Malcolm Fraser: public sector critic, reformer

Australia’s 22nd prime minister passed away earlier today, age 84, leaving behind a legacy of significant APS reforms of accountability and responsiveness. It was a “rewarding time” officials tell The Mandarin, and Malcolm Fraser describes his work with the bureaucracy in his own words.

For many who worked with him, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser was an enigma and intimidating, but led a “rewarding time” for capable bureaucrats. He was both a fierce critic of the Canberra bureaucracy’s culture when it isolated itself from public opinion, and a strong supporter of the corporate memory of a career public service.

As a reformer the public service, Fraser wanted to encourage empathy and accountability, such as through the creation of the first freedom of information scheme and the appointment of Australia’s first Commonwealth Ombudsman, Professor Jack Richardson in 1977. At the time, Fraser declared the need for “ensuring the departments and authorities are responsible, adaptive, and sensitive to the needs of citizens.”

In later interviews, Fraser insisted that he did not clash with his many departmental heads, in fact encouraged disagreement, but insisted on them being responsive to the wider public:

“Canberra really is a most insidious place and it’s getting worse. It’s getting larger and worse because it’s still a public service, political centre and you now have third generation public servants … I had a head of a Prime Minister’s Department saying to me in relation to correspondence, ‘What does it matter? It’s only from a member of the public’. And he should have known enough of me because permanent heads meet together and he would have known the permanent head in the army department, where I totally changed the culture of the department in relation to the public and indeed, in relation to the way they treated their own soldiers and members of the force. But to find the attitude repeated to me by the most senior public servant in the Commonwealth, you know, says — if politicians, if ministers don’t sit on that attitude through the public service, and it’s very hard, then nobody else will.”

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