Under Ted Baillieu, the 'bureaucrats were really in charge'

By David Donaldson

November 4, 2015

The public service was “completely in charge” of a rudderless Ted Baillieu-led Victorian government, an internal party review into the Liberal-National Coalition’s loss at last year’s election has found.

Following 11 years in opposition, the party was unprepared for governing. There was “no satisfactory transition … plan in place” when the Coalition won in 2010 and “little time had been put into the development of even flagship policies”, according to the highly critical report, which was chaired by former Victorian Liberal president and federal MP David Kemp. The Liberals dumped Baillieu (pictured) in favour of Dennis Napine in 2013 but still lost the election to Daniel Andrews’ Labor Party.

The identification of suitable staff before the election was only undertaken to a limited extent, and while “some” first class staff were hired, the hiring process was drawn out, “delaying decisions and causing resentment, which contributed to the government getting off to a slow start”. “Unclear and tortuous” decision-making processes and excessive central control made it difficult for government to function effectively. Meetings were often long and indecisive.

This lack of pre-planning and strategic direction from elected representatives appears to have been responsible for the public service gaining what the party sees as an outsize role in decision-making:

“From the early days of the government there was a heavy reliance on cabinet committees, and on submissions from the public service. One senior minister stated: ‘the bureaucracy was completely in charge of that first cabinet’. There were complaints that business went through cabinet committees that should have gone to cabinet.”

The reviewers saw a lack of leadership from ministers in the decision-making process:

“Government is about more than administrative and management activity. Ministers have a vital leadership role in policy, and must not over-rely on the public service as may have occurred with some ministers. It is important to recognise the complexity of the policy choices that need to be made by governments, and that questions of priority and direction can often only be settled by reference to the values of the party’s wider philosophy.”

The government also took too long to decide which departmental secretaries should be shown the door, say the report’s authors — no doubt raising concerns among bureaucrats about the continuing politicisation of the public service:

“While a number of ministers from the start provided strong leadership to their departments, and it was decided to leave in place department secretaries, the view has been put to the review that the coalition government did not make sufficient or timely changes once it became clear that senior public servants were not performing as the government was entitled to expect.”

The report delved into one of the key bugbears of public servants, the relationship between the bureaucracy and ministerial staffers, noting staffers’ unpopularity and suggesting many had overstepped their job description.

“Ministerial staff members were not popular in submissions to the review. Criticisms of lack of expertise and of professionalism abound. Lack of access to ministers and unreturned phone calls are frequently sheeted home to staff … Public service leaders and commentators express concern and skepticism over, and party members often decry, their role. Yet no government today can operate without them, and an understanding of their role is essential for staff themselves, for parliamentarians and party members alike.”

Unpopular as they may be, staffers play an important role, though it seems many did not properly grasp the boundaries:

“Ministerial staff are concerned with the political functions of government, as distinct from the administrative functions of the public service. It helps to have a clear idea about what is encompassed by ‘politics’. While political and administrative functions overlaps at the margins, both are essential to the conduct of effective government. It is essential for ministerial staff to have a clear understanding of their role.”

‘Left-leaning’ bureaucrats impact vote

In spite of numerous professions of respect for the role public servants play, the report also demonstrates the suspicion many on the Coalition side of politics have for the bureaucracy.

It notes in a couple of places that, as voters, bureaucrats tend not to be so supportive. In a discussion on whether Victoria is inherently a left-leaning state, it notes that, for all the factors working against conservatives:

“… there are also some demographic features of Victoria which should give heart to Liberals. For instance, Victoria’s share of public sector employees is 1.4% lower than the national average.”

The party — ironically often a booster of arguments for moving public servants out to regional centres — is even concerned about moving too many bureaucrats into traditionally conservative areas, concerned that it may harm their long-term electability in places like Geelong:

“It was also pointed out to the review that the government’s policy of relocating certain aspects of government operations to regional cities (in particular locating the NDIS in Geelong) would have the effect of harming the party’s electoral prospects as public servants working in these areas would tend to be Labor voters.”

The report — which attracted 400 written submissions — was quietly released on the eve of Melbourne Cup Day and the opposition, now led by former planning minister Matthew Guy, left it to party president Michael Kroger to welcome the “invaluable document”.

The party’s administrative committee has agreed to implement all recommendations, which include preparing a ministerial staff handbook to establish guidelines and a code of conduct for staffers, and drawing on the Australia and New Zealand School of Government to “help prepare shadow ministers for decision-making in government, including in federal arrangements”. Kroger noted:

“… many of the recommendations of the review are either in the process of being implemented, or have been implemented. For instance, new methods of engaging with voters were trialled during the recent Polwarth and South West Coast byelections.”

“With a federal election due in the next 12 months and the next state election just three short years away, I am confident that Dr Kemp’s review provides us with a roadmap to ensure we will perform well at the next federal election and elect Matthew Guy as the next premier of Victoria in 2018.”

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Laurie Patton
Laurie Patton
6 years ago

A very revealing review. These days competent and seasoned political advisers are critical to any government, especially reformist ones hoping to change things. This is not a criticism of public servants just a recognition of the fact that the old Westminster reliance on bureaucrats is no longer sufficient. Just look at Peter Garrett and the bungled ‘pink bats’ exercise.

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