Senior public servants can still provide robust and independent advice regardless of how ministers behave, according to former Department of Defence secretary Dennis Richardson.
Over the years, the influence of senior mandarins has diminished and their roles have become more politicised. Ministers are much quicker to terminate them, and less likely to accept responsibility for failures and errors in their portfolios.“The same skills which we utilise every day of our life are the same skills that people should take with them to work in interacting with ministers.”
But, political journalist Michelle Grattan wanted to know, does “the attitude of modern ministers” make it harder these days to provide the “frank and fearless” advice that our elected representatives need to hear?
“I think public servants who say that are simply cowards,” Richardson said last Friday, addressing the National Press Club on his last day in the job.
“I have never worked for a prime minister or for a minister with whom I’ve not been able to talk frankly. I’ve never worked with a minister with whom I’ve not had a disagreement and a few tense moments, the same with prime ministers. The odd minister might not like that for 24 hours or 36 hours, but ministers — politicians generally — are very skilled at moving on.”
In Richardson’s view, the overall “political environment” has become more difficult for both ministers and mandarins to navigate. The slow crumble of the comfortable two-party system and the ideologies that lay behind it has led to less predictable parliamentary outcomes.
That had made governing more difficult, he observed, “and that then feeds into the discourse with public servants” — but he doesn’t see that as an excuse for cowardice.
Later, Richardson added some advice for his successors. Just use the same skills you would in any relationship — such as with a spouse or children — and carefully consider how and when to broach advice the minister probably won’t want to hear.
“The same skills which we utilise every day of our life are the same skills that people should take with them to work in interacting with ministers,” he said.
“Ministers are people like everyone else, and being frank and fearless is not about getting something off your chest and walking out the door and saying, ‘I told them’. That is not about being frank and fearless, that is about being stupid.
“It is about influencing decision-makers for an outcome that you think is the right one, and therefore, how you go about that influence is really you exercise the full range of skills that you would inside your own family.”
Richardson said some of the division heads and deputy secretaries he had worked with “would have jumped over a cliff if some second rate advisor had told them to” — but not many.
“So when you’re a coward, it cuts both ways: one, you don’t give the advice that you should be doing. Secondly, you do whatever stupid thing you are told, even when it is by an advisor who pretends he or she is talking on behalf of their minister.”
“And … anyone thinking rationally could stop and pause and say, ‘That doesn’t make sense, I’m going to get in touch with the minister or challenge it.'”“It is all too easy to get cheap, populist applause by going after public servants, although sometimes we do deserve a kick.”
He admitted “coward” was a strong word to throw around but said he had very little time for timid senior public servants who complain they aren’t respected by ministers. Richardson rejected the excuse that it’s easy for him to say, with a lot of respect built up over a very long career in high-level roles.
“Well, it wasn’t different for me years ago,” he said.
“I mean, I have the advantage that I have a lot of Irish in my background and I like a fight … and the other thing I’ve got is I love black humour, and that is why the last four and a half years has been a laugh a minute.”
In his opening reflections, Richardson touched briefly on the importance of an effective public service that is respected, not routinely used as a political scapegoat by governments.
“All successful countries down through the centuries have had effective institutions of state. It is all too easy to get cheap, populist applause by going after public servants, although sometimes we do deserve a kick.”
Learn to say yes or no
Asked about openness and transparency, Richardson admitted that “Defence is a difficult customer when it comes to the media” because it often takes a long and circuitous process to formulate official statements.
Richardson thinks a significant amount of information about the workings of government is revealed in Senate Estimates, and it is surprising “how little people take notice of it” most of the time.
Of course, this could indicate the difficulty of wading through hours of material that is often filled with evasive, ambiguous and near-impenetrable language, as much as apathy or a public whose appetite for transparency is largely satisfied.
Public servants are naturally cautious due to the nature of the job, but Richardson accepts that waffling on in response to simple questions, by default, is a cultural problem in the bureaucracy.
“I have often had differences in organisations I have worked in, where people refuse to answer a simple question with a yes or no,” said the former Defence boss.
“Now, sometimes you can’t, but to get yourself so acculturated whereby you can never say a yes or no, I think, is not good and I think that is the position where a lot of us are in with our organisations, and I have certainly not made inroads into that.”
No need for “homeland security” department
The amiable old-school mandarin spent most of the time on his special subjects, defence, diplomacy and national security. Grattan also asked him to comment on the idea of establishing a new “department of homeland security”, which cropped up again recently.
Richardson sees no need for one. He wouldn’t create such a mega-department if the decision was up to him, but since it is not, he is “agnostic” about the proposal and would be “relaxed” if a government decided to go down that path.
The former ASIO director-general did, however, point out some issues he sees with placing the intelligence agency under the umbrella of a new portfolio department.“To get yourself so acculturated whereby you can never say a yes or no, I think, is not good.”
“Historically, ASIO has been under the Attorney-General. In that person resides the first law officer of the land and, unlike in many other countries, the power to approve covert operations in this country resides within the executive of government,” Richardson explained.
“That is, the covert powers of ASIO to exercise, the approval of that resides within the executive, not the judiciary, except for one particular power they have, introduced after 2001. So, if you create a Department of Homeland Security and if you put ASIO under it, who will sign ASIO warrants?
“And will the community be as comfortable with it being signed off by a minister for home affairs as opposed to an Attorney-General? If the answer to that is that you have both of them sign it, then please, we do not need more bureaucracy.”
ASIO’s statutory independence would also complicate the matter. The head of a putative “homeland security” department could not instruct its director-general in how to exercise their role without fundamental legislative change.
Turning the former Customs agency into Australian Border Force and integrating it with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is a step back in that direction, which also marks an increasing security focus in immigration policy.
“And I would note that if you go back a few years — it is ironic, isn’t it — if you go back a few years, in the one portfolio we had ASIO, we had AUSTRAC, we had customs, and we had the AFP,” Richardson commented.
“We had everything except immigration, so it is funny what goes around.”