Rod Hook: SA public service politicised — at an alarming rate

By Rod Hook

March 13, 2015

Is politicisation of South Australia’s public service happening? Hell yes, and at an alarming rate.

The apolitical nature of the public service is being dismantled before our very eyes. It is happening with barely a squeak, as far as I can see, from the commissioner for public employment or the unions.

The fundamental premise of our system of government is that politicians are elected by the people for terms, usually three or four years. Governments are formed by the party garnering the majority support amongst those politicians. Those governments are then supported by an efficient and apolitical public service.

That at least was the public service I joined many years ago.

Appointments to the public sector are focused around a code of ethics. And a key element of the code is for public servants to be apolitical and without bias towards one political party or another.

While they are there to serve the government of the day they must also give frank and fearless advice in an impartial manner in the interest of the public, and abide by the code.

Over the decades I managed to work with many state ministers from both sides of politics. It was indeed a pleasure for me to work in the public sector under both major parties.

I believe throughout that time I enjoyed good working relationships with the ministers to whom I reported.  That relationship was based on respect and trust. They respected my political independence. I never felt compromised by them.

It goes without saying that to work with politicians, you need to have a high level of political awareness and understanding of the system. My onerous responsibility was to provide good advice. Good advice leads to good government.

“I also took my duty to be responsive and accountable to the government of the day very seriously …”

But what didn’t change during my work within government was my attitude and concern for the public interest.

I remained apolitical and impartial when providing advice. I also took my duty to be responsive and accountable to the government of the day very seriously and I think my track record is evidence of this.

Personally, for me, staying impartial and apolitical meant that I had to remain non-affiliated, as to join a party could easily be interpreted as influencing my motivation.

Had I aligned with either party, I feel it would have ultimately influenced the way my advice was received by the government, opposition, other political parties or the public.

When people seek my advice about how they can achieve a long and successful career in the public service I encourage them to be bold, to put themselves on the line, to take sensible risks where necessary and to focus on outcomes. I also counsel them to think seriously about their duty to remain apolitical, and above all to be ethical.

How sad would it be for our state if a prerequisite for a successful public sector career is for you to be encouraged to drop around to your local party sub-branch and sign up.

It is now 10 months since I left government. I am no longer involved. It is not my responsibility. But I can comment.

The Premier’s appointment of Kym Winter-Dewhirst as the head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet has brought up the debate. It is now front and centre.

I’m not talking here about Kym being appointed as a political adviser to the Premier or even head of the office of the Premier. All ministers are entitled to make a number of political appointments within their office specifically to advise them and look after their interests. And Kym has been a political staffer for the Labor Party previously.

What I am referring to is the appointment of Kym to the position of chief executive of the Department of Premier and Cabinet. I’m not arguing against the merits of this appointment, but I will argue that this appointment under a future Liberal government will present an issue of trust. Would that future Premier and Cabinet feel comfortable that someone with Kym’s background would be able to respond in an appropriate way to the government of the day irrespective of the party in power, or would there always be lingering concerns that his first loyalty would be to his party? Would those perceptions then become obstacles to him being able to do his job?

“… we should be wary about any practice that ignores recommendations for appointments based on merit …”

But public sector politicisation does not stop here.

We have seen it previously at the federal level. For example, on Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first day as Prime Minister he sacked those chief executives perceived to have a long association with Labor.

Dr Don Russell was one of those top pubic servants sacked by Abbott’s government. He is now chief of SA’s Department of State Development, and his appointment is also referred to commonly as a political one.

Similarly, Michael Deegan was moved out of a national infrastructure role by the Coalition government only to find he is now heading up the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure here in SA.

With a change of government recently in Victoria and Queensland, several chiefs have also been dispatched, because they were considered to be political appointments by the previous Liberal Governments who held close affiliations with the party.

Just last week it was reported that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is refusing to reappoint board members originally appointed by a Labor government.

So in one sense, this issue is not new. Politicisation of the public service has been the topic of many debates, studies and papers for years, and there are numerous examples of politically affiliated appointments and sackings.

If blatant political appointments to the public sector are to become the norm, we the public should demand at least that the term of the political appointment align with the period of the government.

We can assume the current cycle of political appointments to the public sector in South Australia are for contracts of five years. If there is a change of government in 2018, taxpayers will likely have to foot a substantial bill to pay out the incumbents if a decision was made by a Liberal government to terminate these contracts. It is an unnecessary, possibly even an unethical expense to offer contracts envisaging payouts because you know they will never be seen through to completion.

But I still hold out one last plea against political appointments by either side of politics. As a society we should be wary about any practice that ignores recommendations for appointments based on merit and gives favourable treatment in the public service to people on the basis of mates’ deals or their party affiliation.

We don’t want political debate in South Australia determined by numbers rather than what is right.

We don’t want our government focusing solely on what is good for the party. Our state is facing substantial challenges. Good government is for the people, not the party. The people of South Australia deserve good government.

This article was first published at Rod Hook’s blog and at InDaily

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7 years ago

Good point Rod. Interestingly another of the Commonwealth Secretaries sacked when Don Russell was, subsequently became head of NSW Premier and Cabinet under a Liberal Premier. Perhaps merit based appointments can still be found.

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