Tom Burton: truth to power a victim of political turmoil

By Tom Burton

Tuesday October 25, 2016

Justin Gleeson, Gillian Triggs, Paul Grimes

Things are not looking good for truth to power.

Justin Gleeson’s resignation as solicitor-general yesterday for allegedly freelancing his advice without asking the Attorney General, George Brandis. Former Education Minister Christopher Pyne simply slapping away like an annoying fly an inconvenient report by the audit office that an advertisement claiming the government would pay 50% of fees was wrong by a factor of 20%. The relentless campaign to oust Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs. And the revelation yesterday that former agriculture secretary Paul Grimes resigned days after questioning in writing the integrity of Agriculture Minister and now Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

” … cancerous, dangerous sycophancy that ultimately creates an unhealthy arrogance and disdain in the executive corridors of Parliament House.”

All are examples of ministers putting to the sword professional public servants, seeking to assert their professional voice. Actions speak louder than words. At a time when the Turnbull government wants the public service to be brave and forthright, the ongoing ministerial derision of officials reveals a government struggling to accept advice it doesn’t like.

It is political rhetoric, but the comments yesterday by Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon are hard to argue with: “Dr Grimes was first bullied and then sacked for standing up to Barnaby Joyce over his Hansard cover-up.”

In the case of Pyne’s arrogant dismissal of the claim he sponsored misleading advertising, it is naive to think that ministers and their senior public servants will always see eye to eye. But it is another to so flagrantly and openly denigrate them for daring to speak their professional opinion.

Chilling effect on advice

Treasurer Scott Morrison’s observation last night that the government had to be able to trust its chief legal adviser came after it was revealed Gleeson had taken a call from shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus during the caretaker period of the election.

Gleeson would have been wiser to have disclosed this, rather than have it revealed in the heat of a committee meeting. But Morrison’s comments reveal a deep antipathy in the federal ministry to those parts of the public sector they suspect are not fully paid up cheer squad members of the government.

As second law officer of the Commonwealth, the solicitor-general is by tradition one of the most important pillars of independent advice to government. Gleeson was but only the tenth appointment since the office was formed in 1916. All have enjoyed storied legal careers, including serving on the High Court, in the case of Anthony Mason as Chief Justice.

The office famously comes with books of precedents dating back to World War I to inform consistent and well argued advice. Gleeson is the first to ever resign in these circumstances. Circumstances which to an adult outsider appears to be based more on personality and chemistry.

High calibre advice can save a minister, or a government

A government confident in its own abilities, and wise about what it needs advice about, would not be pursuing this path. This is not an ideological observation. The major reviews of both the original NBN and “pink batts” roll out decisions were both highly critical of the failure of public servants to speak their mind, rather than be steamrolled by politicians.

Governments need strong advice to offset the exuberance of ministers — not all of whom could be described as geniuses. They also need frank and fearless advice when ministers exaggerate or mislead. And they need a strong and ethical public service to challenge and call out the integrity of ministers’ actions when these are in question. In the case of independent statutory office holders, they need regulators and watchdogs that are at arm’s length from government.

The whole concept of Westminster government is built around an independent public service able to give advice without fear or favour. Every time we send someone through the ringer for voicing their dissent with the executive branch, we chip away at this model.

“This partisan pantomime of who won the day and the week … drives intelligent observers of our parliamentary democracy crazy.”

Combined with the rise of powerful ministerial offices, this inevitably takes us towards a Washington-like model, where an army of officials are turned over with each change in the presidency. In the US there are sophisticated rules about how this occurs, well understood to immunise the rest of the public sector from partisanship.

In Australia we seem to be caught in the worst of both worlds. Over time this becomes cancerous, promoting a dangerous sycophancy, and with it the type of obsequiousness that ultimately creates an unhealthy arrogance and disdain in the executive corridors of Parliament House.

Ministers reside in a hothouse of partisan competition

Canberra’s Parliament House is part of the problem. Almost uniquely, our federal ministry lives within the precinct of the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with the press gallery. This creates a highly political environment and culture where everything is seen through the almost daily lens of the two-horse race that is the contest between the two major parties. It is this partisan pantomime of who won the day and the week — still amazingly scored through the lens of prime-time television news — that so drives intelligent observers of our parliamentary democracy crazy.

It also creates a deep geographical divide between the bureaucracy and the executive, with officials scattered around Canberra, and with only the most senior security cleared to enter the “boarding school” of Capital Hill.

In London, for example, ministers typically reside within the halls of their portfolio agencies. Day in and day out, ministers and their offices meet and cross paths with their bureaucrats, creating a much more collegiate, co-operative and real world relationship.

This is not the first government to cross paths with bureaucrats — there have been some famously capricious Labor ministers — but to this observer it is the pressure cooker of a slender parliamentary majority that is now creating a whole set of behaviours that do not bode well for the health of our public sphere.

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Big Dipper
Big Dipper
5 years ago

Tom, thanks for this. One of the more perplexing features of this whole fiasco with Justin Gleeson is Brandis’s claim that he was merely smoothing the administration of government agencies seeking advice from the Solicitor-General. He suggests that he was doing the SG a favour by placing order on the chaos. Well, sadly, this seems a most disingenuous explanation — otherwise why would Gleeson have responded so vigorously in opposition to it? And if it was being done for the benefit of the SG, and he was ungrateful enough not to want it, why persist with the new arrangement? This is one of Brandis’s most clumsy efforts so far. Apart from anything else, a SG of the Commonwealth should be a person who is so good a lawyer that he or she is a candidate for the High Court. But what Brandis has done is politicise the office of SG. So much so that (a) it will deter the sorts of people who might otherwise consider the position from taking it and so (b) may result in a second-rate lawyer, or even a political hack, taking the position. It’s the Tim Carmody syndrome all over again — only in Queensland. (When I made these points in The Australian’s online comments section on this story my comments were deleted, yet all the neo-cons and Delcons were permitted to defame Gleeson by calling him a “Labor stooge”, etc.)

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