Opinion: In defence of an apolitical, professional public service

By Andrew Podger

Monday February 24, 2020

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I cannot let Laurie Patton’s opinion piece go unchallenged. It is a recipe of despair in its dismissal of fundamental principles of responsible government.

The piece’s evident acceptance of Neville Wran’s statement that “Only a mug wouldn’t appoint a mate” when referring to a NSW Supreme Court appointment is telling (Patton was one of Wran’s political advisers). I recall when, as National President of IPAA, I criticised John Howard’s approach to secretary appointments, terminations, and financial rewards: I emphasised my far greater concern with the politicisation that was then happening in NSW under the Labor government. I was pleased when Barry O’Farrell took serious steps (if not as far as I would have preferred) to re-introduce professionalism in the NSW public service, including by re-establishing a public service commission.

Patton suggests we adopt the US practice where a president pursues a complete overhaul of senior levels of the bureaucracy. This was not, as Patton suggests, because “they were ahead of us in having ditched many Westminster traditions” — they never had such traditions since the War of Independence! Theirs is, and always has been, a very different system, with more marked separation of powers than ours. The checks and balances it has may be different, but it is the very existence of such checks and balances that constrains the political power that lies behind responsible democratic government.

Patton’s argument is that we need “to acknowledge the reality (of political appointments) and adapt the system to take this into account”. While strongly opposed to political appointments to senior public service positions, I don’t think that is, in fact, our biggest problem.

More important is what the late Peter Aucoin termed “promiscuous partisanship”, whereby senior public servants go beyond their professional responsibilities to demonstrate support for the current government and then switch so as to demonstrate similar enthusiastic support for a new government. They go beyond the traditional requirement of loyalty to the government of the day, promoting its policies rather than just describing and explaining them. They do this because of the reward system: the way appointments and terminations occur and the increasing level of political control as politics has become more and more professionalised.

This professionalisation of politics is no better demonstrated than by the number and changing role of ministerial advisers. We now have more than 450 such advisers at the Commonwealth level (the UK, where a similar debate is occurring about numbers, influence, and accountability, has 90). Increasingly, the political parties use these positions, and those in the states and territories (and the positions for non-government MPs), to foster political careers rather than to bring in subject matter expertise. There is a narrowing of experience amongst our politicians and an increasing focus on the constant hyper-partisan campaign.

The impact of promiscuous partisanship includes the shifting of resources away from longer-term strategic policy advising to tactical political briefings and short-term political fixes, and a willingness to go along with pressures for program administration that is not impartial, apolitical, and professional. Think not only sports rorts but also robodebt. This also undermines investment in expertise, a concern I share with Patton.

These impacts can be seen when one contrasts the work and capabilities of statutory authorities whose legislation constrains political control, such as the Productivity Commission, the ACCC, the Reserve Bank, and the ABS, with what we now see in too many ministerial departments.

Rather than Patton’s recipe of despair, we need to look to constructive measures to adjust the current system, including measures to reinforce some of the “olde-worlde public service” traditions that Patton seems to despise. These would not, in any way, remove the responsibility of the public service to loyally serve the elected government, but would help to protect the public interest by the way in which it does so.

On the professionalised politics side, there have been a number of constructive suggestions in recent years by observers such as the late Ian Marsh, Rod Rhodes, and most recently John Wanna (in his Allan Barton Memorial Research Lecture last October). These include a strengthening of the role and capacity of the legislature, particularly through parliamentary committees and the support provided by the auditor-general and the Parliamentary Budget Office (Wanna suggests having an Evaluator-General as well).

On the public service side, constructive suggestions include strengthening the role of the APS Commissioner as the “professional head of the service” (this is particularly important if the head of PM&C appears to have political alignment), having the appointment of the Commissioner subject to parliamentary endorsement, strengthening the merit basis for other senior appointments, and further clarifying the respective roles and accountability arrangements for public servants and ministerial advisers.

The Thodey recommendations in these areas, all rejected by the government, point in the right direction (‘though I disagree with some of the details). They should not be allowed to drift into the sand and be forgotten. They should be examined by a Senate committee in recognition that the object of the APS is not just to serve the government but also to serve the parliament and the Australian public (s3, Public Service Act 1999). Patton, like too many political operators on both sides today, should consider carefully the checks and balances that are essential to the principles of responsible government.

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