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Full-scale political row erupts over the merit of three APS appointments

Three key Australian Public Service appointments raise the flag on the tricky question of merit, says Verona Burgess.

Suddenly, in just a few days, there has been a recasting of three pivotal roles in the Australian Public Service – all men, and all strongly associated with coalition ministers.

A full-scale political row is erupting.

Once more, it highlights one of the most painful nerve-points in the Australian Public Service: merit appointment.

This is another elephant in the room that the Thodey review of the APS will find hard to bypass.

As public servants are acutely aware, the appointments in question are Phil Gaetjens as Treasury secretary; Michael Brennan as chairman of the Productivity Commission; and Simon Atkinson as Treasury deputy secretary fiscal group.

They follow the resignation of Treasury secretary John Fraser from July 31; the retirement of PC chairman Peter Harris on September 11; and Brennan’s move from Treasury.

Atkinson is Cabinet secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and a former COS to Finance Minister Matthias Cormann, while Gaetjens and Brennan are better known as long-time staffers and close associates of coalition governments.

As well as their experiences in both the Commonwealth and state public services, Gaetjens is a former chief of staff to Peter Costello and Scott Morrison; Brennan was COS to former Finance Minister Nick Minchin and Victorian Treasurer Kim Wells.

Of course, experience in a ministerial office can be an asset and even desirable, depending on the context. All three might do a wonderful, impartial and professional job – time will tell. They have their own high-level skills, and the APS doesn’t have a monopoly on talent.  The concerns are not so much about the individuals as the sum of them.

But given the federal Opposition’s fury, Gaetjens in particular must be wondering whether his will be one of the shortest tenures as Treasury secretary in history.

The broader risk for Brennan at the PC, where the chairman is a statutory officer and harder to dislodge, is that a Labor government might simply slash its budgets or ignore or heavily discount its reports on microeconomic reform.

Under Peter Harris as chairman, and Karen Chester as deputy, the PC has gained a lot of traction and its fearless independence is greatly respected.

Another pivotal senior appointment, that of the new Australian Public Service Commissioner, replacing John Lloyd who departs on August 8 while under investigation for his communications with the right-wing thinktank, the Institute of Public Affairs, is yet to be announced.

In the case of Gaetjens, the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, would have formally reported to Turnbull after consulting Lloyd. The Governor-General makes the appointment.

Brennan was chosen unanimously after a merit-based selection process, according to Morrison – yet two of the three panel members, Fraser and Lloyd, have resigned, the third being Health secretary Glenys Beauchamp.

The Public Service Act says at Section 19:

“An Agency Head is not subject to direction by any Minister in relation to the exercise of powers by the agency head under section 15 [breaches of the code of conduct] or Division 1 or 2 of Part 4 [engagement of staff, among other things] in relation to particular individuals”.

Presumably, the outgoing and incoming secretaries of Treasury were of one happy mind on appointing Atkinson as Treasury deputy secretary. Not all economists at Treasury and elsewhere might be feeling quite as happy – it is a plum position.

According to Treasury, he is being transferred at level to the job.

Under those circumstances, a competitive selection process is not required.

An answer provided to Labor’s Penny Wong after Senate estimates in February last year said Atkinson was attached to PM&C “as an SES inoperative”, but did not say at what level or how that came to be.

A formal diarchy for the APS?

Meanwhile, a former Public Service Commissioner, Andrew Podger, has provided a substantial submission to the Thodey review. Among many issues, he has reopened the topic of senior appointments – quite timely, as it turns out.

In a nutshell, he suggests that, consistent with the Commissioner’s statutory responsibilities, including for remuneration and job classification across the APS, he or she be designated the “professional head” of the APS and the PM&C secretary the “operational head”.

“If the review is to have longevity in terms of public administration reform it must be seen as an apolitical exercise.”

The Commissioner’s appointment (and that of other “integrity” officers such as the Electoral Commissioner and the Ombudsman) would, like the Auditor-General, be subject to consultation with the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit.

The Commissioner would take the lead in advising the PM on secretarial appointments, with the secretary of PM&C directly involved.

And the Commissioner would also have a clearer statutory role in advising on other agency head and board appointments, in consultation with the portfolio secretary.

These suggestions do not envisage a worst-case scenario. But in light of the current controversy, they are worth considering and developing, and you’d hope the Thodey review would do just that.

If the review is to have longevity in terms of public administration reform it must be seen as an apolitical exercise that strengthens rather than weakens the integrity of the APS – and not with a subtext of any politically-inclined ideology.

READ MORE ON THIS TOPIC:
APS review hears all about the view from the bottom
APS under review: David Thodey asked to pick up where Nugget Coombs left off
▪ Tom Burton: Do we really need a public service commission?
Coombs 42 years on — looking back at the review that shaped the APS
The new APS review isn’t everything that former mandarins were calling for

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.