Gareth Evans: public servants had it best under us

By The Mandarin

Tuesday March 8, 2016

Were the Labor years of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating good for the public service? That’s been in dispute in the pages of The Canberra Times this month, with a senior minister of the time insisting mandarins weren’t subordinate to the government.

The dispute was sparked by a speech from Gareth Evans (pictured), a cabinet minister under both prime ministers, in launching his book of essays titled The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins. Evans’ take is mandarins had “dominance” over ministers from 1940 until Hawke’s election, when a model of “partnership” emerged between the government and the bureaucracy. John Howard began wrecking that model after his 1996 “night of the long knives” sackings, which put public servants back under the yoke of their political masters, Evans asserts.

J.R. Nethercote, a Canberra old-stager, academic and essayist for the book, remembers things differently. As he wrote for the Times last week:

“Evans, a luminary of the Hawke-Keating regime, has clearly had a significant memory lapse concerning disposition of government to the public service in the halcyon partnership years. It was only a ‘partnership’ in the sense that a Victorian marriage was a ‘partnership’ between man and wife. Indeed, Evans well understands this as, elsewhere, he boasts that, in the Hawke-Keating period, ‘the mandarins were on tap, but not on top’. Some partnership!

“If government-public service relations in subsequent years can be accurately described as ‘subordination’, it is because both the foundations and the edifice were well and truly established during the ‘partnership’ years of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.”

Not so, says Evans. Responding in the Times yesterday, Evans insists the relationship with the public service under Labor was mutual and productive:

“Though the formal legal relationship between ministers and departmental was under the Hawke-Keating governments, and remains, necessarily hierarchical, what matters, when one is trying to evaluate the prevailing governance culture, is how things work in practice. And here I think it is unarguably the case that, with only a handful of transient tensions along the way, the relationship between ministers and their senior public servants during our 13 years was mutually respectful, highly encouraging to departmental creativity, not even slightly built on fear and intimidation, and phenomenally productive.

“That’s certainly the way the prime minister and treasurer conducted their relationships with their heads, and how could they not with people of the calibre of Geoff Yeend, Mike Codd, Michael Keating, Bernie Fraser, Chris Higgins, Tony Cole and Ted Evans … And that’s certainly the way I saw my own relationships — and believe they did too — with the succession of brilliant department heads that I worked with: Pat Brazil, Alan Woods, Peter Wilenski, Dick Woolcott and Mike Costello. These were very modern marriages — not remotely, as Professor Nethercote would have it, Victorian ones. And as a result Australia was as governed as well as, or better than, it has ever been.”

Evans points to the ’96 purge of six department heads by Howard, and Tony Abbott’s “unsavoury dispatch” in 2013 of Blair Comley, Andrew Metcalfe, Don Russell and, later, Martin Parkinson — “guilty in each case only of association with ministers and policies he didn’t like”. Labor, on the other hand:

“… moved only three department heads, and treated each of the departees with the utmost decency and respect.”

Is that your recollection too …?

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