‘They have an institutional memory, they have an inbuilt integrity’: Kevin Rudd on the benefits of an independent public service

By Shannon Jenkins

November 5, 2020

Kevin Rudd (Image: AAP)

The politicisation of the Australian Public Service has led to “rampant” corruption within the federal government because it has compromised the inbuilt integrity that can only come with an independent bureaucracy, according to former prime minister Kevin Rudd.

Speaking at a webinar hosted by The Mandarin‘s sister publication Crikey on Wednesday evening, Rudd argued that up until recently, corruption within Labor and Liberal federal governments “hasn’t been much of a problem” because the independence of the APS had been preserved.

“The truth is, prior to 2013, I am hard pressed to find a significant federal corruption scandal. The closest we came to it was the wheat for weapons scandal involving the Howard government and the Australian Wheat Board and their dealings with Iraq. And that was significant,” he said.

“We had senior bureaucrats who were professionals in charge of most if not all of the major government departments. The secretaryship of PM&C, Prime Minister and Cabinet, is a critical position, because it is the fulcrum of maintaining integrity across the public service system.”

Rudd said that when he became prime minister, he chose to keep all department heads independent because it benefits the government to have an apolitical public service that has had time to build its expertise.

“There was no night of long knives, there was no dismissal of public servants, there was nothing of that sort. I wanted to see the complete reestablishment of an independent Westminster system reinforced by permanent secretaries in the Whitehall tradition because I actually think it works, whether you’re governments of the left or governments of the right, but they have an institutional memory, they have an inbuilt integrity and they have systems to manage that, shall we say, corruption problems.”

Read more: ‘Partisan staff undermine government institutional memory’

However, the “wanton politicisation of public sector appointments in the last seven years” has led to widespread corruption in the federal government, and a federal corruption watchdog with strong powers is needed.

“I’ve lost track of the number of corruption scandals which now wash around the feet of this government, including the one at Badgerys Creek most recently. I mean, that’s just a scandal within a scandal within a scandal,” Rudd said.

“But it’s not just one, there’s a large number. So I now fully back the establishment of a fully empowered federal ICAC with retrospective powers as well. Rather than the current anodyne version which has been put forward by Scotty from marketing which is to get himself out of a optical problem in the eyes of the people rather than a substandard response to the problems of rampant corruption which is now what we’re facing federally for the first time I think in the Federation’s history.”

Rudd’s comments come just days after attorney general Christian Porter released draft legislation for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, with critics arguing that, under the current model, the watchdog would not be able to investigate major scandals such as the sports rorts affair and the Leppington Triangle land purchase.

Centre for Public Integrity director Geoffrey Wilson recently told The Mandarin that the proposed CIC model may actually give rise to the appearance of accountability without any broad-based mandate to address corrupt behaviour, which could have negative impacts well into the future.

“When a new government comes in they’re not inclined to enlarge or enhance the powers of the weak body because they don’t want investigations into themselves,” he said.

Read more: Is-and-oughts: Should the closed-door integrity commission proceed?


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