Watch: the PM answers the public service’s burning questions


Just metres from the press gallery, this time it was the Australian Public Service’s opportunity to pose questions to their Prime Minister.

After the PM’s address to the Australian Public Service, Malcolm Turnbull held a Q&A session with the audience.

Due to the size of the audience, both in the Great Hall of Parliament, and watching via the Institute of Public Administration’s live webcast, Malcolm Turnbull took three questions submitted in advance.

Watch the broadcast from the PM’s address and Q&A, hosted by IPAA’s ACT branch (duration 43 minutes).

IPAA Prime Minister’s Address to the APS from IPAA ACT on Vimeo.

Career breadth brings an open mind

Chris Legg, Treasury:

Thank you. Prime Minister, thank you very much for a very impressive presentation. As an ageing baby boomer I’m especially challenged on the boldness on the imagination front but I feel there is a very strong message I want to take on.

Compared to many of your predecessors and all that I can think of, you bring a much wider range of professional experience to this role from outside of politics and I would be interested in knowing what you think that broader range of experience brings to the way you approach the job. Although I’d also be interested in if there are insights that you bring from the role itself that surprised you about the public policy process and whether you can share those with us as well.

Prime Minister:

Well thank you very much Chris. Yes I’ve had a diverse career; I’ve done a lot of things, different things over the years. The Press Gallery of course, feel that I started off with a thoroughly reputable profession as a journalist and it’s just been a slide downhill ever since.

Let me make a couple of observations. I think one important point that some of you may have heard me make before is that public policy and you can make the same point about politics, is much more parochial than business is in the 21st century. Many businesses are of course global firms, in fact, increasingly that is the case, if you have a manufacturing business in Australia, most, many services, business, professional businesses, you are inevitably going to be dealing one way or another internationally.

” … public policy is much more parochial than business is in the 21st century.”

I think in terms of our development of public policy, we pay insufficient attention to what is happening in other jurisdictions. I have been surprised, for example, over the years, how little is known or how little attention is paid, particularly by previous, I’m obviously talking about previous Labor governments naturally to previous, how little attention is paid to what has worked and what hasn’t worked in other places including somewhere as close as New Zealand, for example.

Often not enough attention is paid to what is going on in the States and I say the Australian States let alone the United States. I think there is a very important and this is not an invitation for you know mass exodus on fact finding missions because there are, you know there is the internet and even the telephone for those that are frightened by the internet. But we do, it is really important to examine policy experiences in other places, because most countries, certainly all developed countries are grappling with pretty much the same policy challenges and everyone has got different responses from which we can learn.

So I think there is a need to be very, to be more open minded. The other thing I would say as you know — and I said this at the time I became PM and it is something I’m very committed to — I am a very strong believer in the Cabinet process, in the traditional Westminster Cabinet process. It can be very fleet of foot, obviously and again, 21st century technology, but our tradition of collective decision making is a very valuable one. There are very few propositions that are not improved by discussion and debate.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with the APS secretaries.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with the APS secretaries. Source: IPAA ACT

Be flexible and accept new evidence

Maree Bridger, Department of Immigration and Border Protection:

Good morning Prime Minister. I like you have also spent some time in the private sector and I think there is much the public sector and the private sector can learn from each other and given that, my question is; innovation and agile policy development relies on risk taking and occasional failure by departments and their ministers. So how can ministers best support this in a political and media landscape which relies on ‘gotcha’ moments and characterises any changes in policy direction as ‘backflips’?

Prime Minster:

Maree that’s an excellent question. Really you put your finger on a very important question, an important issue. Now this is and again I’ve addressed this before but I’ll repeat what I’ve said before. We have to be very up front and we’ve got, we being the Ministers, we’ve got to say when we produce a new policy, we’ve got to say that this is the best policy solution we have available to us today. This is our best solution, our best idea if you like and we’ve looked at it very carefully. But if it turns out to be deficient in some respects then we will change it and if doesn’t work at all then we will dump it and if we find that somebody else is doing, addressing the same problem better and more cost effectively then we will happily plagiarise them. In other words you’ve got to ultimately, the obligation, is to do the right thing by the Australian people. Now what I’ve described and you may recall me making pretty much those remarks when we announced our Innovation & Science Agenda, I know some of the Press Gallery found that a bit shocking.

” … if doesn’t work at all then we will dump it and if we find that somebody else is doing better … then we will happily plagiarise them.”

The reality is this is how the real world operates. Every business is constantly calibrating whether the measures they have are working and if they don’t work they change them because they’re driven by that strong KPI, that strong measure of the bottom line and of course the measure, the measures of success, in public policy are more complex and you’re dead right if you get yourself into a position as a politician where any change of policy, where you’re going to be putting yourself in a position where any change of policy is seen as a backflip then of course that means that you become completely inflexible. You may end up defending something not because it’s working but because it’s a proposal that you had in the past. Agility and being very open about it is very important.

What Australians need and demand from me as the Prime Minister and my Ministers and from the Government more broadly, including the APS, is that at any given time we are delivering the best policies we can put together and we can afford to meet the problems that we face. That’s our job. That is our job and that means that those policies will change and evolve in the light of experience. The alternative is you never take a risk, you never change anything and you know, organisms that are not changing are dead. So let’s be frank about that. So agility and responsiveness are absolutely critical and we should be very upfront about it. So thank you for that question.

Targets to frame what you aim to achieve

Julia Landford, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

Thank you very much. Good morning Prime Minister. This question relates to women in leadership. There are now six women in your cabinet and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is taking a proactive approach to engaging women in leadership roles and I’d like to ask you, including the appointment of women to boards for Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. What tangible strategies can be developed to further increase the number of women in leadership roles across the APS? And are you in favour of introducing targets to address this issue?

Prime Minister:

I certainly am in favour of targets. I think it’s very important and it’s important if you have a target then you have to report on it and then if you’re missing your target, then people have got to you know ask why. You’ve got to examine why you have missed it and what you can do to change. There are a whole range of issues in this regard. I think one of the most important ones is to recognise the importance of role models and leadership and mentoring. The role model is enormously important.

We, as you know, as you’ve said we have six women in my Cabinet. We have Australia’s first woman as Foreign Minister, first women as Defence Minister. Now without singling those two out, Julie and Marise, that is, they are very powerful role models. They really are. Right at the top of those very important portfolios, very, very important role models and if you look at the strength of the leadership for example that Michaelia Cash has shown in the very, in the very challenging area of employment policy, in particular with her advocacy over the RSRT and the ABCC over the last few weeks. Again that is great, that’s a great model, great leadership.

” … you’ve got to step back as a leader, as a manager and ask yourself this question — what are we trying to achieve?”

So I think there are many measures, we talked earlier about flexibility in workplaces. I guess you’ve got to step back as a leader, as a manager and ask yourself this question –– what are we trying to achieve? Well our goal is to have as close as possible to 50 per cent men and women in leadership positions. That’s our target. Then you’ve got to say what are we doing that is either calculated to, or is having the effect of making the attainment of that target less likely? And then you make those changes and so you’ve got to start with your objective and then work through all of the measurers that are likely to create you know barriers.

So I think it’s a broad range of I’d just say mentoring, role models, flexibility, are very, very important elements but there obviously many others and strong female leaders but also men have to be strong champions of change. That is absolutely critical too and lead by example.

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