Doyens of the Canberra bubble gather to hear Prime Minister ScoMo give the APS its orders, while Yarralumla fills with sunshine

By Verona Burgess

Thursday August 22, 2019

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VERONA BURGESS: THE OBSERVER If you are a public servant, Scott Morrison’s address to the APS was not boring, no matter what absolutely everyone else was predicting and concluding. It’s no small thing for a reigning PM to address the APS, and it’s a rare event. Public servants need to know the commander’s intent — and this week, it came across loud and clear.

The Prime Minister’s speech to the Australian Public Service on Monday was vintage Scott Morrison, toned down a few notches and minus the baseball cap and Sharks memorabilia.

That is to say, it was fundamentally a political stump speech, albeit carefully calibrated by a good speechwriter to keep the slogans to a manageable quantity and ensure that the PM really did speak to the live audience of 700 mainly top-end public servants in the Great Hall at Parliament House. These are the doyens of the “Canberra bubble” beyond which he was exhorting them to look.

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There were plenty of elephants in the room — agency funding, the staffing cap, efficiency dividend, wages and conditions, outsourcing, classification structures and secretarial terms of appointment to name but a few, as others have reported already. But perhaps the biggest elephant of all was the High Court, more of which shortly.

Before it had even been dropped to selected news outlets, the speech had already been designated by the panel on Sunday morning’s ABC Insiders program as likely to be “boring but important”.

It wasn’t boring if you were a public servant. It is a big deal for the PM of the day to address the APS and it hardly ever happens. Public servants need to know the commander’s intent, to borrow from the military. And it came across loud and clear.

The highly choreographed event was led by the outgoing president of the influential ACT branch of the Institute of Public Administration, Australia, Frances Adamson, who is better known as the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and broadcast on the Parliament House website.

And it was quite an omnibus — even if it did gloss over just how Scomo’s vision of a connected APS talking directly to the “quiet Australians”, not to mention ministers, was going to be achieved or even if in practice that is wholly desirable. It covered a lot of bases, swept along at quite a pace, bundled over some of its potential self-contradictions and looks set to provide a treasury of new material for the next season of the ABC’s Utopia.

It was also obvious that Morrison was singing from the same song-sheet as the forthcoming Thodey review (or should that be vice-versa) which, as he pointed out, he would soon receive “formally”.

Regrettably, he did not ask “How good is the public service?” But he did throw a bone to those worried about the politicisation of the APS, saying, “I want to reaffirm my government’s and my personal commitment to an APS that is apolitical, merit based and committed to the highest standards of integrity. These core elements of the Westminster tradition are as important as they have ever been, not least to securing the trust and legitimacy of democratic government that is needed to implement good policy and to deliver services successfully.”

Well yes, they certainly are. He did not mention the High Court’s recent judgment in Comcare v. Banerji — why spoil a love-in by getting into the vexed subject of public servants’ freedom of political expression — but the judgment itself did far more than do that. It put beyond any doubt that the requirement for an apolitical public service is effectively a bedrock of the Australian Constitution.  The word “apolitical” appears 54 times in the document.

Here is paragraph 31 of the main judgement:

There can be no doubt that the maintenance and protection of an apolitical and professional public service is a significant purpose consistent with the system of representative and responsible government mandated by the Constitution …. The constitutional significance of the APS is also to be understood in light of the Northcote-Trevelyan British civil service reforms of the mid-nineteenth century, which had been adopted by some of the Australian colonies by the time of Federation and which were almost immediately after Federation adopted by the Commonwealth. Thus, as was observed in Federal Commissioner of Taxation v Futuris Corporation Ltd, apolitical, skilled and efficient service of the national interest has been the ethos of the APS throughout the whole period of the public administration of the laws of the Commonwealth.

There’s more along the same lines, including in the written reasons by justices Gordon and Edelman, but you get the picture. The High Court may as well have flashed a warning light right across the bows of the Good Ship Scomo: meddle with the constitutionally based principles of an apolitical public service at your peril.

Page turner

Morrison lavished praise on outgoing PM&C secretary Martin Parkinson although it begged the question — did Morrison really want him to stay on?  Cue page 177/8 of journalist Niki Savva’s latest book Plots and Prayers, where she says Parkinson had “not really wanted to head Turnbull’s department,” Treasury having been the job he’d loved the most. “In Treasury, there is the time to think strategically and to plan ahead,” she wrote. “In [PM&C], problems land on your desk usually because they have gone badly wrong somewhere else. It is short term and reactive, according to Parkinson.” Enter Phil Gaetjens.

Songs of praise

We hear it was quite the musical evening at Yarralumla last week when the Governor-General, David Hurley, hosted a farewell dinner for Parkinson. We are told there was a “song for Martin” especially composed for the occasion and sung by Mrs Hurley, followed by a general rendition of “You are my sunshine,” not once but three times. Parkinson is, of course, highly regarded by public servants but it might be stretching it to say that they thought of him as their “sunshine”. A warning for all mandarins: warm up your vocal chords before your next invitation to Government House.

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