Keane: after years of decline, who’ll rescue the public service?

By Bernard Keane

Friday February 12, 2016

There are public service bungles, of various scales, under every government. No public administration is ever perfect, no matter the government. But the Australian public service, which once had a claim to being one of the world’s finest, has been undergoing a particularly difficult period.

This week’s performance by the head of the Department of Immigration at Senate estimates in a case in point. Mike Pezzullo blamed the media (who are in effect banned from the department’s offshore detention facilities) for misreporting and attacked opponents of offshore detention for making it more difficult for the department to act humanely.

Pezzullo’s hysterical performance went to the heart of the greatest scandal of maladministration at the Commonwealth level in recent decades. Despite having been warned, via Senate inquiries and the Houston/Aristotle/L’Estrange report, of the impact of long-term detention on the mental and physical health of detainees, the department retained a range of practices in its administration of Australia’s Nauru detention facility that were injurious to the health of detainees. The department also permitted a policy of brutalisation at its facility on Nauru, under which it was made aware of the sexual and physical abuse of detainees but undertook no action except to attempt to prevent evidence from being made public. The result has been dozens of mentally and physically injured asylum seekers needing care in Australia.

“The Turnbull government has an opportunity to rebuild the APS to once again seriously aim for world’s best practice … ”

But Immigration is far from the only department with a deeply problematic reputation. The Attorney-General’s Department received correspondence from convicted extremist Man Haron Monis, on trial in relation to a violent crime, proposing he contact Islamic State, mere weeks before he entered the Lindt cafe. They failed to refer the letter to intelligence agencies or the AFP, failed to tell the government’s in-house inquiry about the letter, then misled ministers about having done so.

The same department badly bungled the implementation of the government’s mass surveillance scheme, despite siphoning off several million dollars of the funding notionally allocated to industry to partially meet the costs of the scheme – and then gave the team that bungled it awards. As a grace note, the department’s secretary, Chris Moraitis, claimed to conveniently lost file notes that might have demonstrated that the government offered the head of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs an inducement to resign.

Then there’s the Environment Department, which bungled its rushed approval process for the white elephant Carmichael project so badly it agreed to its approval being set aside by the Federal Court – despite portfolio minister Greg Hunt explicitly promising in Parliament that it would never happen. The department has recently been caught out relaxing environmental approvals for the world’s biggest mining companies even though the companies haven’t sought them.

Nor are the concerns confined to line agencies. Treasury has poorly served three treasurers in a row now by serially overestimating tax revenue, leaving the Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull governments all well adrift of their goal of returning to surplus and establishing a ritual of revenue write-downs at the two fiscal set pieces of each year, the budget and Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. This has continued under Tony Abbott’s handpicked Treasury secretary John Fraser, a man who intellectually remains stuck in the 1990s with a slash-and-burn approach to both the budget and industrial relations. Last year, Fraser left it up to one of his deputies, Nigel Ray, to reveal that Treasury had made another error in its budget-time economic forecasts and would be downgrading growth. There was also the matter of Treasury’s proposal that the best way to address the fact that many multinational corporations paid little tax was to reduce the corporate tax rate, meaning the overall level of avoidance would fall.

Four different departments, four examples of serious errors or negligent, if not malicious, policy administration. Sometimes the departments bungled in concert: neither AGD, its portfolio agencies, nor Immigration thought it useful to consult with Australia’s allies over the Abbott government’s plans to dump dual citizen terrorists on them. Other departments, too, have been guilty of serious misjudgements. The Department of Defence waved through an acquisition by Chinese interests of the Darwin port facility despite high level concerns within the Obama administration. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet urged its own staff to inform on colleagues using social media to criticise any political party and proposed banning staff from using entire social media platforms if they might somehow bring the government into disrepute.

‘Toxic mix of incompetence’

The problems of recent years suggest more than the usual level of imperfect administration. Rather, they point to a toxic mix of incompetence and politicisation that has elevated the seriousness of misjudgements by bureaucrats. Treasury continues to get its forecasts wrong, with significant implications for the government’s budget position, despite conducting a review of the problem at the direction of Wayne Swan in 2012. The bungling and cover-up by AGD of the Man Haron Monis handling goes to the heart of a national security incident that cost two innocent lives. And whereas the Immigration Department was famously criticised for its overeager embrace of the Howard government’s anti-refugee rhetoric, not merely were the lessons of the Solon, Rau and Haneef cases forgotten under secretaries Martin Bowles and Mike Pezzullo, the department has presided over a murder on Manus Island and multiple of sexual and physical assaults of women and children on Nauru, while directing more effort to tracking down those who reveal what is happening than on trying to stop the assaults.

A likely factor in this is a clear decline in the overall quality and experience of senior public servants. Treasury is supposed to contain the best and the brightest of the Australian public service, but John Fraser, a man with little recent public service experience, has been a poor replacement for Martin Parkinson and Ken Henry, both of whom were highly experienced leaders of the economic bureaucracy. Another Abbott pick, Michael Thawley, was clearly out of his depth at PM&C and lasted barely a year, his reign noteworthy mainly for an extraordinary attack on China. Both of their portfolio ministers are now gone, and Treasurer Scott Morrison is struggling with Fraser as his secretary. AGD is also run by Chris Moraitis, who had no experience as a secretary before his appointment to AGD, having been at DFAT his entire career, including long stints overseas as a diplomat – where apparently he never picked up any tips on hanging onto his notebook.

In contrast, it is noteworthy that one of the more successful Coalition ministers, Mathias Cormann, has the highly experienced Jane “kids overboard” Halton as his secretary. Experience is important in the APS, even in the face of reckless ministers and prime ministers. The Australian National Audit Office’s report on the Abbott government’s East-West Link debacle, for example, shows the Department of Infrastructure, under the experienced leadership of the well-regarded Mike Mrdak, in a positive light:

The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD) provided clear advice to Government that the $1.5 billion was being paid in advance of project needs, and proposed an alternative payment approach that aligned payments with project progress. The decision to provide $1.5 billion in advance provided budget presentation benefits to the Government by bringing forward the payments which resulted in a larger budget deficit for 2013–14. DIRD also provided timely advice to Ministers when it became evident that there was an increased risk that stage one may not proceed. The ANAO has not made any recommendations in relation to entity advisory processes given the audit found that the funding decisions had been informed by well-considered departmental advice.”

And inexperienced public service leaders aren’t helped by the huge downsizing that has occurred under both Labor and the Coalition inside the public service over recent years. Since 2013, the APS has shrunk by nearly 10%, according to APSC numbers, with some departments losing over 13% of staff. Job-shedding in the last years of Labor means that few recent APS departures are likely to have been of the top-shelf variety (any redundancy round in the APS usually sees the best and the brightest leave, confident they will pick up a job in the private sector), this has to have an impact on the quality of advice and administration.

The return of Martin Parkinson as the new head of PM&C is, in this context, a positive sign. So too is Drew Clarke, former Communications secretary, as chief of staff to Turnbull. Both, plainly, know APS process inside out and understand the problems of corner cutting and politicisation. With chatter that John Fraser will be returning to the private sector sooner rather than later, the Turnbull government has then opportunity to begin rebuilding the APS to the point where, perhaps, it might once again seriously aim for world’s best practice.

This article was first published at Crikey

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