Expert: APS disruption inevitable but department reforms should be more ambitious

By Melissa Coade

June 3, 2022

Anthony Albanese
Labor’s MOG directive fell short, says John Wanna. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

A public policy expert says the new Albanese government has missed a chance for more far-reaching change in the latest machinery of government (MOG) announcement.

Speaking to The Mandarin, professor John Wanna said this week’s Administrative Arrangement Orders were going to cause shockwaves long after the 1 July deadline the new prime minister set to achieve them.

The public policy expert and ANU’s sir John Bunting chair of Public Administration, reflected on the reality of life in the bureaucracy and said in an environment where it could take up to 12 months to develop a new letterhead design, change was never easy.

“Changing the public service and moving parts of the bureaucracy around is extremely disruptive,” Wanna said. 

In 2008, when Kevin Rudd was prime minister and established Australia’s first climate change department, the academic said there were a number of painfully slow steps taken to merge four parts of what would become that new government entity. It took the APS over a week to hold a meeting with representatives from across those four government groups in Canberra and there was no timely process to establish IT infrastructure to accommodate internal communications between those branches.

“Some of these things are much more problematic than just changing pieces of paper,” Wanna said.

Wanna went on to argue that there was a lot that needed to be done to reform government portfolios so that they aligned more neatly with ministerial titles. The work would go a long way to helping state and territory governments work more effectively with the federal government, he said. 

The challenge of the current arrangements is a hangover mostly from the Coalition period of government, when ministers’ roles were swapped, chopped and changed around, but Wanna said the new Labor government’s MOG directive fell short of delivering the kind of transformation the commonwealth portfolios needed.

“Labor had an opportunity to clarify the departments with the ministers — they still mixed it up,” Wanna said. 

“Water as a policy area has probably been in about nine agencies in the last 10 years. It’s been in agriculture and infrastructure, it’s been in this, that, and the other.

“Arts is another one. It’s all over the place,” he said of the ping-ponging successive governments have subjected the policy area to. 

“We’ve got a minister for the republic and we don’t even have a republic,” he also quipped.

Albanese’s changes will create two new departments: employment and workplace relations, as well as climate change, energy, the environment and water.

Some departments will also be renamed, with the Department of Health now being known as the Department of Health and Aged Care.

The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications will now be known as the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts.

In Wanna’s view, the latter department is responsible for a mixed bag of policy areas. He is also dismissive of the appointment of two cabinet ministers, Amanda Rishworth and Catherine King, for such a miscellaneous grouping in the portfolio.

“There’s nothing that coordinates any of that area at all. They probably will divide the functions, but it’s not good,” Wanna said.

“I think a lot of departments should have one minister and one department head. You’ve got about six of the ministers now who don’t know who their departments are. There’s 23 ministers, so not every minister has [their own] department,” he said. 

Albanese’s government has 16 departments, seven of which have more than one cabinet minister.

The academic suggested the reason the MOG plan faltered in its ambition was because the new Labor team may not have had enough time to entertain the prospect of winning government during the election. He also speculated that the formulation of the PM’s AAO was led by party faction negotiations over who would be represented in the inner and outer ministry. 

“When they came to getting over the line, they had no idea what they were going to do with the public service,” Wanna said, noting Labor’s last caucus meeting was held before it was confirmed the party had secured its 76th seat in the lower house (Labor has since won 77 seats). 

“When [the Labor caucus] met, Albanese was faced with a very inconvenient number of people.”

Pointing to some less-experienced front bench candidates in the PM’s new ministry, Wanna said Albanese was hamstrung over who could pick in the whole ministry because he was left with whomever Labor’s factions nominated. He also believes the appointment of Tanya Plibersek as environment and water minister was a misuse of the Sydney MP’s talent.

“There’s about 100 members of the Labor party, about 15 are either first-term members or newbies, which means you’ve got a two in three chance of being in the ministry if you are in parliament,” Wanna said.

Fundamentally, the decision of sorting out the bureaucratic jumble (executing the change is the hard part) is an executive decision, Professor Wanna adds. For example, the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet did not exist until 1911, which is when the PM of the day chose to set up his own team. Previously that group sat under external affairs. 

The main point is the PM can make whatever MOG changes he or she wants, whenever he or she wants.

“Governments like to do MOG changes when they first come in to change whatever it is they want to do,” Wanna said.

“The second scenario for MOG is when the minister stuffs up, and they’ve got to shunt things around, then they move things.”


Albanese’s MOG shake-up spells big things for public servants

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