Can former political staffers turn into impartial public servants?


Treasurer Peter Costello (left) and Chief of Staff Phil Gaetjens outside Parliament House after giving a doorstop in Canberra, Wednesday, May 2, 2007. (AAP Image/Mark Graham) NO ARCHIVING

A better system is needed to acknowledge experience in a ministerial office to enable public servants to transfer back at a higher level and non-public servant staffers to have their service recognised in the APS, says Verona Burgess.

As the Morrison government staggers towards seeming electoral oblivion, Phil Gaetjens edges closer, by default, towards setting a record for the shortest tenure of any secretary to the Treasury.

Federal Labor has a better record than the Coalition for retaining secretaries appointed by governments of the other persuasion, but it is not looking good for Gaetjens, who spent more than 13 years as chief of staff for two federal Coalition treasurers — 10 with Peter Costello and three with Scott Morrison.

Gaetjens was controversially appointed to run Treasury with effect from August 1, almost immediately after leaving Morrison’s then-office.

There is general consensus that it is valuable experience for a senior public servant, including secretaries, to have done time in a ministerial office, especially as COS — though preferably with a cleansing stint back in the Australian Public Service before becoming a secretary or agency head. That gap has been closing of late, and it’s causing a lot of anger.

How long in a ministerial office is too long?

“Finance Minister Mathias Cormann pounced, listing current secretaries who previously worked for Labor ministers: Frances Adamson, Mike Mrdak, Daryl Quinlivan, Chris Moraitis, Mike Pezzullo, Stephen Kennedy and Martin Parkinson.”

It also raises perennially vexing questions.

How long in a ministerial office is too long?

Can former political staffers operate as professionally impartial public servants after many years of being immersed in party politics even if, as Gaetjens told the Financial Review in July, he sees himself “more on the policy end of the spectrum than the political end”?

Will networks, friendships, previous loyalties and unconscious biases always affect their work and professional relationships?

And so to the latest bout of pots calling kettles black in Senate estimates.

As reported, NSW Labor Senator Kristina Keneally led the charge about Gaetjens in the economics committee.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann pounced, listing current secretaries who previously worked for Labor ministers: Frances Adamson, Mike Mrdak, Daryl Quinlivan, Chris Moraitis, Mike Pezzullo, Stephen Kennedy and Martin Parkinson.

He may not have intended to provide them with glowing job references for Bill Shorten (who undoubtedly has his own lists) but said, “We work with the public servants, professionally. We respect the fact that public servants can make a high-quality contribution in ministerial offices and subsequently make a high-quality contribution upon returning to the public service …” And so on.

Cormann himself has walked the talk. But who would have dreamt the Coalition at large was so unbiased? Perhaps we’d better pretend Tony Abbott’s night of the short knives didn’t happen. Or that Malcolm Turnbull didn’t make plenty of captain’s picks (just don’t mention the ABC board).

Kenneally hardly helped herself by arguing, “I think it would be helpful to the committee and the public to know what Mr Gaetjens’s politics are.”

Well no, actually. What is helpful to a Senate legislation committee is not whether a secretary votes for Attila the Hun but how well they carry out their lawful duties.

But it is also why the Thodey review, assuming it finds a place to call home after the likely change of government, would do well to recommend a better system of career transitions between the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act and the Public Service Act (and the Parliamentary Service Act).

Returning to the APS from political offices

Those with long memories may recall a “parachute” provision, derived from the defunct Officers’ Rights Declaration Act and relating to the old arbitration powers, under which a committee determined at which level public servants could return to the APS from political offices having regard to the work they had done while away and how long they had been away and so on.

That arrangement disappeared somewhere around 1999 with the rewrite of the Public Service Act and, based on current statistics from the Australian Public Service Commission, at least two-thirds of today’s “ongoing” public servants have never worked under it.

Now — secretaries and agency heads aside — ongoing public servants can simply take leave to serve under the MOPS Act and return to the APS at the level at which they left. To return at a more senior level they must apply for a more senior APS position. There is no system for recognising equivalent professional seniority of their position in ministers’ offices.

If they win the job, they often don’t work in it, but can transfer back to the APS later at that higher level, as happened this year with then-cabinet secretary and former Cormann COS Simon Atkinson, now a Treasury deputy secretary.

That’s a convoluted arrangement.

“Many former staffers do become excellent public servants and they do bring a lot of knowledge to the table.”

Meanwhile, political staffers with no “ongoing” APS tenure must apply as external candidates for APS jobs under normal merit selection.

They are always vulnerable to assumptions (whether acknowledged or not at the selection level) that they are politically biased, especially if a change of government is looming.

In short, there is no official recognition that prior service in a ministerial office has equivalent seniority in the APS.

Many former staffers do become excellent public servants and they do bring a lot of knowledge to the table.

It would be better to establish an official gateway — whether by a standing APSC panel, say, or by agreed work-level standards — for recognising prior equivalent experience in a ministerial office that would enable both ongoing public servants to transfer back at a higher level and non-public servant staffers to have their service recognised for employment in the APS.

It wouldn’t be hard to design specific de-contamination training packages for both.

As for secretaries, there could and perhaps should be a bar on being appointed straight from a ministerial office to secretary or senior agency head. But that horse may have bolted, largely thanks to Turnbull.

You can choose which of the Thodey review’s “five pillars” such arrangements could come under, but they would require legislation, including toughening up the public service values and code of conduct.

If you want a flexible system you’ve got to give a little.

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