Goulburn Murray Water has ridden some rapids in recent years. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one director may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose multiple board members, chairs and managing directors since 2011 looks like carelessness. So it was with some concern that we began an investigation late last year into allegations that its managing director was inappropriately claiming expenses, which were being approved by its then chair.
The allegations were substantiated. They included that the managing director used a $20,000 relocation allowance for household items, including a high-end barbecue and cookbook, while choosing to retain a residence in Melbourne. Yet at the same time he pursued a ‘living away from home allowance’ to reduce his personal tax, despite advice that he was ineligible, resulting in Goulburn Murray Water spending over $17,000 on professional fees. He was also reimbursed over $21,000 in a year, making a series of inappropriate expense claims for meals and drinks, including alcohol and hotels stays in Melbourne.
All of the claims had been approved by the chair, who was also the subject of this investigation. She failed to confirm the business need for much of the expenditure and ignored advice from staff.
Given the over 4 billion dollars managed by Goulburn Murray Water, allegations that its managing director was inappropriately claiming expenses in the thousands of dollars may seem minor. But to a community facing years of hardship because of the drought and dairy crisis, and with an organisational message that GMW needs to cut costs and lower debt, this conduct seems particularly out of line with public expectations.
Public sector codes, rooted in core public sector values of integrity and accountability, exist for a reason. We do not expect our senior officials to be housed, fed and watered on the public purse, on top of a generous salary. We do not expect to pay for relationships to be lubricated by alcohol.
This investigation has exposed failings both with individuals and the systems that support them. Both need to do better to maintain public trust.