Finalised APS Review must be a ‘strategic masterpiece’ to survive whichever party wins government

By Verona Burgess

Wednesday March 27, 2019

Verona Burgess comments on the likelihood of the finalised APS Review being accepted by the government of the day.

With the Berejiklian government scraping back into power at the weekend, Australia’s largest public service, that of NSW, can heave a sigh of relief – it is unlikely to face the kind of upheaval that would have followed a change of government after eight years of coalition rule.

The old saying goes that it is governments that lose (or win) elections but oppositions do have to present a viable alternative. This, in the end, was not the case in NSW, where the odour of the Obeid and other scandals still hung heavily over NSW Labor, along with the last-minute gaffes of the leader, Michael Daley.

Although the NSW coalition had lost two premiers (Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird) during its eight years in office, they were not internal political knifings – O’Farrell came unstuck in the Independent Commission Against Corruption over the infamous bottle of Grange Hermitage, while Baird merely returned to his real profession, having never intended to make politics his lifelong career.

While the NSW public service settles down to more of the same, at least in the short term (not to mention being the beneficiary of election spending promises), the Australian Public Service is entering a pre-election period of heightened uncertainty.

“In short, it has never been more important for the APS to stay visibly within the defined lines of impartiality and evidence-based policy design as it heads towards a caretaker period that will start in a fortnight or so.”

Next week’s early budget is widely expected to be a highly political document that puts its main emphasis on election bribes (largely in terms of promised tax cuts that might also masquerade as wages growth, along with some urgent last-minute hand-outs to the bush after the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party’s snatch of three seats in NSW). There is also likely to be an array of major land mines planted – deep spending promises designed to trip up an incoming Labor government, especially in the fantastical out-years beyond the forward estimates. Labor, of course, did the same thing before the 2013 election; there may be nothing new under the sun.

Usually there is quite a gap between the budget and an election. But on this occasion, Treasury and Finance will also be aware that in a few short weeks they will have to produce and sign off on the Pre-election Fiscal Outlook report, meaning the budget’s economic forecasts will need to stack up or else they will be heavily criticised. Then there will be the Parliamentary Budget Office independent costings of policies to navigate during the election campaign, again so close to the budget. Combined with the likelihood that Treasury secretary, Phil Gaetjens, would be shown the door if Labor wins federally, this is an unusual confluence of hazards.

In short, it has never been more important for the APS to stay visibly within the defined lines of impartiality and evidence-based policy design as it heads towards a caretaker period that will start in a fortnight or so.

Into this maelstrom has lobbed the less than impressive draft of the review of the APS chaired by David Thodey. The reaction of the deputy secretaries at the launch made it clear they were underwhelmed; behind the scenes the language has been far more scathing. ‘Condescending’, ‘vacuous,’ ‘heard it all before’ and, ‘Please don’t write anything nice about it,’ are just four examples of what might loosely be described as ‘feedback’ from senior sources. To be somewhat fair, however, nobody is saying the review has not involved consultation – and it is a work in progress.

Even if the Morrison government were to scrape across the line, although the polls are pointing in quite a different direction, it is not clear how much ownership of the review

In the end, all roads lead to the cabinet.

it would carry into the next parliament.

Morrison has given no indication he has any great interest in it (hardly surprisingly, since it was a Turnbull initiative and, in any case, he is busy hanging onto the deck chairs); Finance minister Matthias Cormann has mentioned efficiency and efficacy, not exactly a passionate response.

There would need to be a specific item in next week’s budget measures, along with an injection of funding that isn’t just drawn from existing departmental budgets, to tell any convincing story that the review has a real future under the coalition.

If there is a change of government, the questions are twofold: would Labor continue the review, abandon it, or reconstitute it? And where would it lead in terms of policy and legislation? These are questions that the federal opposition isn’t yet in any real position to answer, other than taking a sensible ‘interested observer’ stance. Much might depend on what they find if and when they get into the departments and look at the books.

If a Shorten government were to decide to develop, say, a white paper on the public service, it would be unlikely to be a short-term proposition and would also depend very much on priorities – and who would drive it.

In the end, all roads lead to the cabinet.

Although the interim report has made much of beefing up the secretaries’ board, there is little mention of cabinet other than the suggestion to set up sub-committees to mirror cabinet committees. Yet in the end, everything the public service does points towards the cabinet; if there is any ‘board of directors’ equivalent, surely it is the cabinet.

These are presumably all issues that will occupy the minds of those drafting the final report, due in June. It will need to be a strategic masterpiece to gain genuine traction with the government of the day; so far, there is no great evidence of that, but we live in hope.

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