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Tom Burton: benching talent brings worst of Washminster

The exiling of federal Department of Agriculture secretary Paul Grimes to the departure lounge points to a far wider problem about public life.

In my experience Grimes is as good an executive leader as you will find. Balanced, thoughtful, capable, he learnt his craft as a PhD economist, rising through the ranks to earn a public service medal for his work around the global financial crisis.

Grimes is but the last of a long line of distinguished public administrators who are being lost to Australia’s public sector. Over the last 18 months we have seen purges of three major bureaucracies — in Canberra, Melbourne and most recently Brisbane.

Some I have to admit were no great loss, but the vast majority are competent, intelligent leaders who earned their positions through hard work and dedication to a greater public cause. Public sector pay grades are relatively comfy these days, but many of these mandarins could have earned far bigger bucks in mid-tier private firms, without the grueling personal toll agency leadership exacts.

Leave to one side any sense of ideology and this is simply a massive waste of public brain power for a small country that aspires to bat well above its official ranking as a mid-tier developed economy.

In almost all cases they have lost their jobs because of political change. Change that has become almost chronic. The point becomes that the political volatility which now infects all governments is now directly causing many of our best and brightest public administrators to be exiled like miscreants to a gulag.

Yes, many ex-mandarins can and do pick up consulting and board jobs. But sitting in the grand stand is very different to playing on the field and there are far too many ex-officials — many in the prime of their careers — living what these days is fashionably called a portfolio career.

The same can be said about our political leadership, the other type of public servant. Australia has been blessed with some talented prime ministers and premiers. But as a nation we effectively throw them out like old tissues when their political tenure ends.

The Americans use their ex-presidents as active participants, sending them on special duties to solve tricky diplomatic problems or to represent the US where an authoritative (and wise) person is required. Each ex-president creates a “library” and with it a whole organisation focused on some greater public cause, be it health in Africa or urban renewal. They retain the title of president and are expected to remain active participants in public life.

It is a crude generalisation, but in Australia our ex-leaders end up working as lobbyists (for Chinese real estate firms) or writing books. Nothing wrong with that, but there is something slightly tragic seeing someone as visionary and intelligent as Paul Keating reduced to occasional media one-liners about Barangaroo and industry super.

I once sat at the back of room in the Hague and watched Keating woo a group of hard-headed German bankers about the need to take the ASEAN region seriously. Each by the end agreed to participate in whatever agreement Keating was trying to get them to sign up to. His ability to persuade was legendary, a skill any government would want to use. How useful would it be to have Keating as a special ambassador to try to convince Indonesia that it was in their interests not to execute the two Australians now awaiting their execution.

Ditto John Howard, who seems to have dropped out of active public life, despite the deep insights and relationships he developed in over 30 years of active parliamentary life. Howard had a native sense of what the aspiring middle class of Australia really wanted and spent his political life trying to achieve it. His ability to listen and really hear what motivated ordinary people want was perhaps his greatest skill.

To my mind Howard would be the perfect person to resolve the complex issue of how to transition our university sector to be globally competitive.

The same is true of some of our ex-premiers. John Brumby, Bob Carr, Jeff Kennett, Nick Greiner — all good minds, but sidelined by the almost juvenile partisan politics that send them off to be bit players, living off the scraps of former reputation. Carr of course went on to be a short-term Foreign Minister and Kennett has done wonderful work with his Beyond Blue, but the point is that as a nation we have to develop a maturity to see the value of these leaders beyond their party political allegiances.

We seemed to have adopted the worst, rather than the best, of what Professor Gary Banks from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government calls the “Washminster” system.

Westminster is of course the British system where civil servants traditionally were hired for life, to be fiercely independent, to speak truth to power — and not be punished for it.

Washington institutionalised the cleaning out of the top end of the administration, and in a very structured way into the more junior ranks of government, whenever the president changes.

This has deep consequences for our public sector. At a time where we are crying out for innovation and transformation in our public agencies, the risk aversion and timidity at the SES level of the Australian public service is palpable. We get too little truth to power — witness the pink batts fiasco — and the worst of the American system, where good talent is junked at the behest of ministerial whims, with none of its protections.

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.