Malcolm Turnbull on why it’s important to let public servants do their job

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday June 2, 2020

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull head shot in focus between two out of focus mens' heads
Hot potato Malcolm Turnbull (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Government leaders must encourage a culture where the ideas of public servants can flourish, according to former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull .

Speaking on a webinar hosted by The Mandarin and its sister publication Crikey, Turnbull reflected on his approach to leading the Australian Public Service, why Australia has listened to the evidence to tackle the coronavirus — but not climate change, and why ministers should listen to the public servants rather than the consultants.

On leading the APS

In the foreword of the government’s response to the APS-wide Thodey Review — which was set up by Malcolm Turnbull and his top bureaucrat Martin Parkinson — Scott Morrison was clear in asserting the notion that the ministers are in charge, not the public servants.

“The government respects the experience, professionalism and capability of the public service, both in policy advice and implementation, and we expect the APS to get on and deliver the government’s agenda,” he wrote. “In the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, it is the ministers who are accountable to the public. It is ministers who provide policy leadership and direction.”

Turnbull said that when he was prime minister, his approach to leading the APS was to encourage public servants to come up with new ideas, rather than holding them back.

“Obviously the political decisions have to be taken by politicians, but the policy development is a very important part of the work of public servants. And it’s something that should, you know, you’ve got to encourage a culture where people are prepared to come up with a range of alternatives and options,” he said.

“I was always very keen to get as many options on the table as possible. I very rarely approach things with preconceived notions of what the right answer is because I just think you’re better off getting as many views as possible, and then coming to a decision and implementing it.”

The cult of the consultant

Turnbull argued one of the biggest problems facing the APS is “the cult of the consultant”.

He said he became aware of the issue during his time as communications minister, and called on other ministers to lead their departments and agencies by insisting bureaucrats do the work.

“One of the things I wanted to do was have a close look at the cost of the ABC and SBS to see what their cost base was, what they were spending money on, and with a view to seeing how you could get more bang for the same buck,” he explained.

“So I said to the Department of Communications, ‘Well, okay, let’s get on with it’. And their response was, ‘We’ll need to have consultants’. They wanted to get one of the big consulting firms to do it. And I said, ‘Hang on, the finances of the public broadcasters are surely the core responsibility of the Department of Communications, I’m not asking you to do something exotic’.

“So I made them do it. And I got one expert …I recruited a guy called Peter Lewis as a domain expert, because Peter had just stepped down as CFO of the Seven Network … And so the cost of that was very modest, as opposed to the millions you might spend shifting it out to Ernst and Young or KPMG or any one of a number of other consultants.”

While high cost is one downside, another is that consultants will often tell politicians exactly what they want to hear, since it’s the politicians that are hiring them in the first place. Outsourcing expertise also devalues the APS.

“The problem is that, what then is the public service’s role? And what is the incentive for people to join the public service and stay there, if all the interesting policy work is being done outside?” Turnbull said.

He had intended for the APS’ reliance on consultants to be addressed in the Thodey Review.

Read more: The cult of the consultant

Following the science: climate vs COVID

Turnbull argued that the political right in the coalition, the right wing (largely Murdoch-owned) media, and the fossil fuel lobbyists have formed a “toxic alliance” that has held Australia’s climate policy back.

“The real problem is, and the conundrum is, why is something that is a matter of physics, why has it become instead an issue of identity or belief? And, you know, why is it that it’s basically only here and in the United States where it’s really been significant?” he said.

While Australia has failed to follow the science when it comes to climate change, the opposite is true for the coronavirus pandemic, despite them both being global threats. Turnbull puts this down to the virus being an immediate threat.

“If the science was telling us the medical catastrophe, health catastrophe, was going to occur in 10 years time, you would have all of the same denialism going on,” he said.

“When Fox and the United States, and some of the Murdoch commentators here — and Trump even — [began showing] denialism about COVID and saying ‘it’s only the flu, it’s no big deal’, that denialism was quickly trumped — to use a pun — by the death count, and the catastrophe, particularly initially in Italy, and then, of course, in New York City. So, with climate, the staggering thing is that the politics does not seem to have been materially shifted, even by those shocking fires we had over the spring and summer of just recently.”

Read more: ‘What climate policy?’: former top mandarins voice anger over Australia’s failure to tackle climate change

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