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Mary Ann O’Loughlin on federalism, demands of public service

Mary Ann O'Louglin
Mary Ann O’Louglin

Mary Ann O’Loughlin was packing up her desk when The Mandarin first spoke to her. The seasoned public servant was executive councillor and head of the secretariat of the Council of Australian Governments Reform Council, the body set up by John Howard in 2006 to drive regulatory reform and expanded by Kevin Rudd to examine education, health and indigenous disadvantage.

But on June 30 O’Loughlin and a staff of around 25 under chairman John Brumby walked away after the Abbott government abandoned the program (the Reform Council was administered by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, but jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the states and territories). The government says the work of the council can be taken up by federal departments.

O’Loughlin’s team monitored COAG agreements and measured performance — a mixed bag in recent years — with regular public reporting. That reporting, O’Loughlin says, means “you’re putting some pressure on government to perform”.

“We would say that the really important characteristics of our role were that we were both independent and publicly accountable. Now, it doesn’t have to be obviously done by us, but we would hope that in some form those arrangements would continue …”

The government has now embarked on a white paper process examining arrangements of the federation. O’Loughlin says it’s important work.

“The council’s very pleased that these issues are going to be included in the white paper consideration. These issues aren’t going away.

“Their white paper terms of reference are clear that they’re going to be looking at accountability for performance and delivering outcomes. They’re going to be looking at transparency and performance reporting. So we support the continuation of those sorts of arrangements.”

Tony Abbott talks about a “competitive federalism” versus a “co-operative federalism”. Are we on a different path?

“I don’t think the terms are mutually exclusive. I think we’ve always had bits of both, to be honest. Even in these most recent years, you can see performance reporting when you compare the performance of the states to each other as a bit of competitive federalism. You’re saying this state is doing very well; these are the states that aren’t doing so well.

“There’s the incentive there that comes from the competition from the states against each other, and that’s a very healthy thing to do. The collaborative or co-operative federalism is important when they’re coming together sometimes to set the direction or the objective. They can be mutually agreed objectives, for example closing the gap on indigenous disadvantages. That’s something that all governments signed up to.

“It’s absolutely a collaboration around the overall objective, but how they go about it in taking account of their individual circumstances, and individual populations, demographics and economic conditions, is something that is important, that we also allow space for, and then you can get a lot of healthy differences. People can learn from those differences, too.”

In May, Brumby pointed to significant achievements from the council over its life: reforming the healthcare system, disability services, education, skills and employment, housing and homelessness, mining development, capital city planning systems, water management and streamlining the economy. But progress has been frustratingly slow in other areas: this year the council has released data showing state governments are struggling to meet agreed hospital targets, while efforts to “close the gap” on indigenous welfare are stalled on many fronts.

Will the drive to reform in these important areas be lost without an administrative council?

“Some of these issues are short term; you’d want to achieve it very quickly. Some of them are more of the medium-term [issues]. Some, like reducing the death [rate] and [increasing] life expectancy for indigenous and non-indigenous, is a very long agenda. So you’ve got to keep governments on notice by saying you want to keep achieving towards these goals, even if some of them are longer term.

“The other thing is the context that we’re living in. A lot of the context around the caricature of the reform agenda is increased globalisation of the economy … and how we tackle and do best from the implications of the economic and social transformation that’s underway will be a national issue. So it will be something that all of our governments will want to come together and talk about.

“You’re right in saying that these issues are not going away. Instead, you could say that they’re going to get greater highlight on them, and more pressure on them when we look at our education, and how we perform compared to our competitor nations, not just at school, but in vocational and university education. COAG will remain, I suggest, just as important, and the governments will come together to, as a nation, focus on national-interest issues …

“We are one nation coming together over 100 years ago for a purpose. One of those purposes was so we are stronger together when we are facing these very significant global changes.”

The government says it will save $8 million a year in abolishing the council. Was it money well spent?

“It’s not really a question for me. It’s government’s responsibility to govern how they see fit. It’s COAG’s job to determine how they want things done.

“What we would say is we think there are legitimate roles and responsibilities that remain that are important to be done. They can be done in a lot of different ways, and again we’re pleased that the issues are in the terms of reference for the white paper and reform of federation. We think they remain important issues, and those issues are how a government’s going to be held to account for performance in areas that collectively come together, and agreed that are in the national interest to progress. How it’s done is up to them.”

O’Loughlin was a senior adviser to Paul Keating. Does her background and that of Brumby, a former Labor premier, make this a political decision? O’Loughlin’s response is simple: “No.”

Before taking up the COAG post, O’Loughlin was a director of the Allen Consulting Group and before then a corporate affairs adviser for a private healthcare company. Before advising Keating on social policy, she held a number of senior positions in the Commonwealth public service, including as deputy secretary of the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, and first assistant secretary, social policy, with PM&C. So with two stints in the public sector, beginning in the 1980s and more recently, how has it changed?

“Without a doubt, the first thing I would say is because of changes in technology, the pace is much faster. We can do more things with the technology, and more things are asked of us to do. I think the pace has definitely increased.

“I would think also because a public service serves ministers, serves the governments of the day, if we look at the lives of the government of the day, of ministers, their lives over the past decade … has also increased because of the technological change, because the media changes, and social media changes. My view is definitely the pressure has increased on politicians, and the pace of their lives has increased. If that happens to them, it has to have an impact on the public service because we’re there to serve them. I do think that has happened.”

Is it more risk-averse as a result?

“I don’t see that. I don’t see necessarily a risk-averse public service … I think these are questions that have always been raised … They should be asked in the future. That’s just us looking at our service and saying, afterwards, how can we improve? What do we need to do better? I think we are just in different circumstances, and we’re adjusting to those circumstances, and we’re asking the right questions to try and keep it up to what is required as a dynamic, innovative, forward-thinking public service.”

O’Loughlin wasn’t sure what was next when The Mandarin spoke to her, though returning to consultancy seemed likely: “It’s a very interesting life in public policy consulting because you’re always working on very interesting issues.” Having worked at both ends, is the service too reliant on consultants?

“Whether it’s an area for reform, or an area of program delivery, or an area of trying to understand what the mood of the people is … there is a lot to get on top of these days. I think that’s the really important part of the role of the consultant, because public servants, within their day-to-day jobs, they’re very often in an area of being necessarily responsive immediately or very quickly to what the demands of the government of the day are. The issues that they face come up thick and fast.”

She walks away with no regrets and, she says, “enormous satisfaction”.

“The agenda was very very exciting. Working across all governments is a wonderful opportunity … That’s a terrific vantage point for understanding issues such as education and health and competition regulatory form. So that was a really excellent opportunity, and I’m very, very grateful for that.”

More at The Mandarin: Lessons to learn from the aborted COAG reform council

Author Bio

Jason Whittaker

Jason Whittaker is managing editor of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has written for and edited political, business and culture publications for a decade. He spent two years as editor of sister Private Media publication Crikey.