By ERWIN CHLANDA
“Restoring trust in government and delivering on an election promise … to make our democratic system more open and accountable” are the kind of assurances that spill from Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s lips with the greatest of ease.
The reality is another thing altogether: The addition to the Alice Springs staff of his department – that’s the Department of the Chief Minister – of an import from WA, to be paid a quarter of a million dollars a year, makes that very clear.
When one of Mr Gunner’s staff passed on to a potential private litigant, without our permission, information we had sent to her with a request for comment, then the Gunner Government has surely reached an exceptional low.
The appointment of Cliff Weeks and the process through which he was employed are on the public record in several media, and cover issues that require comment and explanation from the government.
The Australian newspaper published a report on November 1 this year raising concerns about the employment of Mr Weeks by Mr Gunner’s department, drawing on an earlier report (November 25, 2016 ) referring to Mr Weeks in a WA context.
The Alice Springs News Online published a report on November 6 that a highly experienced local businessman, Bruce Deans, had been all but ignored as an applicant for the job.
We sought comment about the second report in The Australian from the most senior member of the Gunner Government in Central Australia, Minister Dale Wakefield, most likely to have a lot of contact with Mr Weeks in the future. She ignored our request.
A reader, whose identity we know and with whom we have spoken about his experiences as a former colleague of Mr Weeks, wrote to us in critical terms about him.
We had offered publication of his account without disclosing the author’s identity, subject to us offering the right of reply to the department.
We sent the reader’s comment to the communications manager of the Department of Chief Minister, Kim Wheatley at 8:57am on November 8, requesting comment by noon.
At 11:26am we received an email from lawyers “Bennett + Co” in Perth, saying they are representing Mr Weeks, and threatening to sue us and our correspondent for defamation.
The email was signed by “Martin Bennett, Principal” and said: “I have been provided with a copy of a letter to the editor … which I understand you intend to publish at noon today.”
At the same time Mr Bennett emailed us the copy of a Writ of Summons in the Supreme Court of WA between Clifford Gerald Weeks and Nationwide News Pty Ltd as well as Amos Aikman (the writer of the November 1 report in The Australian).
We asked Ms Wheatley whether the NT Government was supporting the legal action by Mr Weeks.
She replied, inviting us to attribute this to “a spokesperson from the Department of the Chief Minister”: “Mr Weeks’ legal actions are his private business. The Northern Territory Government is not connected with this matter.”
There has been no disclosure by Mr Gunner nor Ms Wheatley of who “provided” to Mr Bennett the professional correspondence to her from the Alice Springs News Online.
This was the remainder of Ms Wheatley’s reply:-
“Mr Weeks is employed by the Department of the Chief Minister. CEO, Ms Jodie Ryan has confidence in the recruitment and selection methods of the Northern Territory Public Service and is comfortable with the process and the outcome of this recruitment activity.
“The Northern Territory Public Sector’s (NTPS) workforce should reflect the community it serves.
“All public sector appointments undergo a merit-based assessment. In this instance, there were multiple ATSI applicants, who were all considered as part of the process.
“This rigorous process confirmed that Mr Weeks was the most meritorious for the role.
“As an experienced Chief Executive Officer with over 15 years in government administration, 10 of these in senior roles.
“Mr Weeks has significant experience in providing leadership across government from policy design and development through to service delivery and operations, managing a number of strategic responses to government priorities in regional and remote locations.
“Referee checks were also carried out as part of the process. Mr Weeks’ referees supported his leadership, management expertise. In addition, Mr Weeks’ referees alerted the panel to the significant and complex change agenda he undertook, noting that significant organisational changes often result in anxiety and concern for some staff members.
“Mr Weeks has a career history in Aboriginal Affairs and as such has been across indigenous issues throughout Australia for many years, making him appropriately qualified for the position.”
The WA Department of Indigenous Affairs website published this in part of a “CEO profile” of Mr Weeks in March 2012:-
Q: What does it mean to have an Aboriginal man as the Director General of DIA?
A: It means that I am able to lead from the front. My Aboriginality helps with my understanding of where people are coming from, what the issues are and how to effectively address them. It also means that some decisions I take might not leave me popular with members of the Aboriginal community, but I’m committed to making decisions that will help foster long-term change.
By ERWIN CHLANDA