Alan Tudge, Scott Morrison and who knows what about Rachelle Miller’s reported $500,000 payout
One of the stranger stories in this campaign has been the travails of Alan Tudge – Schrödinger’s minister – a person both in and out of Scott Morrison’s cabinet. Also strange: what the government has said at various times about the events that have contributed to this unusual state affairs. To help cut through the confusion, and in the interests of transparency, let’s work through this saga, step by step.
Last year, the prime minister faced pressure to do something about Tudge. His former staffer Rachelle Miller alleged in December that Tudge had been emotionally and, in one instance, physically abusive towards her during a personal and professional relationship. Tudge denied Miller’s allegations and went to the backbench.
The Thom inquiry
Morrison then appointed the distinguished former bureaucrat Vivienne Thom to investigate whether or not there had been any breach of his ministerial standards. After an inquiry, Thom said there wasn’t “a basis for a finding that Mr Tudge’s conduct breached the ministerial standards”.
There were two footnotes. “The evidence available to the inquiry was limited by Ms Miller’s decision not to participate,” Thom wrote, and the ministerial standards “do not specifically address broader integrity and conflict of interest issues that can be a consequence of relationships that do not amount to ongoing or family relationships”.
Is that the only process involving Miller?
No. Separately to the issues canvassed by Thom, in November 2020, Miller filed a workplace harassment lawsuit seeking compensation for her treatment while a Liberal party staffer, including allegedly being belittled in Tudge’s office and deprived of further career progression after she was shuffled into the office of then employment minister Michaelia Cash.
This legal action is against the Department of Finance, which is technically the employer of ministerial staff.
There has been an attempt to mediate and reach a settlement, and press reports have pointed to the potential for Miller to receive a taxpayer-funded compensation payment of at least $500,000, plus legal costs.
But the process has stalled.
What has the government said? (We know nothing.)
Back in April, Morrison told 2GB he had no “visibility” on that workplace action. “Those are private matters between the department of finance and Ms Miller, and they’re appropriately at arm’s length from me,” he said.
Morrison said the “rules” meant he wasn’t “allowed to have visibility or any participation in that, because it’s an employment matter, and no one can confirm these issues”.
In mid-April, the Coalition’s campaign spokesperson Anne Ruston said the workplace action was “not related to the issues that were the subject of the Thom inquiry, which found Mr Tudge had not breached ministerial standards. My understanding is it’s a separate matter that’s being handled by the Department of Finance and you’ll need to direct your questions to them”.
Finance at that time declined to engage with specifics, saying it did not comment “on the details of any individual claim.”
We know something
But by Wednesday night, Morrison did have information.
During the final leaders’ debate of the campaign, the prime minister was asked by the Seven Network’s political editor Mark Riley “don’t taxpayers have a right to know why they have paid half a million dollars compensation to your education minister, Alan Tudge’s press secretary and former lover?”
Morrison said: “I’m advised [this action] has not even been settled. That’s because these are matters to go to very private interactions between people and they are handled sensitively.”
After he shared this information about the workplace matter, which is ongoing and unresolved, Morrison flipped back to the concluded Thom inquiry. “We had an independent inquiry into Alan Tudge,” Morrison said. “I had an independent inquiry. We dealt with the issue”.
Then a little later in the debate, Morrison veered back to the workplace action. “On the other matter of the financial settlement, I’m advised that the matter hasn’t even been settled.”
What has Tudge said?
Asked earlier this week why the Department of Finance was negotiating with Miller to receive a payment in excess of $500,000, Tudge said: “As the prime minister said, he’s unaware, I’m unaware. It’s a matter for the Department of Finance”.
“I have no information. I haven’t been called as a witness. I haven’t been asked to provide evidence and as the prime minister said, if it involved me, he would have been made aware and he hasn’t been made aware.”
Given the broad allegations levelled in Miller’s workplace claim have been reported publicly and widely in a number of media outlets, it is odd for Tudge to say he has no information. Presumably he means he hasn’t been formally engaged as part of any legal action.
Miller has been engaged in mediation with the Department of Finance – technically her former employer. She may yet launch a legal action that ventilates specific allegations against Tudge and Cash, but that hasn’t happened as yet.
What has Miller said?
While the government has said for several weeks either it hasn’t been briefed, or it would be inappropriate to respond in detail to questions about this action, Miller said in mid-April she was happy to release the commonwealth, the finance department and the prime minister from “any obligation of confidentiality in respect of her claim”.
Often the settlement of such claims include non-disclosure agreements. Miller has made it clear she isn’t interested in a settlement on those terms.
What did Morrison say on Thursday?
Morrison was asked on the hustings on Thursday whether he stood by a previous statement that the $500,000-plus compensation claim did not involve Tudge. He was asked: “If the Cabinet minister was involved in such a claim, you would be told?”
The prime minister said “that was the advice that I received from the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet”.
Morrison was then asked whether or not he was being briefed on the contents of the claim. “Well, I can’t be,” he said.
It was pointed out to the prime minister that a 22-page letter sent to the Department of Finance outlined specific allegations against the two ministers Miller worked for – Tudge and Cash. “I can’t be briefed on that,” Morrison said. “My only advice was that it hadn’t been settled. That was my last advice.”
A clarification and a conflation
Morrison then said something quite specific. He said if there was any matter “that went to the conduct of any minister, any minister at all, that related to the ministry or standards – then I would be advised of that”.
Having made that observation, Morrison then segued to the concluded Thom inquiry, which is different to the unconcluded workplace matter against the Department of Finance.
But the prime minister seemed to conflate the two processes. “We had an independent inquiry into those matters and that independent inquiry did not find any basis for any action in relation to the ministerial standards,” he said.
What happens from here?
Apart from ongoing confusion and a significant lack of transparency, it is not yet clear how this story ends.
Miller may settle her claim successfully, or she may take it to the courts.