Community health grants program referred to APS Commissioner

Matters related to the administration of a community health grants program have been referred to APS Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer for investigation, the head of the health department told a parliamentary committee.

Blair Comley gives evidence to the JCAA inquiry on February 1, 2024

An audit into the $2 billion Community Health and Hospitals grants program released last year found the department’s administration of the program was ineffective and fell short of ethical standards.

“Matters related to the audit report findings … have been referred to the Australian Public Service Commissioner for consideration in accordance with his statutory powers,” health department secretary Blair Comley told a parliamentary inquiry into probity and ethics in the public sector last Thursday.

The then acting APS Commissioner, Jo Talbot, also flagged at a hearing last November that that the APSC and the department of health had been ‘engaging on this matter’ since the release of the audit.

Mr Comley told the committee on Thursday the department has accepted the findings and recognises the seriousness of their nature and the need for a strong response.

“There are no circumstances in which a deliberate breach is acceptable. A lack of malintent is not acceptable justification for not adhering to finance law,” he said.

“In the case of CHHP theres been an ongoing an comprehensive review of controls governance and assurance. Changes are being embedded.”

Need to look at culture

The audit report found deliberate breaches of the Commonwealth grants rules in the administration of the CHHP, and a failure to advise the government when there was no legislative authority for grant expenditure.

It also said executive oversight, risk and fraud management were deficient and projects funded under grant agreements with Primary Health Networks and non-government organisations were designed, assessed, established and managed in a manner that was largely inconsistent with the Commonwealth rules.

Mr Comley agreed there was a need to look at culture within the public service with regard to doing things quickly and efficiently without sacrificing integrity.

“We have to embed a culture across the whole public service that where there are rules the rules should be followed, whether there’s sunlight on that activity or not,” he said.

“A culture where people, if they run into something that’s likely not allowed, that they say I have to escalate this or find a way to fix it.”

There was also a need to foster a culture of accountability, he added.

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