An effort by the the Attorney-General’s Department to canvass the entire public service for information about past interactions between government and unions could increase tensions between bureaucrats and politicians.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions has cried foul over a leaked letter from the AGD that asked all arms of the Australian public service for wide-ranging information about their past interactions with unions by the end of this week.
ACTU secretary Tim Lyons argues it’s unnecessary given the commission’s powers, and part of an ideological crusade. The letter states the information is needed in case the current royal commission into trade unions hears allegations of wrongdoing by a minister, their staff or a public servant.
The request — and the ACTU’s subsequent freedom of information search for any links with Attorney-General George Brandis (pictured) or Employment Minister Eric Abetz — has created significant extra work for public servants already under pressure to do more with less.
Not that there’s anything unusual about that, notes Australian National University public policy professor Andrew Podger, a former secretary of several federal departments and a former APS commissioner. Governments, he says, have always asked the public service for information to support “partisan pursuits”.
“The public service tries to respond focusing on the facts requested and leaving the politics to the ministers and their staff,” he told The Mandarin by email. “But we all know there is a fine line, and we all know the material will be used for partisan purposes.”
The AGD wants to know about union officials appointed to government positions, consultations with unions on policy and programs, and any money or property that has changed hands in either direction “in the past five to 10 years”. It also asked agencies whether they have documents that relate to unions, in six yes-or-no questions covering any circumstance where unions could have played a role in government.
As information requests to federal departments go, it’s not the most onerous, but Podger suggests the service could be doing better things with its time.
“It is certainly hard to see that searching for extensive information about interactions with unions not within the current purview of the royal commission could be a priority at a time when agencies are cutting back staff and looking to reduce budgets but maintain services to the public,” he said.
“There is an air of unreality that budget cuts should and can have no impact on the services ministers want for themselves, when the first priority should be to ensure services to the public that have been authorised by Parliament are maintained, a priority that is already impossible given the scale of so-called efficiency dividends.”
According to Paul Barratt, a management consultant who has led two federal departments, such a broad and politically charged request carries a risk of breeding mistrust between the executive and legislative arms of government.
“Because it’s so broad ranging it is easy to overlook something and I think the government will immediately impute sinister motives to anything that gets left out,” Barratt said.
The ACTU questions whether the government is trying to get around the long-standing practice that the public service does not provide ministers with information on decision-making processes of the previous government.
Stephen Bartos, a public sector consultant with experience at deputy secretary level, doubts that was the expectation behind the request or that any departments would do so. He says it’s unlikely the probe will discover any evidence of wrongdoing and suggests it could be a case of the Commonwealth’s lawyers covering all bases.
“If a department has got something that includes a credible allegation of wrongdoing by an official, a minister or [their staff], you would have very much hoped they would have already reported that to the Attorney General’s Department,” he told The Mandarin.
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