Stewards of democracy: Public servants are Australia’s vanguard against cronyism in turbulent times

By Matthew Elmas

Wednesday November 18, 2020

Part three of our week-long series: What if it happened here?

Australia’s public service is on the front line in preventing the cronyism that’s thrived in the US under Trump from occurring here, former government leaders tell The Mandarin. But public servants shouldn’t rest on their laurels, because Australia’s institutions require vigilant custodians—now more than ever.

Two weeks after its Presidential election, the world’s model liberal democracy still isn’t entirely sure who its new leader is and as a contested transition of power threatens a renewed coronavirus response, US institutions—now tested—have seldom looked so vulnerable.

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This week, The Mandarin asks: what if it happens here?  In some ways, it already is.

With divergent effects to be sure. But against the global threats of climate change, the bushfires it exacerbates and a pandemic; many of Australia’s norms, conventions and institutions have been smashed, rethought and re-written this year.

Under the auspices of emergency co-operation, the theatre of engagement between federal, state and territory governments has been overhauled; business input into policy development has escalated from departments to cabinet; and Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now able to attend Question Time from Japan.

If that’s not a ‘new normal’, what is?

A far cry from the denigration of democracy underway in the US but not without its own politics, Australia’s foray into the unknown has reshaped the brief for public servants across the country—particularly within the APS, where one-in-five departments were culled last December.

As stewards of Australian government, what role do public administrators have in ensuring these structural shifts don’t lead down the highly-politicised path that America’s experiment with Trumpism has?

We asked the experts, leaders who’ve themselves participated in Australia’s evolution and have seen first hand the opportunities—and dangers—that institutional change carries.

The message is clear: public servants must uphold the values of integrity and transparency in government, providing frank advice, even when political circumstances draw them the short-end of the stick—all while shepherding Australia’s institutions through these turbulent times.

Turnbull: Telling politicians what they don’t want to hear

It’s a delicate balancing act, one public administrators in the US have struggled with in the hyper-partisan atmosphere surrounding Trump, whether through the stream of Presidential insults aimed at Anthony Fauci, or mass resignations of senior leaders as political tides turn.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was Australia’s first leader to engage with a newly Republican White House in 2016 and says Trump’s ‘shocking’ treatment of the US public service has jeopardised good governance.

“The assault that Donald Trump has made on established norms of government and institutions is very, very troubling,” Turnbull tells The Mandarin.

Outlining his hope Australia’s own systems will retain a resilience to rampant politicisation, Turnbull says effective governance requires elected leaders to be accountable for political decisions, not public servants.

“It’s very important that public servants are not put in a position where they are directed to take decisions which are essentially political ones,” Turnbull says.

“… If a politician wants there to be a political decision taken, he or she should be seen to take it, and answer for the consequences.”

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaking during a Cabinet meeting.

While Australia’s own systems are less exposed to the type of partisan appointments experienced in the US, the land Down Under is not immune from ministers bullying public servants in pursuit of their own goals, as was parsed in these pages earlier this week—in such cases, where should loyalties lie?

Former DFAT secretary Peter Varghese draws distinction between unlawful directions and repudiations of convention, telling The Mandarin public servants are ultimately duty-bound to uphold the values of the APS.

“Where a public servant considers a direction to be unlawful, they should seek legal advice and if that advice indicates a direction is unlawful, the minister should be so advised,” Varghese says. “It is highly unlikely in an Australian context that any minister would proceed in the face of clear legal advice that an action would be unlawful.”

“Where a direction is lawful but contrary to a convention, there is a duty on the public servant to so advise the minister so that the minister has all the relevant information,” he continues.

“Observing a convention is ultimately a political judgement for which the minister will be held accountable through the parliament.

“If a public servant is directed to act contrary to a convention and they consider the issue of such significance that they are not willing to do so, they have the option of resigning.”

Varghese: Australia needs vigilant public servants

Varghese says he would like to think Australia’s political and bureaucratic cultures would prevent the ‘corrosion of governance values’ witnessed in the US, but nevertheless urges public servants to display vigilance as custodians of national institutions—lest senior leaders naively believe it could never happen here.

“Preserving the integrity of our system is not just the responsibility of ministers,” Varghese says. “There is an obligation on public servants to ensure that their behaviour upholds the law and the values of the APS.

“’The minister told me to do it’ is not a sufficient excuse where the actions contravene the law or the values of the APS.”

Former DFAT secretary Peter Varghese.

Varghese notes the neutrality of the APS is enshrined in law, drawing down a clear responsibility not just on public servants, but also on senior leaders in backing up subordinates when ministers and other political staff overreach.

Hartland: Leaders must step-up in era of rapid change

Former DESE secretary and ASIO deputy director Kerri Hartland underscores this point, telling The Mandarin the current moment is marred in complex challenges and rapid change—requiring senior leaders to step-up.

“There will likely be more change to come,” Hartland says. “This is a time when leaders need to step up and be judged on how they show that way forward.”

Hartland, now a principal advisor at Proximity, says public service secretaries and departmental heads must bring as much certainty to their roles as possible in times of crisis, ensuring subordinates aren’t pushed into scenarios where they feel politically pressured.

“If there are are issues that go over the line of integrity and values, then there’s clear judgement calls to be made … particularly if you’re a junior public servant seeing those things, you need to escalate it, because you’ll never understand the full context in which you’re working,” Hartland says.

Former department of education, skills and employment secretary Kerri Hartland.

It’s not an easy task, particularly as public servants across the country adjust not just to decentralised work environments, but also shifting institutional sands.

As former DITRC secretary Mike Mrdak explains, many of Australia’s own norms and conventions have been reshaped during the pandemic—the Morrison government has literally re-written the handbook on cabinet processes.

“Cabinet doesn’t operate the way it traditionally did, we’ve seen that across COVID-19 … what they see as a push for small leadership groups removes the involvement of the wider cabinet and bureaucrats,” Mrdak, now non-executive chair at NEC Australia, tells The Mandarin.

Mrdak says public servants shouldn’t assume institutions are more robust and longstanding than they are, particularly in the face of ‘major shock events’.

“When you get major shock events, like a leader with a strong view, which is driven towards destroying a lot of institutions because they don’t see that as meeting their needs—that’s a shock,” Mrdak says.

“We assume conventions are more robust than they are, the checks and balances can be bypassed.”

Mrdak: Public administration must be defended

Often, changes can occur over time without drawing all that much attention at all. Mrdak says one of the most significant institutional changes he witnessed over 30-years as a senior public servant has been the gradual politicisation of Australia’s Senate, which he argues has become far less focused on public administration than it once was.

“There’s an increasing dislocation between public administration, which is what most people want out of government, and politics,” Mrdak says.

“Government is about public administration and politics is how you deliver a decision.”

Former secretary of the department of communications Mike Mrdak at Senate estimates. (AAP)

Mrdak says where the Senate once occupied a public administration focused role in government, it is now largely political; particularly the estimates process, which is now more closely reflected in political theatre than dedicated accountability and review for public servants.

“In the past Senators and committees were constantly given briefings where they really got to understand the public administration, making sure it was robust and transparent, and that expenditure was effective,” Mrdak says.

“In the back end of my career I saw less and less access to backbench members and opposition Senators … Ministers are very worried about letting the public service have access to the opposition.”

Stewards of democracy: Australia’s vanguard against cronyism

Mrdak argues Australia should re-examine its committee systems, but nevertheless says this politicisation of the Senate is an example of how institutions can change if stewards aren’t there to defend their importance.

In this sense, he urges public servants to stick to core values—namely integrity and equity—while cautioning being too defensive of institutions which may have outlived their usefulness in a rapidly changing world.

“Public servants should never be the defenders of institutions that are out of date or that are blocking the need for change,” Mrdak says. “[But] it’s got a mandate, in my view, to think about the future in terms of the whole community, not just sectional interests—politics parties serve [those].”

All the experts The Mandarin spoke with agreed: The public service are stewards of Australian democracy; its people and their values are the nation’s vanguard against the type of  cronyism that’s thrived in the US under Trump.

But, as Turnbull reflects, the Prime Minister of the day must ultimately ensure public servants have license to ‘stand up’ and give voice to their best ideas for reform, or even their most prescient warnings.

“Once the public service starts telling politicians what they want to hear, then they’re not doing their job,” Turnbull says.

“The public service is an enormous reservoir of experience and intellect, what you need to do as Prime Minister—and this is how I approached it—is get the best out of it.”

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