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.