Politicisation of the public service

From the Financial Review, 28th Feb, 2006

Every few months the head of the Prime Minister’s department, Peter Shergold, denies that the Commonwealth public service is politicised. It is Shergold’s duty to counter the assertion, frequently made by former public servants, that the public service now serves the political interests of the government of the day. They say it used to serve the government of the day with public interests at its heart. So, it was unsurprising that Shergold returned to the claim in a speech he gave on February 15. He is right to harp because the criticism is important. A politicised service corrodes the social contract between electors and elected; it destroys trust in government; it undermines democracy.

Those who make the allegation point to its first sign, nearly ten years ago, when the new Prime Minister, John Howard, sacked a third of his inherited departmental secretaries, as he can, for no stated reason. It is implausible that these officers were incompetent. The better argument is that Howard believed they had been politicised, against him. The dismissals allowed Howard to appoint his own people, knowing that this act established a climate ripe for politicisation, for him.

Nor does it matter that Howard has since fired only a few more departmental heads. The Prime Minister has a loyalty pact: loyalty from officers will be repaid in kind. Mutual support explains why the former head of immigration, Bill Farmer, was rewarded as he left a department whose reputation had been trashed. Farmer had done the government’s hard bidding, even though deporting and incarcerating citizens and lawful residents proved excessive. Loyalty explains why the new head of the department, Andrew Metcalfe, so fluent when talking about the future, stammered when recently asked by Senators about the culture of the organisation he inherited. He could not easily find words which would not condemn his predecessor.

Pointers come from careful scrutiny by the Senate. The failure of the children overboard episode arose when public officers declined to correct initial advice. Because the government had made capital out of the advice on the eve of an election, no minister wanted the record corrected. Most officers were prepared to continue the deceit and some – especially the Office of National Assessments and some senior defence officers – enhanced it. The head of the interdepartmental committee dealing with unlawful arrivals and children overboard, Jane Halton, was promoted to head the health department.

The Senate investigation of weapons of mass destruction disclosed another failure. No-one wanted to upset Howard by questioning the alleged presence of these weapons in Iraq. The Bush government enjoyed the same bureaucratic support, although there were US government agencies which objected to official assessments.

Royal commissions also show the way. The Cole Inquiry into the AWB’s role in the Iraq food-for oil program will not find any officer who diligently followed the bribery suspicions which surrounded AWB. The government was meant to ensure that Australian businesses followed international and Australian law, but this conflicted with its aim of maximising wheat sales and prices

Neither we nor Shergold should be surprised by this. After all, Shergold’s predecessor, Max Moore-Wilton, explained his attitude to advising the Prime Minister. He had learned while working for Howard, he said, that he should provide advice when requested and think about it when it had not been sought.

Shergold’s response is to class these and other faults as failures of administration, poor record keeping. He implausibly defines a politicised public service as one which “uses its covert power to impose its own political goals on elected politicians”, and is surprised anyone could think that. Shergold cannot use the correct definition, that officers are politicised when they act politically, because he would have to concede the argument. Shergold knows that Moore-Wilton rejoiced in Howard’s election victories, and Shergold himself is an enthusiastic spruiker for government policies, and by implication, an ardent opponent of the opposition’s contrasting policies. Shergold also wants the public service to tailor its advice “to the direction of the elected government”, even if that conflicts with the public good.

As a former public servant recently said, Shergold appears to believe that criticisms about a politicised and self-censoring public service, unaccountable ministerial staff and withered ministerial accountability are self-indulgent claptrap. With Shergold’s assurances, we can sleep safely in our beds, and so can David Hicks.

This entry was posted in Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
11 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Great column Tony.

saint
15 years ago

Indeed. I would also want to know what impact the direct recruitment of lower ranked public officials (as opposed to promotion from within) has had on public service culture, ethics and acquiescence. I have heard anecdotally that it is signficant in some areas.

Vee
Vee
15 years ago

I wonder if any former public servants have provided their equivalent to Latham Diaries, Howard Factor, Etc?

Not necessarily big wig public servants but just those that point out frequent inconsistencies under Minister X or Prime Minister Y.

Geoff
Geoff
15 years ago

So, who is to judge the “the public good”? I don’t disagree with much of what you say about politicisation, but do you really mean that we should leave it to public servants (of whom I am one) to be the umpires of public good (whatever that might mean)? Public servants should confine themselves to providing advice, including alternatives, and to doing the government’s bidding.

Gaby
Gaby
15 years ago

Very good column Tony and a final wincing blow to the solar plexus with the last reference to David Hicks.

A scandalous state of affairs and on whom nary a soundbite has been wasted in support by both sides (the same side?) of politics, especially here in S.A. given that this is his probable domicile.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

Public servants should confine themselves to providing advice, including alternatives, and to doing the government’s bidding.

I don’t believe that Tony Harris (or pretty well anyone else) would argue otherwise. His column certainly suggests no such thing. But the public service culture under Howard (and it started to develop much earlier, from the time new managerialism and the SES were introduced) seems to be that the PS should give only the sort of advice that the government wants to hear, and should refrain from telling Ministers anything that they migh prefer not to know. It’s the “including alternatives” bit that doesn’t happen now as it once did. Moreover, the advice on alternatives must include a frank and fearless evaluation of all foreseeable consequences, both positive and negative, that will flow from the various available alternatives. It is certainly then up to the elected government to make an informed choice from among those available alternatives, and the PS is indeed then expected to implement that choice, while the elected government wears the electoral consequences of its choice.

The Howard government prefers to insulate itself from possible blame by only being told the things that suit it, so that Ministers can avoid accountability for their choices and blame the public servants instead. As Tony demonstrates, public servants who understand and follow these unwritten rules are rewarded by promotion, while those who expose the Minister to embarrassment (by giving the very frank and fearless advice which genuine accountability rquires) can look forward to a much bleaker future. It’s a perversion of Westminster principles, and indeed of any coherent principle of accountability.

MickM
MickM
15 years ago

Rafe, ofcourse everything goes back to Whitlam, he’s to blame for all our woes. The fact that the public service had been under a Liberal Coalition govt., for 23 years, did not influence Gough at all.

marcus
marcus
15 years ago

Most senior public servants are employed under SES or similar contracts. Embarass the minister and there goes the contract, with little chance of another. Refuse to carry out explicitly party political orders and there goes the contract. All parties do it, some more blatantly than others. It is almost too hard a tempation to resist.

There is, however, an easy way to limit some of the damage that this type of control causes. All ministerial advice could be tabled in Parliament. At least the opposition and media, if diligent enough, could see the way in which large sections of a particular department had been suborned from thier appointed tasks to providing a research and re-election facility to the current government.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

I’ve got to agree with MickM, that’s pretty weak Rafe.

Bob Hawke inherited John Stone and kept him out of respect for basic conservative values (and a range of other factors, like demonstrating that the ALP were not a bunch of yahoos both to the ALP itself and to the electorate). Part of the point of conventions about public service independence, is that you don’t immediately go and sack anyone who was appointed by your predecessor even if you think they’re not very sympathetic to your views.

John Howard sacked 5 secretaries of Departments on assuming office, and we get a lecture about Whitlam. As for Wran, I was unaware that Askin had a strong commitment to integrity of any kind, whether it was in the public service or elsewhere.

Bill Cushing
Bill Cushing
15 years ago

Great stuff, Tony!

I am pretty damn sure that, when we were colleagues at Finance (under Fraser), we didn’t shrink from spelling out those unpleasant alternatives. I certainly remember getting plenty of rebuffs. But not the boot.

And I am just as sure that we would both feel mighty uncomfortable about doing the same in the present public service culture.