Learning the art of saying nothing: moving between politics and the public service

By David Donaldson

Wednesday March 21, 2018

Julian Hill delivers maiden speech.

Victorian MP Julian Hill reflects on his time in the public service, ministers interfering, and not being scared of talking to journalists.

One of the things that struck Julian Hill about moving from politics into the public service was the need to learn the art of saying nothing.

Unusually, he has moved from politics to the bureaucracy and back again.

Hill started out as a staffer while studying before becoming mayor of Port Phillip council at a young age. After a couple of years he went on to work in the Victorian government bureaucracy, reaching the position of executive director in the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources before being elected in 2016.

Now a federal MP for the seat of Bruce in Melbourne’s southeast, he is also the deputy chair of the committee examining the use of contractors and outsourcing in the APS.

Hill says he initially had difficulty adapting to the different culture, norms and habits in the public service. While public servants and politicians work very closely at senior levels, “you do have fundamentally very different worlds that you move in”, he told The Mandarin.

“As a mayor in my 20s with a pretty high profile, indeed as a parliamentarian now, part of the skill set is being able to communicate in a way that gets a message across and catches public attention — hopefully for the right things.

“But I found in that process of moving to the public service, you have to develop the art of going to a conference, giving a keynote presentation, engaging the audience for 20 minutes with substance, but never, ever, ever being so interesting that someone would quote you in the paper. It’s actually a real art.”

Compared to the political realm, the bureaucracy can sometimes be quite passive-aggressive “because of the surface niceness of the public service, but of course there are battles and conflicts and so on”.

Still, he’s proud of the decade he spent as a public servant, ignoring the occasional gibes from the other side about being “a typical stupid Labor member who had lived off the public teat all my life”.

“The skills you get, the discipline you get about focusing on the evidence of policy. We don’t do policy by anecdote or assertion, which I think sometimes can happen a bit more often than it should on the political side of things. That rigour you get looking at the evidence, looking at the options, going and talking to people who might not agree with you. That’s just kind of breathing in and out in the public service,” Hill says.

It’s also interesting watching how his new colleagues in the parliament see the public service. “For a lot of people it’s just a mystery, it’s just this thing that sends pieces of paper out,” he says.

“My colleagues actually laughed at me in a meeting a couple of months ago where we were talking about a difficult topic and I listened and intervened with a fix. They just laughed and said ‘you’re such a public servant’.”

Distrust undermines good government

But politicians need the public service — something the previous Victorian government, voted out after one term, learned the hard way. After 11 years of Labor government, the Liberals were wary of the bureaucracy they inherited in 2010.

“There were some good people in that government, good ministers that I’ve worked with,” says Hill. But he thinks there was “a really naive” distrust of public servants that was “ultimately really unhelpful to the government.”

“We were just trying to make our ministers look good and trying to interpret the tea leaves of what government wanted. But there was such mistrust that senior public servants were even locked out of the Cabinet process, because of ‘we can’t trust them’.

“It was like, well then you wrote some really dumb papers and made some really dumb decisions, we weren’t going to leak, we actually just wanted to be able to do our jobs. That’s always been a bit of a lesson. By default you should always trust your senior public servants until proven otherwise.”

Ministerial interference

He also thinks ministers have become too gung-ho about public administration, encroaching on the job of the departmental secretary and micromanaging the public service. Victoria’s premier in the 1990s, Jeff Kennett, had a reputation for giving departments a budget and a set of outcomes and letting them work out how to deliver.

“He didn’t care if you had 1000 or 2000 people. If you delivered the outcomes for the budget you got a pat on the head, and if you didn’t you got the sack. It was pretty straightforward,” explains Hill.

One former secretary who worked for Kennett told Hill how frustrating it was when interference became the norm in subsequent years.

“It kind of drove him insane then working for other governments, Labor and Liberal, who were obsessed with how many staff he employed, or how he chose to get the job done. Government should have an insight and oversight of the public service, but ultimately it’s about the outcomes you’re delivering for the public with the resources you’re given.”

Don’t be so controlling

Longtime journalists often lament how difficult it has become to find anyone in the public sector who is allowed to speak to them. This reduces the risk someone will make a faux pas, but can be damaging to the quality of public discourse.

During his own time in metropolitan planning Hill saw the potential benefit of loosening control.

“The debate was going a bit off the rails for a range of reasons,” he says. “We were getting frustrated with some of the articles the media were writing, they were just downright crap. They were factually inaccurate, they’d only got about half the story or the view, and it was frustrating.

“So eventually our then-secretary convinced the minister to let him do a background with some of the journos, and it was ‘oh it’s high risk etc’ — but it went perfectly well.

“The journalists wanted to write good stories, they weren’t interested in writing crap, and it massively improved the quality of the reporting, simply by being able to say ‘here’s the basis on which we’re advising the government, here are the trends we’re worried about, here’s what the housing market is doing, here’s what the demographics are saying, here are the options we could do, there’s no magic pudding, you have to make choices’. It just really improved the quality of the journalism.”

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