The Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet handballed the matter of $41,000 illegally paid to a senior official to another department because of an unnamed “potential conflict”, Senate estimates has heard.
Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters quizzed the government over the scandal, including why it had waived $41,053 in overpayments made to Chris Jose, a boss of the nation’s media regulator.
“Finance…agreed to waive the debt, which is quite a different approach to that taken with robodebt,” Senator Waters told the Senate economics committee.
As revealed by The Klaxon, for two years Jose was paid as a full-time member of media regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and as a part-time member of the National Competition Council (NCC).
It is illegal for a full-time Federal Government employee to also be paid for a second government job.
In all there were 53 illegal payments to Jose, totalling $41,073.
As revealed by The Klaxon, the Commonwealth Ombudsman in December completed a year-long investigation into the government’s handling of the matter.
That PM&C had passed the matter on is particularly unusual because, as the Ombudsman report shows, it is the “policy entity” responsible for overseeing remuneration issues.
Citing The Klaxon’sexpose, Senator Waters put the matter to the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet in Senate Estimates hearings last week.
“It was recently reported the Ombudsman had been critical of the Department of Finance’s decision in 2020 to waive the $41,000 debt owed by Mr Chris Jose after he was paid for his roles with both ACMA and the National Competition Council (NCC) simultaneously,” she said.
Waters asked why PM&C had made the decision to “delegate responsibility” of the matter.
The Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet claimed that it had done so because of a “potential conflict”.
This is the first time the government has made this claim.
“Because of the potential conflict, PM&C’s view was that it was appropriate that the matter be handled by the Department of Finance,” PM&C official John Reid told the senate committee.
Reid did not state what that “potential conflict” was.
The Ombudsman report makes no mention of PM&C having any potential conflict.
PM&C, Treasury, and Finance held a teleconference about the Jose matter on 12 May 2020.
Notes from the meeting state the reason PM&C had decided it to delegate the matter was it had “concluded it would be managed more effectively by a larger agency”.
PM&C is the most powerful agency in the Commonwealth of Australia.
Reid’s title at PM&C is First Assistant Secretary, Government Division.
Jose was appointed to the National Competition Council (NCC) in December 2017.
He was appointed by then Treasurer, now Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.
“The Treasurer, the Hon Scott Morrison, today announced the appointment of Mr Chris Jose as a part‑time Councillor to the National Competition Council for a three-year period,” Morrison announced at the time.
Months later, Jose was also appointed as a full-time member of media regulator ACMA, starting on May 1, 2018.
Before the appointments Jose spent 15 years as partner of law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.
Searches show Jose is also a Pastor with Pentecostal group Revival Fellowship.
Jose is one of Revival Fellowship’s most senior members.
“Pastor Chris Jose doing a presentation on ‘simplicity’.” Source: Facebook.
In one of several sermons published on the internet, which includes a series from Jose at site Podcast Revival, Jose discusses his conversion to the group.
“I was a young 17 year old, (an) arrogant young lad, and I ultimately, through a series of circumstances, acted upon the word, was baptised, and received the Holy Spirit. It was a miraculous experience,” Jose says.
“And indeed I spoke in tongues, afterward, the baptism, and it stunned me, right. It really did. It knocked me out a bit”.
Prime Minister Morrison, a fellow Pentecostal, has advertised his faith publicly, including hosting journalists at his Horizon church in Sydney’s Sutherland shire during the 2019 election campaign.
Morrison’s religious activities made headlines in April last year after it was revealed he had attended and delivered a speech at the annual conference group of “Australian Christian Churches”, a group of Pentecostal churches (formerly called the Assembly of God.)
Morrison, Australia’s first Pentecostal Prime Minister, told the Gold Coast conference that he had been called upon to do God’s work and that he had practised the Pentecostal act of “laying on of hands” while working.
Morrison had attended the conference via taxpayer-funded aircraft using a government jet, but failed to make any mention of the visit or to release his speech.
“No video of the address has been promoted on his Facebook or official pages, nor has his office released a copy of his speech, as usually occurs when he is speaking in his official capacity as prime minister,” reported Guardian Australia.
The Klaxon has repeatedly put questions to Morrison and his department regarding the Jose matter over the past month.
We have received no response.
– December 18, 2017: Jose is appointed part-time NCC Councillor
– May 1, 2018: Jose is appointed full-time member of ACMA
– March, 2020: A whistleblower tells NCC the Jose payments are illegal
– April 30 2020: NCC stops making payments to Jose
– May 12, 2020: PM&C, Finance and Treasury hold a teleconference to discuss the Jose matter
– May 27 2020: Assistant Minister to the PM&C, Ben Morton MP, hands matter to Finance
– August 13, 2020: Finance grants a “waiver” of the Jose debt
Many serious questions remain.
Remarkably, given Jose is at the centre of the entire affair, the Ombudsman report contains no direct statements or evidence from him.
It also shows that key matters involving Jose either occurred only via telephone (for reasons not disclosed) or, in several cases, Jose was allegedly not contacted at all.
The PM&C and Finance both “confirmed that they had no direct communication with (Mr Jose)”, the Ombudsman report states.
Finance told the Ombudsman it “relied on PMC’s advice” regarding Mr Jose’s position.
PM&C, in turn, told the Ombudsman “it relied on Treasury for advice of (Mr Jose’s) views”.
The Ombudsman then asked Treasury about the matter. It refused to comment.
“Treasury did not provide the investigator with any information regarding the views expressed or information provided by (Mr Jose) in relation to the debt,” the report says.
Treasury is run by Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy – who was personally altered to the fact his department had been delegated the Jose matter – and is overseen by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
(The Jose matter went from the NCC, to PM&C, to Treasury, and ultimately to Finance, which waived the debt in full).
In the Ombudsman report, the only specific mention of contact with Jose regarding the $41,000 comes from NCC President Julie-Anne Schafer.
And even then it’s in the form of her recollection of telephone conversations she had with him before she handed the matter to PM&C.
Schafer, a career lawyer, and Jose, a barrister, apparently kept all communication regarding the extremely serious matter solely via telephone.
There is no paper trail.
There are other curiosities.
The NCC was alerted to the illegality of the Jose payments by an anonymous whistleblower in May 2020 (the precise date is not stated in the report).
It was Schafer who, as NCC President, had authorised the illegal payments to Jose over two years. (There were three NCC “councillors” at the time, including Schafer and Jose).
Schafer told the Ombudsman that doing so had been an “inadvertent error” and that she had been unaware of the law.
(While PM&C is the umbrella “policy agency” for Remuneration Tribunal matters, it is the role of individual agency heads to deal with matters such as overpayments.)
As NCC President it was Schafer’s responsibility to handle the Jose matter.
Schafer didn’t do this, instead handing the matter to PM&C, for reasons not fully explained.
The Ombudsman report states it was “to mitigate any perceived concerns about (Schafer’s) independence” if she “were to make decisions about recovery or otherwise of those payments”.
No further information is given.
Also unusual is the timeframe.
There is an unexplained gap of well over a month between Schafer being alerted to the illegality of the Jose payments and her officially “writing” to PM&C and asking it to handle it.
She received the whistleblower report in May 2020 and officially wrote to PM&C on May 6.
Much of what happened in the interim – such as via any telephone calls with government departments – is unclear.
And Jose is refusing to comment on key matters.
The Klaxon put questions to him last month, including whether he had sought the $41,000 debt be forgiven (and if so on what grounds) and whether he had been “unwilling” to repay the money, as is suggested by information in the Ombudsman report.
Jose provided no response directly, but had ACMA, Australia’s media regulator, respond to us on his behalf.
Our specific questions were not answered.
“The waiver decision was made by the Department of Finance and did not involve Mr Jose,” the ACMA statement said.
A response from Schafer to the Ombudsman is included in the report.
She says she discussed the illegal payments matter with Jose via telephone on 24 April 2020. There was another telephone conversation the next day, April 25, and another three days later, on 28 April.
Schafer says Jose was “unaware of any issue” that would prevent him from being paid for both roles, that he “had provided services to the NCC” and that “as a consequence” he considered he “was in an unfair position”.
She said “subsequently, on 25 April, 2020” Jose contacted her “by telephone and requested that all payments from the NCC” to him “cease immediately”.
There was another discussion, on April 28.
“The purpose of that discussion was to understand the factual background on the matter,” Schafer told Ombudsman investigators.
“(Mr Jose) indicated that (he) did not consider it would be fair and equitable for steps to be taken to recover earlier payments.”
Jose did not respond when asked whether he had sought the $41,000 debt waiver, or whether he considered it appropriate that the debt was waived.
Help us get the truth out from as little as $10/month.
The need for fearless, independent media has never been greater. Journalism is on its knees – and the media landscape is riddled with vested interests. Please consider subscribing for as little as $10 a month to help us keep holding the powerful to account.