Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott in the Howard government, and contributes regularly to the Australian edition of The Spectator.
John Bercow’s bid to recruit an Australian parliamentary official, Carol Mills, as Clerk of the House of Commons is dormant, is being reviewed by a Select Committee. But it has not gone away.
When the Mills controversy was at its height, I wrote on this site that Bercow’s motives, not Mills’s professional competence, should be the focus of criticism. “The only thing that Mills is guilty of is applying for a position for which she must have known she was under-qualified”, I said.
Since then, however, both Mills’s competence and professional judgment have been called into question by the Australian Parliament not once but twice. The two incidents demonstrate that not only is she unsuitable for the Clerkship, but that Bercow’s judgment in having championed her is reckless and ill-considered.
During late September, Bercow visited Canberra, as a guest of his Australian counterpart, to lecture on digital democracy and the impact of online and social media on the democratic process. No doubt Mr Speaker’s ego was pricked by the desultory attendance he attracted: Parliament’s House’s main committee room, which can hold several hundred people, attracted perhaps 50, including very few Australian MPs.
But Mills herself was present, and Bercow acknowledged her ostentatiously. His strong praise for the Australian parliament’s management wouldn’t have been missed by his Westminster opponents either.
Yet while Bercow was still in Australia, Mills’s Department of Parliamentary Services issued a directive, on instructions from the Speaker and the President of the Senate, that female visitors to Parliament wearing the burqa or niqab be segregated in glassed-in public galleries of the House of Representatives and Senate chambers, where noisy school groups are seated.
This followed days of unsavoury political debate whipped up by a few outspoken MPs unscrupulously branding the burqa as a symbol of Islamic State evil. Amidst the outcry, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott himself moved promptly for the “burqa ban” to be overturned, saying that once a person was security-screened upon entering Parliament House that he had “no problem” with what people wear in the building. In Australia, presiding officers are appointed by the majority party, and nominated by the Prime Minister. Therefore Abbott’s stance was a strong rebuke.
In acting, the Speaker and President relied on the advice of Mills’s Department of Parliamentary Services, and presumably Mills herself. Imposing the directive was reactive and panicky, involved minimal consultation – and the measure itself was absurd. If you suspect someone of being a potential terrorist, surely surrounding them with children isn’t a good idea?
In short, the farce raised questions of Mills’s judgment as parliament’s chief security adviser. For Bercow on the spot, it should have raised questions about his appointing her to modernise the management of Westminster’s parliamentary estate – the very reason he gave such priority in going outside the Commons to select her.
But last week a graver shadow fell, cast by a matter that was simmering during Bercow’s selection process for the Commons clerkship. Mills became the subject of adverse findings in a Senate Privileges Committee investigation that concluded that she misled the Senate.
The committee investigated the use of CCTV by Mills’s department to monitor the movements of a parliamentary employee suspected of inappropriately providing information to a highly-respected Opposition senator, John Faulkner, in relation to Senate estimates committee hearings. The employee was spotted leaving an envelope late at night under Faulkner’s office door, and was suspected of whistleblowing.
In May, Faulkner raised the incident with Mills at a related committee hearing. Mills said the matter had only become known to her on the day of that hearing, while acknowledging that it may well have breached internal codes of practice about the use of CCTV. Unmollified, Faulkner and the Estimates Committee referred the matter to the Senate’s Privileges Committee.
That committee’s report, released late last week, is damning. It concludes that subsequent evidence contradicted Mills’s claims about her involvement, and that not only was she made aware of the CCTV incident when it occurred last February, but that she issued instructions on dealing with it.
The report didn’t mince words. “The committee considers that the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee was misled about the Secretary’s knowledge of the events that led to this inquiry.” Given committee hearings are formal parliamentary business, misleading them is misleading Parliament – in Australia as in Westminster a hanging offence for officials as well as MPs.
In relation to the burqa ban, Carol Mills merely was guilty of misjudgment. But in being found to have misled the Senate, and in protecting her own interests ahead of the truth, Mills stands accused by the Australian Parliament of the gravest parliamentary offence. Whether her pursuit of the Commons Clerkship affected her frankness is a question that only she can answer, but it is hard not to conclude that it was a factor.
In these circumstances, Mills’s Canberra role is now untenable, and doubts about her suitability for the most prestigious official position in the Palace of Westminster have sadly been vindicated. Surely Mills’s career as a top parliamentary official cannot survive the censure of those whom she is appointed to serve.
And what of the Speaker? Bercow was actually in Australia when the burqua ban exploded in Mills’s face. Worse, the CCTV fiasco was referred to the Australian Senate’s privileges committee while his selection exercise was under way. It was vitally material to that process – yet was either not considered or disregarded by the headhunters and Bercow’s selection panel. The Speaker’s choice of Mills, his stubborn dismissal of MPs’ concerns about her appointment, and his defending her as the evidence of her unsuitability mounted, has damaged the standing of the Speaker and his high office.
Carol Mills isn’t the only person who should reflect.