Give us respect, and no more gotcha games: Parkinson’s plea

By Tom Burton

Friday December 4, 2015

Achieving real policy reform will take strong political leaders — like New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, New Zealand leader John Key and British Prime Minister David Cameron — who “don’t play short-term political gotcha games” and treat citizens with intelligence, according to Canberra’s new top mandarin.

Speaking this week after giving the Warren Hogan lecture at Sydney’s UTS Business School — but before his formal appointment yesterday — incoming Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson (pictured) warned against damaging trust in public institutions. He endorsed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s call for the public sector to take more risks and be innovative, but he said the broader public sector — political and bureaucracy — had not done large-scale reform well in recent years.

He called for universities and TAFEs to be given more freedom to specialise and to find their own way. And he said while Australia did the “R” in R&D well, we don’t do the “D” part well.

Parkinson also asked for long-term bipartisanship over our economic and strategic relationship with China and the region. He said it was a nonsense to think of Australia as a bridge between United States and China interests and that Australia needs to recognise the emergence of China and other new power centres.

Parkinson said much of the success of previous reforms had come from the quality of people attracted to the civil service, and the respect people had for public institutions because they have been successful:

“Each of these things are quite fragile. Let’s be frank about it — it is very very easy to damage an institution, it is very very hard and takes a long, long time to rebuild an institution or to give an institution credibility from the outset. It is almost impossible so that is really important for us in thinking about how do we approach public institutions.”

Citing comments from the Prime Minister, Parkinson said “the public service is an incredibly valuable and important institution and we have to nurture it”. But, “we have got to demand more of it”:

“We have to encourage it to be more innovative and risk taking, but we have got to respect it. That doesn’t mean you automatically get good all-of-government approaches, you have got to consciously have a government that demands whole-of-government approaches, a citizenry that demands and a bureaucracy that is capable of responding to those.

“I actually think we have those things. I don’t think we have done it very well in recent years and I think it is going to be quite a challenge for the senior ranks of the public sector — political and bureaucratic — to deliver that in the years ahead. But I detect there is a lot more optimism about our ability to achieve that now than there may been in recent years.”

Parkinson said productivity reform is urgently needed and this will take real leadership from politicians:

“Who are the leaders of recent years who are the standouts in terms of getting their citizenry to accept policies that they may initially not be enamoured with? I think of three people: I think of David Cameron, but perhaps even more markedly Mike Baird and John Key.

“I think if you look at the style of the three of them, and particularly Key and Baird who I have seem more of up close, they treat the public with respect, they recognise the intelligence of the citizen, they don’t play short-term political gotcha games.

“They have always got to play politics, they are politicians and they have to be re-elected. But they don’t play short-term gotcha games. What they do, they say we have got an issue, we have got a challenge, here is the challenge. I am not going to scare you into trying to do something about it. I am actually going to engage you. I want to hear your views and this is how I think we can go forward. They take the public with them by engaging them, by having a proper dialogue with the community.

“In Australia, who in recent history who have been the leaders who can do that? It has been the Paul Keatings, the Bob Hawkes, the John Howards — and who do we stop and think about being the successful prime ministers it is the Hawke, Keating, Howard era as that great era of success.

“I suspect the voters of NZ will probably put Key in that sort of category in the years ahead, and the voters of NSW may do that with Mike Baird. They are basically bringing the public along with the conversation. It is only where the public begins to really understand where the challenges are and the opportunities — because you can’t have something that is totally negative all the time.

“You have got to be open and honest with the public but O think if you do that you actually educate the public and you hear back from them what their issues are and from that you can construct the sort of strategic agenda. It does require leadership, real leadership.”

Asked about what role Australia can play in the relationship with China, Parkinson said the critical issue for Australia is to recognise that “we are allies of the United States and friends of China”:

“That give us a unique role to play. The idea that Australia is somehow a bridge between the two is nonsense. My response to that is bridges get walked on. Both the US and China have deep deep interconnecting relationships in all sort of different ways, far deeper than ours with China for example.

“So what does Australia need to do? Basically it needs to have a policy approach that is  strategic about what our national interests are, and is not subject to being thrown out at the change of government with every move of the electoral cycle.

“The Australia in the Asia Century white paper was only a first step, a good first step. Yet it disappeared from the debate. That is something we need to become more mature about. In the same way we have bi-partisanship about the alliance with the United States we need to develop bi-partisanship amongst the major parties about what are our key strategic issues and how we pursue them in terms of Asia’s rise.”

On higher education and the development part of R&D, Parkinson wondered if there are ways for universities and key institutions like the CSIRO to bridge the gap. “I know that is quite controversial. Some people say universities are about scholars,” he said:

“It is not about being judged by how much you can help business, but clearly there has to be mix in there and I think one of the priorities that would be good for the nation would be to give universities more freedom in fact to sort out where they want to be on that spectrum.

“For too long our regulation of our higher education sector has led to every university to try and look like every other university. You do want your group of Ivy League universities, but you do want your Carnegie Mellon types too. And your MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] types. And you do want basically universities that are more focussed on things in their region. And I think that providing that capacity for higher education institutions — I have just talked about universities, but I believe the same applies in the case of TAFE — giving them more freedom is incredibly important.”

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