Why the Bureau of Meteorology lied to court

Feb 20, 2024 •

The Bureau of Meteorology determines a lot: from whether we bring an umbrella to work, to how much warning we get of a natural disaster – all the way to what we know about climate change. But now, the bureau’s management faces serious questions, amid revelations that senior executives have deliberately misled a federal court.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on troubles at the BoM, and how internal struggles are getting in the way of the weather forecast.



Why the Bureau of Meteorology lied to court

1178 • Feb 20, 2024

Why the Bureau of Meteorology lied to court

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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ange McCormack. This is 7am.

The Bureau of Meteorology determines a lot: from whether we bring an umbrella to work, to how early we know a natural disaster is heading for us, and all the way to understanding climate change.

But now, serious questions are being raised above the Bureau’s management, and the revelation that some have deliberately misled the federal court.

So, why did senior executives lie?

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton, on troubles at the BoM, and how internal struggles are getting in the way of the weather forecast.

It’s Tuesday, February 20.

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Rick, you've broken a few stories about the Bureau of Meteorology over the years, including what went on when they tried that rebrand to the bureau a few years ago. Why is it that you think it's worth keeping a close eye on what's going on there?


I mean, I think the Australians feel that the Bureau of Meteorology belongs to all of us, which is why that rebrand was such a, I guess a bit of a storm at the time, ironically, because no one was consulted on that. And people were like, why do we need to change the name of the Bureau of Meteorology to just the Bureau?

Audio excerpt – Unknown:

“they've asked people to stop calling it the BoM or the weather bureau and stick to the Bureau of Meteorology or the Bureau for short.”

Audio excerpt – Unknown:

“It is simply the stupidest thing I have probably ever seen any organisation do ever.”

Audio excerpt – Unknown:

“It’s the BoM isn’t it? It is the BoM and they’re not going to stop people calling it that regardless of how they rebrand themselves.”

Audio excerpt – Speaker from Bureau of Meteorology:

“Like any large organisation, there are times we don't get it right. Recent public commentary about the name of our organisation is no reflection whatsoever on our capability and devotion to keeping Australians safe and informed.”


We use the weather app. We are used to checking the BoM radar. Every reliable weather report on the news is sourced from the Bureau of Meteorology. You know, it's information that touches all of our lives in all these different ways. And it's about the really important stuff. It's about natural disaster warnings, life and death situations. When the tropical cyclone forming, when does it hit land?

And then also, how is our climate changing? And that kind of makes it, I think, one of the most vital institutions in a country like ours.

But over the last few years, we've been hearing these really worrying stories about the state of the Bureau of Meteorology itself in terms of changes across the management structure.

And there has been a concerning narrative, I guess, from within, from sources that I've been speaking to. And it's dozens of people here about the quality of the work that is being done, and how it's been undermined by certain decisions that have been taken within the Bureau of Meteorology itself.

So all of that is kind of the backdrop against which I come to this week story, which is about a court case which I learned about, which had some really serious ramifications, I think, for the leadership team at the Bureau of Meteorology.

But also brought out a few of the same people I've been talking to before who were like, look, this is exactly what you were saying about the the significant cracks in the management layer at the Bureau of Meteorology. And, and it's really quite concerning


Okay. So what have we learned about the people in that top layer of management at the bureau? What's going on there?


So just a couple of weeks ago now, three of the most senior leaders at the Bureau of Meteorology found themselves singled out for comment in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. And particularly I'm referring here to the chief executive officer of the Bureau, Andrew Johnson. His right hand man, Doctor Peter Stone, and a HR manager, Simone Keenan.

And they were there because of an unfair dismissal case. The federal case related to Jasmine Chambers, who was this employee who had been headhunted by the Bureau of Meteorology from the University of Sydney, to take up a very highly paid, quite senior job, essentially managing scientific relationships for the Bureau of Meteorology here and particularly overseas with other institutions.

And Jasmine Chambers took on this role and then was immediately almost singled out for a series of what the court heard were a kind of, targeted audits, performance reviews that bore little, if any, resemblance to reality and tended to be motivated by people who just wanted her gone.

And eventually the court found in this single case that Jasmine Chambers had been the subject of unfair dismissal because bureau leadership, beginning with Andrew Johnson, the CEO, conspired to manage her out.

Now I'm particularly interested in what it says about the rest of the agency and how they handled not just the case itself, but how they handled the court. And this is where it gets really interesting.

So at the end of this process, when they were hoping that Jasmine Chambers would resign, and when I say they, I mean management, they had already engaged an executive recruitment firm to start looking for a new person to fill this role. But they didn't want Jasmine Chambers to apply for it. But because she didn't resign. We've heard evidence that Doctor Peter Stone, who is a business group business executive at the bureau and Doctor Johnson's right hand man, he actually got in touch with the firm, and said, delay, don't go searching yet.

Now. In the affidavits that were filed to the court, Doctor Peter Stone claimed that he was never asking for a delay, because they didn't want Jasmine Chambers to get the job because he didn't have budget yet for the position. But that was not true.

It was not true because the internal budget papers of the Bureau clearly showed, according to the judge, that there was a amount for $300,000, which was allocated to the exact role for which they were recruiting.

So the bigger significance of this court case, beyond an unfair dismissal, is the harsh findings about the behaviour of these two most senior leaders at the Bureau of Meteorology. The court found their evidence was, filled with falsity, that it was not credible. And in relation to Doctor Peter Stone in particular. Judge Humphreys found that he engaged in a deliberate attempt to mislead the court.


Right. So I guess an unfair dismissal case is obviously not something the Bureau wants on its hands in the first place. But you're saying that's actually just the start of it. There's now a suggestion that some executives have lied in court. How significant is that?


I think it's extremely serious. And just on a prima facie case, if you read the Australian Public Service, Code of Conduct in the Public Service Act, points one and nine in particular say that you need to act with honesty and integrity, number nine says that you must not provide false information or misleading information when requested to provide information in an official capacity.

And so when I raise these issues with the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, who has carriage of the Bureau of Meteorology, and asked whether there had been any referrals made to the Public Service commissioner for investigation, she replied in a statement that said that the allegations raised by Judge Humphreys are concerning, and that she sought urgent advice about the matter from the secretary of her department. Which is, a separate entity to the Bureau of Meteorology, which means because the allegations in this case are so serious and at such a senior level, there's nobody really at the BoM left to deal with them.

And that's pretty extraordinary for a workplace dispute involving a single employee to spiral out of control so badly that the minister has to get involved, and it casts serious doubt over the leadership and the decision-making at the Bureau of Meteorology.

And so at the same time that all of this has been happening, there's more, even more recent information about how the BoM is failing to meet some of its most important obligations and targets that they've set for themselves in their own annual reporting.

And there are concerns and worries that the Bureau is in trouble. That goes, you know, far beyond the recruitment of staff. And that's where. You know, when I was talking to people who are still employed in the Bureau of Meteorology last week, they said they were not surprised that the judge has called out the behaviour. They knew it was there. And by their reckoning, this is all inextricably linked to the many problems that were already facing the agency, many of which they said to me were self-inflicted.


After the break – How upheaval at the BoM is affecting the forecasts we all rely on.



Rick, we're talking about this federal court case involving the Bureau of Meteorology and how that's put a lot of scrutiny on the leadership at the Bureau. What do we know more broadly about what kind of state the BoM is in right now?


It's not a good one. And I, I know this because I spoke to people who care about the science that gets done there. And the thing is that I have some of the most talented people in the country when it comes to forecasting, but they are only as good as their management allows them to be.

And so a year or so ago, I reported that the bureau, you know, alongside these kinds of declining standards in Australia, and they were no longer meeting international obligations, on climate data in particular, which helps climate scientists study off a uniform data set all around the world. And the Bureau of Meteorology is still failing those obligations.

And I'm talking particularly here about upper air monitoring and the frequency with which they release balloons into the upper atmosphere, which is a really particular data set that you can't get from a satellite properly. And which they used to do twice a day. And now in, across half the continent on in any given month there's fewer than 30% timeliness on these upper air monitoring milestones. If you look at any other countries around the world, they're doing great. It's just Australia.

And if you look at the annual report, there were actually fewer public forecasts produced by the Bureau of Meteorology in the last financial year. There were five years ago in 2018-19. So, you know, this is despite the dramatic weather patterns that we've been seeing across the country. But the public forecasts have gone backwards.


Yeah. Right. And that that's really interesting that that could actually be a hard, definitive reason as to why it seems like our weather app. So, you know, all of us use day to day, not as accurate or sometimes can be wrong. And is that because you're saying that there's fewer and less reliable forecasts being made?


Yes. In fact, that's what that's what the meteorologists at the bureau told me. The simple fact is, it's because the Bureau of Management has been rationalising resources, moving meteorologists away from their local communities, putting them on a standardised production desk, and then not allowing them to intervene because of timeliness issues, even when they know there are issues with what the model has forecast. Right?

But there are other reasons as well. It's just a simple fact of hardware upkeep. So the BoM physically struggling to keep all of its monitoring equipment online and working. So one of the metrics that you use is weather radar uptime, which is just, you know, is the equipment functioning as planned. And that dropped to 95.5% from 97.3% in a year. And this was in part, they said, due to planned upgrades and maintenance, which you need. But almost half of it, or about 40% of that downtime, was completely due to faults. So the equipment's getting old and beleaguered.

And similarly, if you look at the satellite network availability, which and the satellites, the stuff that Jonathan and Doctor Peterson in particular keep saying, we're relying on that more and more. But the satellite uptime plunged by almost ten percentage points to just 89% compared to the previous financial year.

So all of that is happening. And meanwhile, questions are being raised about how the bureau is working behind the scenes. In the last annual report, the bureau had to own up to a significant accounting flaw, where they just misapplied the accounting standards and had to restate the details for 2022 to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, and which is not something you see very often in a in a government organisation or indeed even in a private company, that often unless something strange has happened.


So Rick, this story has come up more than a year after your original reporting, which raised concerns over how the BoM was doing its job. And now, arguably, from what you've been talking about, the bureau is in a worse, not better position. Where does accountability lie here, and how could this institution be turned around?


Well, I think I do think the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, now has more than enough to go on to make a decision about whether the Bureau of Meteorology is meeting its obligations full stop.

When you've got senior leaders and executives lying to a court, not just because we think they lied, but because the judge said, you have deliberately misled. We've got code of conduct issues.

And of course, there's lots of scrutiny on public servants in the code of conduct at the moment. And I have a little bit of a bee in my bonnet about it, trust in institutions is already so low and it's been eroded every day. And you don't get that back, by massaging the truth, you don't get that back by lying to a court. And you certainly don't get that back by allowing this behaviour to go unnoticed.

And so I think now we've got a really serious situation. And I suspect as people who are employed by the Bureau in many different positions have told me that it is not a separate story to talk about this leadership crisis when it comes to telling the truth to a court, and also what has been happening to the Bureau and its programs and its management of science over the last 5 or 6 years. Those things are the same story. And I think that's where we really need to start caring about the whole picture here, because this stuff actually does matter. This is where the rubber hits the road, I think, in terms of accountability.


Rick, thanks so much for your time today.


Thanks, Ange.


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Also in the news today,

Star Casino in Sydney will face its second inquiry just 18 months after the last one finished, it found that negligence and deception led to a high risk of money laundering at the casino.

The casino’s licence was suspended and it was issued a $100m fine after that first inquiry, but the gaming watchdog said in a statement yesterday that it hasn’t been satisfied by Star’s progress in proving it should regain its licence.


Former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce says he has given up alcohol for Lent.

The member for New England has not taken up an offer by David Littleproud to go on leave, after the Nationals Leader raised concerns over Mr Joyce being found lying on a Canberra street earlier this month after drinking alcohol.

I’m Ange McCormack. This is 7am. We’ll be back again tomorrow.

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The Bureau of Meteorology determines a lot: from whether we bring an umbrella to work, to how much warning we get of a natural disaster – all the way to what we know about climate change.

But now, serious questions are being raised about the bureau’s management – and it’s emerged that senior executives deliberately misled a federal court.

So, why did they lie?

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on troubles at the BoM, and how internal struggles are getting in the way of the weather forecast.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Cheyne Anderson and Zoltan Fesco.

Our senior producer is Chris Dengate. Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Sarah McVeigh is our head of audio. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Mixing by Andy Elston, Travis Evans and Atticus Bastow.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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1178: Why the Bureau of Meteorology lied to court