No more long knives: bring back permanent secretaries, argues 1980s Treasury dep sec

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday March 13, 2019

Former Westpac chief executive and Hawke-era Treasury deputy secretary David Morgan has added his voice to those who argue the Australian Public Service needs leaders who don’t fear the axe.

Morgan, a member of the reference committee assisting the APS Review, made the case for a more powerful, independent and apolitical public service in a recent chat with the Australian Financial Review. Practically speaking, he believes this requires more secure tenure for secretaries.

The review panel is going about its work by starting from the basis that the APS is in good shape now but needs to prepare for the future; in contrast, Morgan sees it in a state of decline.

He told Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd the APS was a “priceless national asset [that] has been allowed to wither on the vine” and Treasury in particular had become a “pale shadow” of the “really powerful, politically neutral” advocate for reform it used to be.

Of course, the panel is also hearing a range of broadly alternate perspectives, emphasising the role of serving the elected government and respecting its democratic mandate.

This perspective, which better describes how most APS leaders see themselves today, minimises the idea that they have a separate role in serving a broader public interest that transcends political ideology and changes of government.

Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo has argued that only ministers can decide what is in the public interest, and public servants are “conjoined to this endeavour” at all times.

“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 in one of his speeches.

The head of the ACT Public Service, Kathy Leigh, revealed a similar view at a forum on women in leadership last year. Being a public servant was a fulfilling job, she enthused, because one could assume that “by definition, what you’re doing is in the best interests of your community” on the basis that it was serving the agenda of an elected government.

Ministers should no longer be able to fire secretaries “on a whim” as they have done in many recent cases, argues Morgan, who advised reformist Labor governments as a deputy secretary in the federal Treasury of the 1980s and recently published a biography.

As examples of public servants being sacked without reasonable cause, he refers to the terminations of Blair Comley and Martin Parkinson by the Abbott government in 2013, although there are plenty of others he could have mentioned: “You can’t trash the reputations of quality public servants like that and expect talented people to really devote their career to that.”

Legislative and cultural change has seen the power balance in the public sector shift in favour of ministers and their staffers all over the Westminster world, so the mandarins of today have far less influence than their predecessors. Morgan believes this happened most of all in Australia – although not everyone would agree with his view that change has been for the worse.

The nine-member reference committee, described as a “sounding board” by review chair David Thodey, includes former ministers and public servants from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada and New South Wales as well as the Commonwealth. According to Morgan, they have generally been “speaking frankly and fearlessly” with the panel, even if they are not all airing their views in national newspapers.

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