Introducing ‘The politicisation of the public service’ series

By Bernard Keane

Tuesday October 5, 2021

The politicisation of the APS and state-level bureaucracies is a crucial part of the endemic state of soft corruption that is now contemporary politics. (Emma Bemrose/Private Media)

“Claims that the Australian federal public service has been politicised have become more frequent in recent years. Even allowing for journalistic licence, many senior appointments are said to be threatening the neutrality or professionalism of the public service.”

So wrote Griffith University’s Professor Patrick Weller in the Australian Journal of Public Administration in 1989, in an article seeking to rigorously probe allegations of politicisation which, he noted, extended back to the Fraser years.

If Weller could express scepticism in 1989 about the validity of such claims under the Hawke government, since then, the scope for scepticism has decreased steadily. In 2009, Lynelle Briggs, after five years as Australian Public Service Commissioner, could reflect that while ‘this view has been considerably overstated, there have been times when Australian public servants have felt themselves under pressure to make decisions or tailor advice in ways that furthered a government’s political interests’.

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Now the politicisation of the APS is an accepted fact, unless you’re a serving Secretary and required to toe the (literal) party line. “The politicisation of public services has been a relentless trend in public administration internationally,” is how University of Canberra’s Professor John Halligan begins a recent article that discusses the growth of politicisation across a wide variety of administrative cultures around the world. As Halligan shows, Australia is by no means alone in seeing the relentless encroachment of the political into what were once ostensibly “neutral” policy development and administrative processes.

But Weller’s 1989 approach remains important: claims of politicisation should not be taken for granted, but tested against sound definitions. In doing so about the APS c. 2021, it becomes clear that Australia has entered an era of politicisation significantly greater than even in the recent past, particularly at the federal level, and that it has had quite dramatic negative effects on the quality of government Australians are receiving from their leaders.

To argue that is hardly to break new ground: the above has not merely been stated by former senior public servants who have witnessed, often first hand, the decline of the APS, but is the conclusion of a review paper commissioned by the Thodey Review panel (about which, more — much more — later).

But it must be seen in the broader setting of the overall decline in transparency, integrity and accountability of government in Australia, and of the pervasive extent of soft corruption that dominates sectors of policymaking in this country, most particularly at the federal level. In fact, the politicisation of the APS, as well as that of other, state-level bureaucracies, must be seen as a crucial part of the endemic state of soft corruption that now characterises contemporary politics.

This series will examine that link, but also examine the drivers of politicisation in Australia and in other countries, given its international nature. The responses to politicisation, and the failure of practising public policy experts to understand the nature of the problem, will also be addressed, along with some suggestions as to where we can go from here with a badly broken public policy system in Australia.

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