Mandarins say it's time for a new royal commission to rethink future and role of the federal public sector

By Verona Burgess

July 26, 2017

Former Defence secretary Dennis Richardson tossed a hand grenade into the Australian Public Service last week.

While ‘in conversation’ with Lowy Institute’s Dr Michael Fullilove, Richardson suggested it was time for a new Coombs-style royal commission into the Commonwealth public sector.

That is a big deal, especially coming from Richardson.

Asked how the APS had changed during his 48 years of service and whether the changes were mainly for good or ill, Richardson said, “… Certainly, it’s less formal than what it was. That’s self-evident — the community at large is less formal. I think it’s become more politically correct, and I mean that in both good and bad — I’m not a fan of political correctness. Communication has changed enormously, just the speed of communication, and the onset over the last dozen years of social media has added another dimension to all of that, so it is a very different place.”

Then, characteristically, he took the bull by the horns.

“I sometimes wonder whether the time has not come for a second Coombs commission, in terms of the public sector. We had a royal commission into the public service in the 1970s and I think every so often institutions need to go back to their philosophical foundations. And I sometimes wonder whether the time has not come for a second royal commission, because community attitudes and standards have changed; the way in which ministers, ministerial advisers and public servants work together has completely changed; and I wonder whether we should not be revisiting the philosophical foundations of that.”

Nobody asked him further questions about a royal commission. But Richardson isn’t the only person who thinks it is time.

A former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, who chaired the ‘Ahead of the Game’ review under the Rudd government, says, “I think it’s a very good idea, and not just about how the public service organises itself, but also about how it arranges the delivery of services. The Commonwealth pretty well outsources nearly everything in domestic policy these days, except for Centrelink and Medicare. It’s an artefact of neoliberalism that everything should be outsourced, but the public service in Canberra is not adequately keeping track. Look at the mess in aged care, vocational education, employment services and so on. So a royal commission should not just be about the internals, but about what the job of the public service is.”

Moran, like most very senior public servants, also has strong views on ministerial staffers and says, “It’s a fundamental problem. There is a black hole in accountability and a royal commission could get to the bottom of this. Whether it should be run by a judge or a Nugget Coombs, it must be someone who is ruthlessly independent and can take evidence publicly.”

Another former secretary of PM&C, Ian Watt, is also understood to be supportive, not of a royal commission per se (because of the risk of the blame game) but of a wide-ranging, serious, independent inquiry with the ability to undertake research, talk to people and take evidence at hearings, including in camera, to establish what kind of public sector is needed for the next 20 to 30 years.

The two-year Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration began in 1974, under Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, headed by that giant of nation-building, H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs. It finished under Malcolm Fraser’s coalition government in 1976.

That was 41 years ago, when two-thirds of today’s public servants had not been born and only a few thousand can have been working in the APS. The Australian Public Service Commission’s Statistical Bulletin 2015-16 shows that of 137,848 ‘ongoing’ public servants, only 7077 had clocked up 30 years’ service or more at June 30 last year.

The Coombs terms of reference were detailed, wide and virtually unlimited but the context was broadly about what kind of public service should be built for a prosperous and affluent post-war society.

A 2014 article in The Canberra Times, by John Nethercote, who served on the commission’s staff of 50, reflected on how it differed, including in its openness, from more recent inquiries such as the Howard and Abbott governments’ commissions of audit and the Moran review. Nethercote also concedes it had its failings, not least in the areas of industrial relations, the advancement of women and computerisation.

Richardson says a new commission should not be a ‘get the public service’ exercise. “It is a broader issue of governance and relationships, of which the public service is an important part. We still describe Westminster and toss the word ‘traditional’ around when we all know the nature of those relationships has undergone significant change. It’s just life, but having gone through all that change, it is time to draw breath and have a hard look at that.”

Ideally it would have bipartisan political support, without either side committing themselves to accept whatever recommendations might result.

“The government shouldn’t be handcuffed in the beginning,” he says. “Talked about in the wrong way, it’ll be hit over the head and go nowhere. It’s got to be seen as something constructive. It may be that it’s not a royal commission. You might ask someone of the standing of Mike Codd, Peter Shergold or Peter Varghese or a group of them — not ‘doers’ like me but ‘thinkers’, people with refined minds who think about the underlying principles — to produce a green paper that outlines the issues and sets in train a framework within which people might have a public discussion.

“But the time has come for something like this and I can say it, because people who work with me know it’s not something I’ve pulled out of my pocket simply because I’ve left the public service.”

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