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Qld public servants ‘must be patient’ in bureaucracy shake-up

Two more public service bosses have walked in Queensland, and they’re unlikely to be the last. But a former top state bureaucrat has told The Mandarin the government deserves time and patience to make its changes.

Despite saying she wanted to avoid a “night of the long knives”, new Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (pictured) has let Health Department director-general Ian Maynard and Public Service Commission boss Andrew Chesterman go this week.

They join Premier and Cabinet director-general Jon Grayson, who left through “mutual agreement” after Palaszczuk was sworn in. Dave Stewart will replace Grayson when he finishes up at Transport for NSW next month. Kevin Yearbury is currently acting in the role.

Press reports suggest Maynard was terminated on Wednesday after meeting with the Premier. Chesterman is reportedly on leave, but Rob Setter has been made acting chief executive of the Public Service Commission.

The Mandarin sought comment from the PSC but was directed to the Premier’s office. A spokesperson for the Premier would only say:

“On assuming office, the Premier asked directors-general to satisfy themselves that they could be 100% committed to the new government’s election policies given the people of Queensland had just voted on these policies.

“If any directors-general feel the need to pursue other opportunities, they are free to make contact with the director-general of the Department of Premier and Cabinet to discuss their intentions and options.”

Palaszczuk has said all directors-general would be assessed under a “merit-based” system before being reappointed. The spokesperson says that process will start when Stewart begins at Premier and Cabinet on March 9; questions on how it will play out were not answered.

Both Maynard and Chesterman were Campbell Newman appointees and had worked with the former premier at the Brisbane City Council. Maynard was public service commissioner when he was made Health Department chief in 2013. Chesterman, a director-general under the former Labor government, replaced him at the PSC.

Health was one of the few departments left alone in a sweeping realignment of portfolios at the ministerial level and in the bureaucracy announced last week.

In a letter to public servants last week, Palaszczuk said “we will do everything we can to keep changes to a minimum”. Palaszczuk said the new government has “the highest regard for the professionalism and independence of the Queensland public service”:

“That is why I have committed to restoring fairness for public servants and ensuring that the proper conditions exist for them to provide frank and fearless advice to government.

“As part of this commitment, we will return to a Westminster-style model that values and supports a permanent public service.

“We will also reinstate those conditions for public servants that were removed by the previous government, particularly in relation to employment security, contracting-out and organisational change provisions.”

A ‘moment of choice’ for mandarins

The Opposition has criticised the latest moves, with Liberal-National Party leader Lawrence Springborg calling it a “month of the short knives”. But Roger Scott, a director-general at the Department of Health in the early 1990s under Labor, says public servants need to be patient “with a leadership team somewhat surprised at the rapidity of its success, then distracted by unexpected natural disasters, but one which has good intentions and laudable caution”.

“It seems churlish in the circumstances to complain, as the Opposition Leader has, about the need to act instantly rather than prolong uncertainty: advocating a night of long knives rather than a week of short blades,” he said.

“It has been very much worse in the past, particularly under the Wayne Goss-Kevin Rudd regime when large numbers of senior public servants were rusticated to a vacant state school on the edge of the city, promptly dubbed ‘The Gulag’. The terms of their ‘permanency’ made their new employer hope that this demeaning treatment would encourage them to leave voluntarily rather than expect employment elsewhere in the system.

[pullquote] “Change of government does not mean the end of the world for a director-general but rather the moment of choice.” [/pullquote]

“By contrast, the numbers under discussion now are tiny, and we do not know — and may never know — whether the formal exchanges of letters conceals a desire on the part of any of the individuals concerned to seek more congenial employment elsewhere after receiving suitable financial compensation. It is a matter of preference on both sides of the optimal team — clearly major changes in policy orientation or public endorsement offered by public servants to their previous political masters enters into this equation.”

Of the reappointment process, Scott says directors-general will be challenged “to demonstrate that they have the flexibility and qualifications as well as the motivation to serve comfortably under new ministers with a different policy orientation”.

“Others, by contrast, will have the opportunity to rise to this challenge, particularly in the relatively open-minded context of a fluid policy environment,” he told The Mandarin.

“The biggest change — even since Rob Borbidge and Peter Beattie — is that the career paths of senior executives is much wider and more flexible, so that public service security is less valued. On both sides of the political divide, there are opportunities either in other jurisdictions — as seen by the incoming director-general of the Premier’s Department — or in the private sector. This applies all the way down though the senior ranks but it is particularly relevant at the top.

“Change of government does not mean the end of the world for a director-general but rather the moment of choice. In making that choice, a complex mix of considerations interact on both sides.”

More at The Mandarin: D-Gs ‘on notice’: Queensland’s public service shake-up

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.