The steady increase in political appointments at senior levels of the Australian Public Service signifies a slow erosion of Australia’s democratic conventions, according to former senior public servant Stephen Bartos.
The ex deputy secretary of the Department of Finance was on Wednesday joined by former Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull and former Western Australian premier Geoff Gallop for the final Mandarin Talks event for the year.
The public sector leaders discussed the key events and issues that have defined 2020, including COVID-19, the need for a federal ICAC, and last summer’s horror bushfire season.
The panellists also delved into the recent US presidential election. While it is almost certain that Joe Biden will be sworn in as the next president in January, Donald Trump has been using his final months in power to wreak havoc on an already politicised civil service.
“What I find particularly troubling now is that he’s firing — and I guess he used to do that on Celebrity Apprentice — but he’s firing the people that actually spoke up in favour of the integrity of the election system and the voting system. He just fired someone this morning who stood up very publicly and basically said the voting system was completely intact, very secure, etc, and that is a deeply troubling trend,” Turnbull said, referring to Christopher Krebs, director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
“It’s easier for it to happen in the US because of the structure of the way government works than it is here, but I hope that sort of thing never ever happens here, where people who disagree with the government of the day, or verify something which is of enormous public interest, then get shown the door. I think that’s quite terrifying.”
Gallop noted that, aside from cases of voter suppression, the Australian and American political systems are very different. This, along with public perceptions towards politics and democracy “put us in a different camp than the USA”.
“Luckily, I think our culture thus far has stood up against the authoritarian populism,” Gallop said.
“It is there though, and I think we’ve got to forever be defending our liberal and our democratic institutions.”
While Bartos agreed that Australia’s conventions have protected it well from some of the issues Americans currently face, they are “slowly being eroded, to the extent that there are more political appointments”.
There are also no formal protections in place to stop the politicisation of the public service at the most senior levels.
“For more junior public servants, the Public Service Act in the commonwealth and the equivalent in all the states and territories does act as some sort of control, but as far as top-level appointments go, those are in the hands of the government. At the commonwealth they’re not even advertised, the government just decides,” Bartos said.
“We actually are seeing a creep — it’s nowhere near the extent to which we’ve seen in the United States — but we are gradually moving in the direction of more and more political appointments. We see it, for example, with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal where the government actually is — Christian Porter’s most recent media release made it quite explicit that he was appointing a number of people due to their past Liberal Party affiliations. And we see it with the board of Australia Post, which is stacked full of former Liberal Party officials or members. So, over time, particularly those bodies a little bit at arm’s length, we’re seeing politicisation.”
He noted that, over the past couple of decades, there has also been an emerging tradition where every time a new prime minister is elected, the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet resigns, and the new prime minister appoints “their own personal pick” as secretary. The current secretary, Phil Gaetjens, was Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s former chief of staff.
Read more insights on the US election, the destruction of its civil service, and whether Australia faces similar threats, in the first three parts of The Mandarin’s week-long series, What if it happened here?