Public servants' priority now covering arses: Gareth Evans

By David Donaldson

September 5, 2014

Inside the Hawke–Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary
Inside the Hawke–Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary

The politicisation of the bureaucracy “has created an environment in which the first imperative for any public servant is to cover his or her arse”, according to former foreign minister Gareth Evans.

Reflecting on how the relationship between politicians and the public service had changed since his own time in the job, Evans — who recently launched a new book, Inside the Hawke-Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary — told The Mandarin he believed “the triumph of the apparatchik in ministerial offices has gone many steps further than it sensibly should have”.

“Think of the way in which we inherited John Stone in the Treasury under Paul Keating. A lot of people thought this was going to be impossible. It wasn’t all that happy a relationship, and in the event Stone moved on — but there was no question of him being sacked,” he said.

“Compare and contrast this to [John] Howard — I think the rot set in under Howard. I don’t want to be partisan about it, but that night of the long knives when his government was elected, and Mike Costello who was with me in Foreign Affairs, and a whole bunch of other people, were summarily dispatched from their secretary positions because they were seen as too close to us.

“Compare and contrast again with when [Tony] Abbott came in, and [Department of Resources secretary Blair] Comley and others were just dispatched.

“That environment that’s been created — and it wasn’t very different under the Rudd-Gillard years, I can’t pretend there was any reversion back to the pre-existing norm — but I think that has created an environment in which the first imperative for any public servants is to cover his or her arse.”

Evans adds this atmosphere has taken its toll on frank and fearless advice, arguing “the nerve has been extracted” from many bureaucrats.

He supports increasing secondments between departments and ministers’ offices. During the Hawke and Keating years, up to 70% of ministerial staff were on secondment from the public service

“I had many, many people in my office who either had instincts in the other direction, or often no party affiliation or engagement at all, just were first-class professionals,” he said. “As far as I can remember, there was never an instance where that confidence was abused, in terms of public servants running their own agenda against the minister, which seems to be the perennial fear of ministers these days …

“There was a good understanding as a result by ministers what the real-world public service delivery dimensions of an issue were about.”

“Communication was usually very strong. There was a good understanding as a result by ministers what the real-world public service delivery dimensions of an issue were about.”

He states he was “constantly pleasantly surprised by the quality of the public service in the Attorney-General’s Department, and certainly in Foreign Affairs”.

“A bit less so in Resources and Energy, where a lot of them … had to be given a bit of shock treatment to make them understand the agendas and be a bit more sympathetic on striking balances between Aboriginal land rights issues and mining interests,” he said.

Asked whether the politicisation of the public service has affected policy, Evans responds that “there’s plenty of evidence for that”: “Too often ministers have been making policy by thought bubble, rather than a full understanding and appreciation of all the different elements that are involved.

“The best policymaking is done on an iterative basis when ideas are going backwards and forwards, when the envelope is being pushed by adventurous ministers, and often being resisted by more cautious public servants. But also when there’s the capacity for public servants to do adventurous things themselves and to make sure their advice is well and truly appreciated.”

The pink batts scheme “could have benefited from a hell of a lot more care and attention” and allowing public servants the time to roll it out properly, though Evans believes a lot of the criticism directed at Rudd was “a bit misplaced”.

Abbott’s paid parental leave program, he thinks, is “more an issue of having lousy policy, and policy at odds with the whole coherence and direction of what the government is supposed to be about”.

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