How should public servants respond if a minister asks them to do party political work?

By The Mandarin

June 29, 2020


Where should senior public servants and political staffers draw the line between their public duty and the expectation by some ministers for public funds to be spent on party political objectives?

That’s the latest question addressed by Mandarin Premium’s Select Committee of former departmental leaders and public administration experts.

“The good news,” says former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran, is that the Australian public sector has “not descended into pathos, incompetence and failure of the sort currently exhibited in Washington.”

One way of calibrating the divide between ministers and their departments, says Moran, is to give ministerial advisers clear roles, prescribed in legislation and monitored by an independent Integrity Commission that reports to Parliament,

If that happened “it is likely that the number of advisers could be reduced, their professional knowledge of the field in which they work enhanced and the public interest served.”

Read the full Select Committee discussion here at Mandarin Premium — or subscribe today for a year at just $5 a week, using promo code 5AWEEK

Senior public servants “need to know where the line is and they need to be prepared to refuse to cross it should they come under pressure to facilitate inappropriate spending of public money,” says another Select Committee member, Helen Sullivan, the director of the ANU’s Crawford School.

This task, she says, has become more difficult as departmental secretaries “now serve at the pleasure of the ruling administration. But as she notes, “the line hasn’t moved” and public servants need to be confident that “if they are put in a difficult position by a staffer or a minister then they can push back … there need to be clear procedures for public servants to follow should they come under pressure.”

The real problem, according to economist Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics, is one of interpretation.

“Ministers will deny acting improperly,” he says. “Public servants should not assist or coach them in making disingenuous claims, but if ministers can figure out how to cover their tracks and assert their probity, unless a public servant has clear evidence that they are acting improperly,”

Which means, says Gruen, that “it is difficult for them to do anything other than assist their ministers in their work.”

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