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APS politicised to ‘new heights’? There’s more than one way to look at history

Senators perhaps bit off more than they could chew when taking on a Treasury secretary with a long memory for political precedents.

Scandals and potential scandals galore were aired last week across the Senate estimates committees.

The opposition was hot to trot on perceptions of public service politicisation, armed with the letter that shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus had written to the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, with its list of complaints about political behaviour across several portfolios.

On cue under questioning from Labor’s Penny Wong, deputy secretary Stephanie Foster was quick to reassure the Senate finance and public administration committee, saying “Dr Parkinson advised Mr Dreyfus that he took any suggestion of politicisation of the APS extremely seriously and that he would pass on Mr Dreyfus’s concern to secretaries, which he did.”

You betcha.

One of the opposition’s sorest points is that the government had asked Treasury to cost policies that were eerily identical to Labor’s on negative gearing and capital gains tax, along with providing ‘talking points’, and then aired the results in the media.

Labor was always going to gun for secretary Phil Gaetjens after his unorthodox appointment virtually straight from the office of then Treasurer Scott Morrison last year, but there’s a lesson here: you can sack him if you win office, but in the meantime don’t bite off more than you can chew.

When Treasury appeared last Wednesday in the economics committee, Labor’s Jenny McAllister quizzed Gaetjens about the internal process for dealing with requests from the Treasurer’s office for costings that resembled Labor policies.

Gaetjens said, “In a general sense, if the government makes a request of Treasury for information, we will generally seek to do what the government has asked us…. I don’t think we are asked—nor do I think we would respond—’Would you cost another party’s policies?’ But we can be asked to cost some things that are specified by the Treasurer or his office, and we will generally seek to do that.”

He went on to say he was not routinely copied in on such questions; they would go to the areas that did the costings. Nor was he copied in to the responses but would generally see most of them before they went back up to the Treasurer’s office. “They would be signed off on by the people who did the costings, which can be a particularly complex matter, and it would be a response to the office.”

McAllister fulminated. “So your testimony … is that you will be try and be helpful to meet a government request? As long as it doesn’t actually say in the header, ‘Please cost a Labor policy’, you will do it …. no questions asked? You have no moderation within the department to assess whether or not that request is actually appropriate?”

Gaetjens said, “I would say that in most cases—and this would be for governments going back over decades—we would try and do what the government has asked us to do.”

McAllister asked whether he had no concerns. “The government asks you to do something, it is plainly a request to cost Labor policy, and the material you then provide to the government appears on the front page of The Australian or other newspapers …?”

“I don’t think it is up to us or anyone else, in fact, to interpret a request.”

To which Gaetjens replied, “If we have received a request to do something, if we have gone through the usual processes of providing factual advice and using the data that we have access to, to answer a question and, again, as long as it is not a specific question—and I’d take issue with the point—I don’t think it is up to us or anyone else, in fact, to interpret a request and say it is specifically X, Y or Z. We are given a set of parameters or whatever to work on, and if we can do that then we seek to, and I don’t think that’s changed for decades.”

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann rode in on his charger. “The government of the day is able to ask for advice on policy options. It has always been thus. That was the case under your period in government; it was the case under governments of both persuasions prior to that; it’s the case now. There’s nothing new.”

McAllister argued that there were five occasions when Treasury analysis had been released and appeared prominently in Australian newspapers. “I think that that is unusual, and I think that it looks like a politicisation of your organisation.”

Cormann might not be able to count votes in the party room, nor remember what’s on his credit card, but he pulled out the big gun.

“I watched with great interest the interviews by Kerry O’Brien of Paul Keating,” he said. “Do you know what? Paul Keating—and I think that our friend and colleague Senator Sinodinos might remember what I’m referring to—was actually bragging about the fact that he was able to use Treasury analysis in the lead-up to the 1987 election against the opposition of the day. So don’t tell me that somehow there is this new universe here where the government of the day doesn’t seek advice on policy options and fiscal implications of different scenarios from Treasury.”

McAllister said, “Minister, this is just at new heights.”

That may be true. But how do you trump the Keating card?

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.