‘Politicisation of departments’ incidents boil over as opposition puts APS on notice

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday February 19, 2019

Public servants don’t need to read too deeply between the lines to get the message that the opposition is watching for signs of politicisation in the lead up to this year’s federal election.

The Australian Public Service Commission is still months away from issuing its routine caretaker period guidance to public servants about engaging in political activities, but even that advice wouldn’t be much help in the situation senior mandarins face right now.

Planned speeches, policy announcements and which senior officials will have the thumbscrews tightened at estimates offer the first sketch of Labor’s priority concerns beyond its initial election mini-manifesto released last year. Two themes stand out: politicisation and toothless oversight.

Nor is their much ambiguity in the Coalition government’s priorities: formally requesting new policy proposals (NPP) and announceables from its departments on anything loosely connected to national security.

Those two campaign strategies are on a collision course, with battlegrounds including the alleged leaking of ‘ASIO advice’ (later revealed to be Home Affairs advice), and a grab-bag of regulation safety nets for society’s vulnerable, and waste of government money.

For instance, from the wasted money pile, expect Labor’s Ed Husic to lay the groundwork for an overhaul of IT spend in government in his speech to technology companies this Friday.

It follows the performance of the Digital Transformation Agency at last night’s estimates hearings. Here’s Senator Jenny McAllister’s frustration spilling out in questioning of DTA chief executive Randall Brugeaud: “You’re before a senate committee, senators trying to find what your role is and why you didn’t prevent this $34 million disaster [cancelled ACIC biometrics project], and your answer is ‘because they wouldn’t return our phone calls’.”

In another example, a Labor-Greens committee last week called for the return of unspent funds given to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Or from the politicisation pile, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus and shadow finance minister Jim Chalmers were among Labor frontbenchers to go on the offensive following the so-called ‘ASIO advice’ appearing on the front page of a national newspaper.

A widely circulated letter from Dreyfus put the nation’s top public servant, Dr Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, on notice regarding repeated examples of the politicisation of public service advice to government.

Based on the first day’s inquiries at estimates, Labor senators are being true to Dreyfus’ words.

There’s one more lesson that Labor is sending the APS: it can let bygones be bygones, if the politicisation stops.

For its nearly six years in opposition Labor has had a target on the Australian Public Service Commission, for politicisation, for wage bargaining, and loss of long-standing conditions of employment in the APS. That battle looks officially dead as of Monday.

John Lloyd’s successor as commissioner, Peter Woolcott, made his second estimates appearance yesterday — and there were no tense exchanges or even hostile questions from estimates warrior-in-chief Senator Penny Wong.

He highlighted a couple of interesting points sure to soften any Labor wrath. Woolcott confirmed he sees the APS as a “model employer” — but one that should neither lead nor lag the private sector on pay — and noted that in the last three years the number of Indigenous APS staff has grown from 2.6% to 3.3%.

READ MORE: How many of the 1.25 million jobs promised by Finance Minister Matthias Cormann will be in the public sector?


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