Where to for our best and brightest?

By Bernard Keane

Tuesday July 20, 2021

Staff morale at Home Affairs, NIAA, and Social Services is among some of the lowest across all APS agencies (Adobe/jaymast)

A look at the failures of the vaccine rollout, and more, suggests that Canberra might no longer be on the radar of our most talented young people, writes Bernard Keane.

Where do we want our best and brightest to work?

For anyone interested in public policy and its challenges, the answer has always been the Australian Public Service. Not merely did it offer the chance to work on national and international issues and collaborate with the most important decision-makers in the country, but the subject matter was complex and challenging, driven by activist governments eager to get things done.

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Ending protectionism, establishing Medicare, reforming industrial relations, putting in place a superannuation system, reforming the tax system, implementing national competition policy, privatising major enterprises, recognising native title, developing a carbon pricing scheme or a national disability insurance scheme, overseeing the building of nationally significant infrastructure. And that’s apart from dealing with external challenges like financial crises and regional instability.

To join the APS was to take a place in a long tradition stretching back to the middle of the 20th century of top-flight minds engaged in the task of serving the public interest, that helped deliver 30 years of uninterrupted growth and a significant improvement in the material wealth of Australians.

But is the APS the answer to that question anymore? For a young and talented Australian with an ambition to contribute to policy-making, should they head to Canberra? Is that where they will be most fulfilled, and where the nation will best use their talents?

Increasingly the answer is no — especially in light of the pandemic.

That the current government is not interested in reform is widely accepted — indeed, at the start of the year the Prime Minister declared he had no interest in any reform between then and the next election. His priority was the vaccine rollout. But the sheer lack of movement in many areas is remarkable: on energy and climate, on tax reform, on Indigenous recognition, on integrity and transparency — the last eight years have been wasted. Even on industrial relations reform, a traditional Coalition obsession, any changes have been minimal.

Where does a talented and ambitious young Australian go if they want to work on the most important policy issue in the world, climate change? Not to Canberra, which literally has no energy or climate policy beyond continuing to support fossil fuels. Instead, they’d need to move to Sydney, where they could work on the Berejiklian government’s plans for transition to renewable energy.

What about infrastructure and major transport planning? For that you’d need to move to Melbourne or Sydney to work for governments engaged in major infrastructure investment designed to overhaul the nature of their transport systems.

The budding tax reformer might need to go to Sydney as well, given state Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, is prepared to pursue the goal long-cherished by economists of embracing land taxes.

To work in state governments is now to be at the centre of power in Australia. The pandemic has made state premiers the nation’s leaders, with Scott Morrison an onlooker who provides funding — usually on the terms set by first ministers. The rebalancing of power has been made all the clearer by the commonwealth’s failures on vaccine supply and vaccine rollout — especially to the aged care and residential disability care sectors. Those interested in service delivery and delivering real change through the health system would compare and contrast the performance of the commonwealth and state/territory health departments and gravitate to the latter.

The pandemic has also cemented the economic policy power of the Reserve Bank. It’s only a few years since Tony Abbott was considering imposing an outsider onto the bank in order to bring it to heel, but such an idea is now out of the question. The RBA’s aggressive use of monetary policy during the pandemic — after what some say were too many years of complacency beforehand — and its shift to actual inflation as a target, driven by wages growth, has tilted economic policy-making power to Martin Place. The best and the brightest economic talents will know that working at the RBA will see them at the centre of policy-making, without the politicisation that has damaged Treasury’s reputation.

Scott Morrison’s insistence that the public service is there merely to carry out the brilliant ideas he and his cabinet have devised makes Canberra even less attractive for those interested in policy. In many cases, it is consultants who are engaged to advise on and implement policy anyway — someone taking a position at the Big Four consulting firms may well end up doing as much government work as if they joined the APS — and likely to get a greater variety of it as well.

Watching department of infrastructure officials address a senate committee this week over the car park rorts was to see the decline of once respected institution that saw the likes of Allan Hawke, Peter Harris and Mike Mrdak advising governments. Now, officials explained to the senate just how little a  role they had played in the Urban Congestion Fund, how they had no idea about key documents used by ministers to identify projects, and that their role was simply to get the car parks built once the government decided to press ahead.

What an ad for joining the public service! Come to Canberra and spend your days being ignored by ministers until they decide what pork-barrelling they want to do — entirely unrelated to the merit of projects — and you swing into action to get the money out the door.

Not exactly challenging work for the best and the brightest, is it?

The APS is still capable of impressing. The ANAO has, in report after report, been positive about how well departments responded to the pandemic. The fiscal stimulus plans developed within Treasury kept the recession shorter and shallower than expected, along with monetary policy. If much of the gloss has since come off Jobkeeper due to undeserving businesses hoarding billions in cash, the Homebuilder program proved a major success in the construction sector. 

Somewhere in Canberra there remains the spirit of what was once lauded as one of the world’s great public services. But a look at the failures of the vaccine rollout, or the scandal du jour unearthed by the auditors amongst the programs rorted by this government, or the years of inaction on the most important issues, suggests that Canberra might no longer be on the radar of our most talented young people.


It’s time to get on and implement the reform of NSW’s infrastructure contributions system

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