Australia should reconsider how it doles out senior public service jobs following a rash of “blatantly political appointments”, argues public servant-turned-Labor backbencher Julian Hill.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in my career sitting at the interface between politics and the public service, so I’ve had the opportunity to reflect,” the Melbourne-based federal MP told The Mandarin.
“I was personally appalled and really concerned when I saw the recent rash of appointments.”
The prime minister’s chief of staff was recently appointed Australian public service commissioner, the Treasurer’s chief of staff was appointed Treasury secretary, a former Liberal staffer was appointed Productivity Commission chair, and a former chief of staff to the finance minister was appointed Treasury deputy secretary.
There is debate as to whether all should be seen as political appointments. New Australian Public Service Commissioner Richard Woolcott, for example, has only spent three years of his 37-year career as a staffer. Phillip Gaetjens and Simon Atkinson, the two Treasury appointees, have deeper backgrounds on the political side.
“One [appointment] may raise an eyebrow but such a batch of blatantly political appointments starts to ring alarm bells, or should,” Hill argues.
“To state the obvious, we have a Westminster system and pride ourselves on not having a US-style system where when the political party changes the top four layers change.”
Hill is particularly incensed about Woolcott’s appointment to the APSC.
“He’s a long term public servant, not a hack. But that position, until John Lloyd’s appointment has been above and outside politics,” he says.
“It was traditionally a position that a former secretary or similar has moved into. The idea of saying that the current PM’s chief of staff would move into the position of custodian of the Australian Public Service is abhorrent and that fact alone should rule them out.”
It’s not just about whether those appointed really are apparatchiks but the public perception of whether they are political appointments.
Hill likens it to conflicts of interest — public servants have it drummed into them that “the notion of conflict of interest doesn’t just mean a direct conflict — someone gave me money, I own a share — it also is a much harder concept of the perception of conflict of interest.”
“By all reports — I’ve never met him — but the new Treasury secretary is a bright man,” Hill says.
“But when the general public hears what the Treasury secretary says and they think ‘yeah but they’re just a Liberal party appointee’, that starts to degrade the Westminster system. It degrades trust.”
Hill thinks there “may be” a case for a future Labor government to refuse to work with anyone it deemed a “blatantly political” appointment — though he stresses that as a lowly backbencher that’s not for him to decide.
He believes these issues should be considered by the APS review, at least.
The New Zealand approach
If it wants to revisit the balance between responsiveness and public sector independence, Australia could do worse than looking across the Tasman, Hill says.
“New Zealand provides an interesting model, where the State Services Commission shortlists and interviews with input from ministers and makes recommendations to government. It’s done in a more transparent process. That process provides trust,” he explains.
“The government has the ability to say ‘no we can’t work with that person’. But when a minister is not working well with someone, it’s not a binary choice of cancelling contract and they’re out. The person who’s pushed out of their job doesn’t lose their career and can be assigned other roles.”
And while he doesn’t think we should return to the days where public servants are untouchable, strengthening their job tenure could help make advice to government more frank and fearless.