Committee hears agency head made ‘slur’ against integrity commissioner Nikola Stepanov

The chief executive of the Queensland Public Service Commission has denied claims heard by a parliamentary committee that he called the state’s integrity commissioner “a bitch on a witch hunt”.

Queensland’s integrity commissioner, Dr Nikola Stepanov, made the comments under parliamentary privilege during a hearing of the parliament’s economic and governance committee on Monday.

Asked whether she had ever been called such a term and “subject to misogynistic language”, Stepanov told the hearing: “I do confirm that I have had comments of that nature … said to me.”

“I support a modern public service where women and men, particularly those emerging as leaders, are not subject to those kinds of gender-based slurs.

“I was called that term by the PSC chief executive. I had already heard it, but I was called that term by him in a phone call on or about 4 April 2018.”

Robert Setter has released a statement to say he was “appalled and saddened” by the claim.

“I am appalled because it is not behaviour that I consider appropriate – ever,” he said in the statement.

“I deny absolutely making any misogynistic comments to or about the integrity commissioner at any time.

“I am saddened because the integrity commissioner has felt it necessary to use parliamentary privilege to raise her concern in this way.

“The commissioner has never raised this with me directly. Nor am I aware that the commissioner has referred her concerns to any other authority.”

Stepanov announced her resignation in January, sparking a much-hyped integrity saga within the Queensland public service.

Stepanov – whose office regulates lobbying in Queensland – has previously raised concerns about interference with her office by the Public Service Commission (PSC), which controls her agency’s budget and staffing.

Those concerns include allegations the PSC removed and wiped the contents of a laptop used by an employee, and complaints that the PSC had gradually stripped resources and key staff from the integrity commissioner’s office.

The state parliament’s economic and governance committee is holding hearings about a strategic review of the integrity commissioner’s office. Stepanov gave evidence on Monday morning.

She said she had written to the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and would remain in her role until at least 31 December – extending her tenure in order to oversee reforms.

Setter has previously denied suggestions he was uncooperative with Stepanov’s attempts to conduct a lobbying audit of the PSC.

The integrity commissioner is an independent statutory office whose responsibility is to advise MPs and public servants on ethics matters, and to regulate lobbying activities.

The PSC is a central government agency assisting departments with managing their workforce.

Stepanov reiterated her support for a potential commission of inquiry into the integrity matters and argued that the integrity commissioner’s office should be separated from the PSC. She said she should ultimately be given control of her own office’s staffing and budget.

“Where I have encountered concerns about conduct, the staff within the office are PSC staff,” she told the committee.

“You are seeking to do your job in an environment where you don’t, in effect, control the resources that support you.”

Stepanov had previously raised concerns about the way a PSC staff member, who had been working in her office, had handled confidential documents. She requested a forensic examination of the employee’s laptop.

In March 2021, the PSC removed and allegedly wiped the contents of a laptop.

The Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission is investigating a complaint related to the deletion of files from the laptop.

Setter’s statement also addressed the broader public sector power struggle between the two offices.

“It is a matter of public record that as the employer of staff in the office of the integrity commissioner, that I have been concerned for some time about allegations raised regarding the psychological safety of some staff.

“Where there are matters relating to the integrity commissioner herself, I have made that information available through the appropriate channels for consideration and advice in accordance with my statutory obligations.

“I cannot make further comment on matters that are currently under CCC investigation.

“I stand on my record of respect, integrity, and leadership within the public service over many years.”

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