The Unforgivable Sin: Ethics

I am ambivalent about recently-axed SIHIP head, Jim Davidson.

His history shows that he can be sweepingly arrogant, convinced of his own intellectual superiority, and able to enjoy the very sourest of grapes. When he lost to my former employer, David Tollner, in the 2004 Federal Election, he remarked that he’d lost because soldiers voted for Dave Tollner so they could go to Iraq and earn danger pay. He’d called them, in so many words, mercenaries. Unsurprisingly he was not invited back for the 2007 election.

Today Davidson was out sinking the boot into various persons related to the SIHIP program, including the shiny-bums sent to look his shoulder by Jenny Macklin. Just another example of his propensity to lash out when things don’t go his way.

But, as I said, I am ambivalent about Mr Davidson. Putting his personality to one side, let’s focus on what he did. In my opinion, Jim Davidson got the sack for behaving ethically.

Davidson is an engineer by training and experience. Engineers, like medicos and legal eagles, hold themselves to a strict, high standard of ethical integrity.

Amongst other things, engineers are required to tell their employers the truth, no matter how unpalatable that truth might be. When Davidson saw Alison Anderson and told her that SIHIP would only be able to build perhaps 300-400 buildings, instead of 700, he was doing the ethical thing: telling the truth to his employer.

It was, of course, not a truth that was politically acceptable. It was a truth that NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson did everything in his power to discredit. Davidson had done the one thing that the foolish leader cannot forgive: he told the truth, despite the fact that his masters did not want to hear it or have it heard.

I find Davidson’s conduct as a professional engineer was ethically correct. I find Henderson’s punishment of that ethical correctness to be contemptible, low and self-serving.

I wish Jim Davidson further success in his career. We who are engineers, or in professions aspiring to that august title, could learn from his example.

Additional: There’s some confusion amongst non-NT readers about the order of events. Dave’s remarks give a good summary; I’ve also posted a comment below with a potted summary.

Additional remarks from Dave Bath below the fold.

  • A briefing he gave to the former Indigenous Policy Minister, Alison Anderson, was the beginning of a controversy that eventually led to her resigning from the Labor Party.
  • Ms Anderson said she had been told that up to 70 per cent of SIHIP funding would go towards indirect costs, such as administration and contractors’ fees.
  • The company Mr Davidson works for, Parsons Brinkerhoff, has confirmed it is in negotiations with both governments about its future with the program.
  • Mr Henderson says the matter has nothing to do with the Government.

OK, so therefore a few more questions….

  • Did Davidson only brief the Minister, and not unauthorized persons?
    It seems he didn’t do anything wrong.
  • Is Chief Minister Henderson in contempt of parliament for a lie (“nothing to do with the Government” – because heading up a government-branded program such as SIHIP is probably not something that should be at the pleasure of one of the subcontractors), or was he splitting split hairs?
  • If it isn’t a matter for government who heads a branded initiative for a hundreds-of-millions dollars government funding (at least two-thirds of a billion, probably going up to a billion by the time the program is “finished” in 2013 excluding late delivery), then WTF is going on? Derogation of duty by the political lords I’d say – and I’d be interested to now what the cutoff in hundreds-of-millions is between whether it is or isn’t a matter of government business.
  • At the very least, Davidson should probably have attempted to put this in a project or program risk register. It would be interesting to know if the Financial Management Act requires this. If he was prevented from putting it in a register then who prevented him, given he headed SIHIP? Who manages the risk register for SIHIP?

This is the tender for indigenous housing, including a statement of confidentiality clauses.

So… from what I can see public service rules may apply – and I cannot see anything to indicate Davidson broke those rules. If his advice was competent and only to the Minister and authorized persons, this indicates compliance with both professional and public service ethics and regulations. Even if there is no ombuds in the NT, the federal branding might indicate a federal ombuds or the public service commission might be available to him (unless expressely ruled out in any agreement between Davidson and governments – which should make one very suspicious about those who drew up any agreement).

It makes one wonder what else is going on with government programs.
“HowRudd” is no joke anymore.

ACLP in the NT context, maybe.

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