Michael Pezzullo: know thy place, public servants, and focus on the facts

By Stephen Easton

October 30, 2018

Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo worries that some of his colleagues know too little of the origins and principles that underpin the Westminster system, and their role within it.

As a keen student of history and the canon of Western thought that led to British-style parliamentary democracy and the key principle of responsible government, he set about enlightening them in a lecture to the Institute of Public Administration Australia this morning.

Missing knowledge of traditions

Pezzullo contends the long-standing principles that define the roles of parliament, the executive, and the judiciary, ensuring no single person or group can assert unchecked, arbitrary power, define the best form of government and, importantly, can form a bulwark against authoritarianism in the post-truth era.

Perhaps, he mused, many public servants see the old maxims that explain how our constitutional system of government theoretically works as “simply the natural order of things” and don’t think of them much.

“At one level, our Constitution, laws and regulations and the policies and programs of the executive seem to constitute our entire realm of consciousness and action,” Pezzullo said. “What more is there to contemplate or comprehend? I would suggest, much.

“For one thing, I am becoming concerned, and increasingly so, at the paucity of the knowledge of these traditions and understandings amongst public servants, even relatively senior ones.

“We need to do more to teach and inculcate this world view.”

The lecture began with a potted history starting from the arrival of the First Fleet. The ideas of thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke came to Australia along with the convicts, he said, moving rapidly on to federation, the first Commonwealth government, its first departments, administrative orders, and the impact of ongoing reforms to government and the civil service back in Britain.

Such history is “essential to self-knowledge” and nationhood along with an understanding of the social contract that explains what it is to be a citizen of a nation, in Pezzullo’s view.

“Bureaucrats who strongly disagreed with the government of the day could perhaps quit, and run for office themselves.”

The Home Affairs secretary argued the key conditions for a functioning democracy listed in the textbooks – like freedom of political communication, the independent journalism it allows, and “an informed and active citizenry” who understand the system – are as important as ever, because the concept of the truth itself is increasingly under threat. It would be worthwhile, he suggested, investing in general civics education.

Getting towards the business end of the 40-minute address, he made the point that the Westminster system relies on the presumption that there are empirical facts out there.

This argument links back to an earlier speech to the IPAA ACT branch, by the former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese. Referring to the work of philosopher Karl Popper, Varghese said public servants should be rigorous in dissecting the facts that feed into public policy, and separating that which can be estimated, proved or disproved, from those questions that have no right or wrong answer but also weigh heavily on the minds of ministers.

Those questions often come down to morals and Varghese advised that ultimately, public servants can only quit if they feel their own answer differs too much with the government’s view in a particular situation.

Temporary partners with government of the day

In the same vein, Pezzullo said bureaucrats who strongly disagreed with the government of the day could perhaps quit, and run for office themselves.

They are temporary partners, who must be supportive and loyal, working together as part of a single “scheme” but should not wield the ultimate authority. As soon as the government changes, their loyalty switches, but they must not betray their past masters either.

“Deep, long-term policy thinking and strategic imagination on the part of the public service, and a mutual commitment to a policy partnership, are at the heart of the ministerial-departmental relationship, as this joins the political and the administrative elements of the executive in its most important function: focusing on the advancement of the nation and the common wealth – by which I mean common good or common wellbeing.

“Of course, ministers must decide all major issues. Our democratic order permits no other approach. However, a public service which does not see itself conjoined to this endeavour has lost its way.

“While the public service exists primarily to serve the government of the day … it also maintains a jealous watch on the papers and records of earlier governments, while also maintaining an underlying capability to serve future governments, including by way of an ability and a disposition to switch its loyalty to a new government at the appropriate moment.”

Pezzullo, who spent nearly nine years working in ministerial offices as an adviser seconded from the APS, said most ministers and more “seasoned” staffers would appreciate and fully expect this.

From left: Kathryn Campbell CSC, Michael Pezzullo, Frances Adamson, Glenys Beauchamp PSM and Daryl Quinlivan at the event.

While some have questioned the concentration of executive agencies under his departmental umbrella, he said this morning it would be “mortally dangerous to our system of government for the public service to come to possess an aggrandised conception of its role in the proper processes of government” in his view.

“There is no legitimate basis for contending that unelected officials have any purportedly supra-national responsibility as custodians of the public interest, somehow separately identified from the domain that is determined all too often to be that of politics,” he said.

Apolitical, but also deeply involved in politics

The public interest can only be determined by the elected members of the executive, the ministers, Pezzullo said, going on to discuss his understanding of how the public service and secretaries in particular are both apolitical, but also deeply involved in politics. That role, he added, meant helping governments to be better than they would be otherwise, but not trying to turn them into “different” governments.

He noted the widespread concern about “fake news” and deliberate disinformation spread by some other governments, as well as “the ascendancy of opinion, belief and emotion over facts and the truth” – in which power can be obtained through “networks of influence” rather than through the ballot box.

In this environment, he said, the concept of empirical truth itself was being undermined and attacked through “the mobilisation of sentiment, the rise of identity politics and the polarisation of civic discourse” and being deliberately “deconstructed” through information warfare by certain nation-states, whose leaders want to sow “confusion and discord” in democracies and “sap national will” – fears that first emerged during the Cold War.

“We are not seeing, I would contend, as the digital-industrial complex would have it, the unmediated expression of the popular will, free of the taint of power,” said Pezzullo.

“As we face yet another review of the Australian Public Service, it is to be hoped that a more substantial reform agenda will emerge, and one that moves beyond the soulless focus of the managerialist frame of some earlier efforts.”

“Rather, our shared sense of what is true is being undermined, and power is being reframed under a veneer of freedom, without the apparatus of representation and the mediation of power which allows the latter to be held to account.”

Recalling that Winston Churchill argued forcefully against people of other cultures who gave power to authoritarian leaders in an earlier time of global instability and conflict, the Home Affairs secretary argued the institutions of liberal democracy were the best bet for maintaining individual rights, in the face of a “storm surge of post-truth falsehood and disinformation”.

“Intrinsic to our scheme of national governance are traits which are the antithesis of post-truth, traits such as moderation, deliberation, scrutiny; check, and balance,” he said.

He hopes that traditional public service values — a focus on evidence, reason and “reasonable conjecture about the future” — might come “back into vogue, as an antidote to the tone and temper of the time” that we are living in.

New protections are needed, he argued, to guard the right to freedom of political communication and defend elections against modern attempts to subvert the result. He said civics education, “impartial and professional journalism” and an “apparatus and capacity for fact-checking” all had a role to play as well.

“Our intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies, graced with powers that only parliament can grant, and continually supervised in performance of their functions, will have to wage an unceasing war, especially in the cyber shadows, against attacks on democracy that will become more pervasive — some driven by nihilism, and others by sinister statecraft born of geopolitcal motivations.

“We’ll have to construct ever-stouter defences against the dark arts of disinformation and political warfare.”

The public service is central to this, according to the Home Affairs chief, and its role must not be ignored or allowed to “corrode through indifference” but seen as a source of strength and stability that can be drawn on.

He ended with a pointed comment on where he hopes the APS Review will lead.

“As we face yet another review of the Australian Public Service, it is to be hoped that a more substantial reform agenda will emerge, and one that moves beyond the soulless focus of the managerialist frame of some earlier efforts.”

Full text of Michael Pezzullo’s latest speech

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