Martin Parkinson reflects on the rise and fall of the APS in his notable career

By Harley Dennett

December 6, 2017

There have been many ups and downs of the Australian Public Service in Martin Parkinson’s telling of his career.

While it’s perhaps a little early for his autobiography, the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet gave a 40-minute preview of what it might contain in an interview with Professor Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, published today on monthly podcast The Policy Shop.

It begins with a not-so-pretty picture of the Treasury in the early 1980s. Views were centrally determined, dominated by alpha-males, and it was not a very comfortable place. “[L]ike walking into a footy club locker room with testosterone sloshing around your ankles,” Parkinson says of the John Stone era.

The then 22-year-old also observed the government had stopped listening to his bosses, “because Treasury was a bit of an ivory tower handing down sermons from the mount and not really engaging, either with the rest of the public service or with the government of the day.”

Is there anywhere it could go from there but up? Parkinson walks through the separation of Treasury and Finance, the rise of monetarist thinking, mass privatisation of public assets, deregulation of the banks, and then the recession.

“I had absolutely no idea [when I started] that we were on the verge of two decades where economists were going to be absolutely central to pretty much every public policy debate in the country.”

“I didn’t have then, and I have now, no personal animus towards Mr Abbott.”

Looking for something different in the middle of all that, Parkinson left Australia’s economic reforms behind for a stint at the International Monetary Fund. Nelson Mandela had just been freed in South Africa and his party was working out how to get the country’s economy back on track, and bring marginalised black Africans into the mainstream. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the Asian Financial Crisis offered a reprise for Parkinson to work on reform of the global financial architecture.

“Which again in a way is interesting, the way it played back to my PhD, because my supervisor, Ben Bernanke, of course, had made his name through looking at financial system issues during the Great Depression.”

Parky gives good name-drop, but there’s chewier material a lot closer to home.

Inside story of the climate change department

Finance would later create a handbook so nobody would again face Parkinson’s next challenge without at least a guide. Kevin Rudd had asked him to set up a Department of Climate Change.

“It was the Labor government that basically removed tenure from secretaries.”

There were few examples of having to create a new policy department from scratch, and none that he could draw on in Australia. While usually a new agency or department is split off an existing one, in this reasonably unique occurrence Parkinson had no people, no infrastructure and no funds.

“I had the title of secretary. I had a minister, Penny Wong, and that was it.” Within a week the pair were off to Bali for the UN Climate Change Conference’s 13th conference of the parties, where Kevin Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol.

“If you think about the circumstances, a significant group of people just absolutely outright rejected the evidence, no matter that the sort of basic chemistry of what’s been going on has been known since the mid-1800s.

“This is going to sound dramatic, but it had almost a conspiracy of silence between the true believers of climate change and the true deniers of climate change.

“The true believers did not want to talk about adaptation because they felt that that would take away from a focus on mitigation, and the true deniers didn’t want to talk about adaptation because to do so, you would have to talk about the fact that climate change was real. So the debate became one around the merits of a particular approach to mitigation, which was an emissions trading scheme.”

“My predecessors like Terry Moran, Ian Watt, I think they did a very good job in very, very difficult circumstances.”

But the Global Financial Crisis put a stopper in the works, cutting short the existing support of the business community for action on climate change. “[They] found themselves in a much more existential situation of trying to save their businesses.” Bipartisanship that had existed in the lead up to the 2007 election was lost and so was prospect of an emissions trading scheme.

“You can understand the circumstances, but it did just make it very, very hard to try and fashion a bipartisan approach. But we should never lose sight of the fact that we almost got there.”

A crisis of their own making

On Australia’s subsequent leadership instability, which saw five prime ministers in little more than five years, Parkinson — who was called back to run Treasury — says it was incredibly hard for anyone to have confidence that decisions would stick.

“I think it’s fair to say that the political circumstances meant that the constraints that you would otherwise have seen on the outlay side were very hard to manage. So it was a very, very challenging period for the public service.

“But look, I think when you look at the people who led the public service through that period, my predecessors like Terry Moran, Ian Watt, I think they did a very good job in very, very difficult circumstances.”

Being sacked by Tony Abbott: ‘it did damage the APS’

A well-told story of the modern APS is how John Howard ended the notion of tenure for public service chiefs. That story is essentially wrong, Parkinson says.

“Essentially ministers came and went and they carried on. Yes, Minister [the 1980s television satire of the British civil service] is not an accurate of reflection of public service and hasn’t been for decades. There was an element of that that had probably a degree of truth about it, if you’re thinking about the 70s and the beginning of the 80s.

“But it was the Labor government, it was in fact John Dawkins, when he was, I think he was finance minister in the very early years of the Labor government, that basically removed tenure from secretaries.”

If a government wanted a department head gone, previously, they’d have to MoG the department out of existence.

“When John Howard came in in ’96 and sacked secretaries, he was, in a sense, simply exercising the power that the Labor government had given to future governments in ’82.

“When Tony Abbott then decided to dispense with us, I didn’t take that personally. You know, I — unlike the other three of my colleagues who left immediately, I in fact didn’t go for another 15 months.”

Parkinson was asked to stay until the end of the G20.

“I didn’t have then, and I have now, no personal animus towards Mr Abbott. I mean during that period, 15 months when we knew I was going, we had a perfectly professional relationship. Very open and honest. He asked me my views, I told him. He listened respectively. Sometimes he agreed, sometimes he didn’t, and you couldn’t ask for anything more.

“You could have achieved the same outcome that he wanted to achieve far more subtly if people had stopped to think about it and without the damage I think it did to the public service, because there were instances after that happened of senior colleagues reporting their staff saying, well I’m not going to put my hand up for a controversial role because this is what happens. You follow on the democratically elected, legally mandated directions of the government of the day and you get sacked as a result.

“Now I think a lot of water’s gone under the bridge since then and those sorts of concerns in the public service have been ameliorated, but there’s no question that for the service as a whole, I think it came as quite a shock.”

The media and policy discourse

Early in his career Parkinson recalls the media being a vital contributor to policy discussion, indeed Australia’s media discussion about policy challenges and policy choices was the envy of the world.

“If you look around now, the journalists don’t have the opportunity, they don’t have the time to do those thoughtful pieces. The policy processes had to be sped up because it’s become so easy to focus in on sort of gotcha moments.

“You know, government’s doing work on something, so all of a sudden it’s called ‘secret’ work. You begin to try and have a conversation with stakeholders about an issue and all of a sudden the social media campaigns are running either for or against the policy option.

“This is while you’re still trying to work out what the options might be, nevertheless think that you’ve begun to land on something and that makes it much, much harder to do this sort of thoughtful, careful analysis and policy design that in the past we were able to do, essentially with a little bit of time.

“Now it doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it means we have to do it in different ways. We have to find different groups of trusted interlocutors. We have to find different vehicles in which we can engage.

“I’m not sure that we’ve quite found our equilibrium yet. I think it’s still a work in progress for us.”

Listen to the full interview on The Policy Shop.

Top photo credit: Commonwealth of Australia.

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