mistake? No, sadly not; that is $43,000 - an amount of money that many have to work a year for - and Fong was getting that much each month plus bonuses to make up his $600,000 annual pay packet.
Fong had been handpicked by the Minister for Health, and Attorney General, Jim McGinty a couple of years ago to steer reform in WA’s troubled Health Department. Now Fong, a controversial appointment from day one, has been accused of misconduct by WA’s energetic Crime and Corruption Commission. The dashing public servant is accused of gross misconduct in the performance of duties - lying to his Minister and breaching the trust and confidence of Cabinet. He protests innocence but isn’t hanging around to argue the toss.
Crimes like Fong’s are sometimes forgiven, but not in WA, and not if Brian Burke is involved. And he was again, at the centre of this storm. According to the current Premier, Alan Carpenter, the former Premier is Beelzebub incarnate, destroying everything good and virtuous he touches - including the endlessly talented Neale Fong. Fong was touched, and in a tragic reverse of the fairy tale, transformed from a handsome prince into an ugly frog. It was done to him: Premier tackles the “poison of Burke” read The Australian’s headline story (January 29, 2008).
Worse, said the Premier, even the State had mistreated and damaged Fong by paying him a $600,000+ salary. “What we had done” said the Premier “was hang a very big target around Neale Fong’s neck”. Poor Neale. Of course, he had argued vigorously for much less pay at the time. Next we will hear that Neale has suffered enough and that there will be no need for criminal prosecution. It’s a pity the Premier treats the citizens of his state as complete idiots.
McGinty, again, was the man who had handpicked Fong and insisted on the excessive pay packet in the first place. What did the WA Salaries and Allowances Tribunal know about recruiting scarce talent in a tight market? Only McGinty knew. That was the line at the time of Fong’s rise. When the press suggested over the weekend that he, too, should resign, McGinty in a customary display of arrogance, dismissed the Westminster principle of ministerial accountability as “silly” - yes, his word. The Premier now thinks so too and is, for one reason or another, backing his Minister all the way. Everyone, apart from Brian Burke, is an innocent victim. It’s a story of sorts, I suppose.
But how could McGinty not have known of the friendship and former business connections between Fong and Burke? How, at the time of his original appointment as CEO in an acting capacity in 2004, could McGinty have been ignorant of the fact that Fong was a non-executive director of a company called Australian Healthcare Technology? How could he not have known that Burke's family company Abbey Lea was a major shareholder in AHT? I am not suggesting conspiracy here. Just political pathology born of uncontrolled arrogance and excessively secure hold on power. WA lacks an Opposition.
Back in 2005, when Fong was confirmed as Health Department CEO, McGinty and the whole Cabinet knew some things with absolute certainty. They knew that Fong was so far ahead of the executive pack that he could do this job with just one hand. He could easily do it while managing and ministering to Western Australian football as chairperson of its Commission. Easy. A few sceptics considered that to be a full-time job but not Fong or his fans. Anyway, even for his one hand, Fong warranted twice the normal CEO’s pay.
McGinty, again, is a powerful guy, sufficiently powerful to define reality for the ALP in WA. If he paid much more than the going CEO rate for Fong and said Fong was great, then Fong was great. End of story.
Fong, it turns out, was not that great. He was spread too thinly, too much in love with himself, a pain to work for, a disappointing reformer and, according to Corruption and Crime Commission, worse. But these were all McGinty’s misjudgments even if the Premier has carelessly, or under duress, claimed some of the credit.
It’s a pity he cannot see how dangerous and foolish McGinty’s cavalier ways and political experimentation have been. It was good to see the Premier use the word “experiment” to describe the Fong appointment even if he did not fully understand the nature of the experiment.
I have had a shot at an alternative analysis of this experiment in a longer article entitled Reach for the Stars: CEO Salaries and the Culture of Celebrity in WA’s Public Service posted a little over a year ago on the APO website and at www.citizenonline.org. Fong was ready-made for the part: his youthful good looks and swashbuckling ways, the drinking, driving and speeding, neighbours-get-stuffed private mansion plans and, of course, the high risk wining, dining and sharing confidences with Beelzebub on the wrong side of town.