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Time to fix the federal Public Service Act

It is an absurdity that the Prime Minister can merely pick whoever he wants to be the commissioner – with no specified competitive process, writes Verona Burgess.

Let’s assume we had a can opener – or if not a can opener, a public service review that was prepared to resolve the hottest button issues in conflicts of interest.

In the end, it all boils down to what parts of the Public Service Act 1999 need amending, along with some consequential amendments to other acts where necessary.

While the PS act should not have to consider every worst-case scenario, it should not have holes in it that have recently become obvious in hindsight.

The departure of John Lloyd and arrival of Peter Woolcott this week as the Australian Public Service Commissioner raises the red – or should we say blue ­–­ flag.

In short, it’s a perfect example of what needs fixing.

That is – and without casting aspersions on Woolcott’s capacity to do a job in which he may well excel, as we discussed last week – the lack of any due process in appointing a senior statutory official whose powers include overseeing that same due process in appointments in the rest of the public service.

No competitive merit selection process

Woolcott may well be the best person for the job but we will never know, because the act as it stands requires no competitive merit selection process at all. There are a number of other people who may be better qualified but never got the chance to put their case.

“Perhaps the act should also contain a provision that nobody can be appointed a department secretary, senior agency head or statutory officer within six or 12 months of having served in a ministerial office in any capacity.”

It is an absurdity that the Prime Minister can merely pick whoever he wants to be the commissioner, who is officially appointed by the Governor General, with no specified competitive process.

The second glaring problem, and one that is upsetting many people, is that Woolcott has come straight out of the Prime Minister’s Office, as has Phil Gaetjens out of the Treasurer’s office to replace John Fraser at Treasury. The latter appointment has the Opposition spitting chips and rightly so.

Simon Atkinson has also come straight out of the PMO to Treasury as deputy secretary fiscal group, a transfer at level, more of which later.

Put simply, perhaps the act should also contain a provision that nobody can be appointed a department secretary, senior agency head or statutory officer within six or 12 months of having served in a ministerial office in any capacity (including under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, or as a consultant or volunteer).

Political cooling-off period needed

This would provide a political cooling-off period similar to that required in areas of the private sector.

It would still allow immediate transfers from ministerial offices back into the public service at level, as currently happens, from Senior Executive Band 3 (such as Atkinson to Treasury) and below, or with a promotion or by engagement if a competitive selection process for a particular job has been held.

The act already allows governments to make senior diplomatic appointments without any process at all. It is a pity that couldn’t be reined in as well, but would probably be a bridge too far.

But it also needs to define that the Australian Public Service Commissioner is an employee of the APS for the purposes of code of conduct inquiries, in order to allow the pursuit of former commissioners in the event of egregious breaches of the code of conduct.

Some attention also needs to be paid to the Act in relation to strengthening the provision of independent, impartial policy advice to the government, but that’s an issue for another day.

There is, also, the question of the movement of ministerial staffers back into the APS more broadly, or indeed into the APS for the first time, on a merit basis.  They need better and clearer avenues – but that too is an issue for another day.

READ MORE ON THE APS REVIEW:
APS review hears all about the view from the bottom
David Thodey Q&A: your burning questions about the review answered
APS under review: 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
APS review a neoliberal stitch-up, says CPSU

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.