It isn’t often that a public servant’s choice of T-shirt is discussed in the grand inquisitorial forum of Senate estimates.
Budget overruns, rorts and staffing allocations are the order of the day.
But there aren’t many – perhaps any – public service bosses quite like Infrastructure Department boss Jim Betts.
He’s an Oxford-educated former punk rocker who was brought in as a privatisation expert by former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett to help sell off the state’s trains. Betts has also worked for former NSW Liberal premiers Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian, before being appointed by the Albanese government last year.
During a Senate estimates hearing this week, Coalition senators grilled Betts – who is renowned for his refusal to wear corporate attire – about some of his recent outfits.
At issue? Wearing an Aboriginal flag T-shirt with the black power fist on it during a recent staff meeting and, separately, wearing a “Notorious RBG” – a reference to former US liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – during a recent keynote address at an infrastructure conference.
With his sleeves rolled up and sporting a rainbow lanyard in solidarity with the LGBTQI community, Betts was quizzed by Nationals senators Matt Canavan and Bridget McKenzie about his sartorial choices.
McKenzie pressed Betts about impartiality in the context of the Voice to parliament referendum and the need to be “inclusive and respectful, no matter what side of that debate you sit on”.
“Is it correct that you wore a black power T-shirt while making a formal address to department staff recently?” she asked.
Betts initially stated the T-shirt only had an “Aboriginal emblem on it” and that “I don’t even know what a black power T-shirt is”, before arguing the black power movement was “not a piece of terminology that I’m familiar with in contemporary Australia”.
“It sounds like you are pretty familiar with it,” Canavan shot back.
“To the extent that that symbolised anything, it symbolised solidarity with the Aboriginal community in Australia and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff members within my own department. But to suggest that that referred in any way to the Voice or any other specific issue…” Betts replied.
“You seem very defensive about this,” Canavan interjected. “The issue here is, we obviously weren’t at this meeting, but this information has come through to us [Canavan and McKenzie]. Some people in your department are deeply uncomfortable with this presentation. The issue here is your leadership and the ability to make sure you keep a team together.”
Betts replied: “If I go into any major corporate office in Australia, the Aboriginal flag is hanging there.
“I can’t believe – I didn’t prep for this over the weekend, I apologise. It [the fist] has a variety of different meanings. In this case, it symbolises my signal of solidarity to Aboriginal staff within my department and more broadly in [the] community. That is not about any particular position on the Voice or the referendum.”
Later on Wednesday, Betts was again quizzed by Coalition senators about the Ginsburg T-shirt he wore to a Brisbane summit.
“[She’s] a very well-respected figure internationally, who sadly passed away a few years ago. And I like wearing T-shirts with lawyers on them,” Betts deadpanned.
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