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Making sense of Scott Morrison’s new portfolio arrangements

The Morrison government’s new administrative arrangements order is out, and despite the brevity there’s a bit to explain. Verona Burgess runs through the good news from a very awkward week for public servants.

The Australian Public Service has less than two weeks to get all the new and recycled ministers briefed and up to speed, before federal parliament sits again amid the febrile atmosphere of what will effectively be a minority government.

Only nine of 23 Cabinet ministers retain the portfolios they held a week ago and multiple functions have moved among the wider ministry. Many staffers have lost their jobs and new offices are still being sorted.

There are a few confusing ministerial title changes.

One such confusion arose with the renaming of Finance Minister Mathias Cormann as the Minister for Finance and the Public Service.

“In a nutshell, the APSC remains in the PM&C portfolio. Cormann has been sworn to administer both the Finance and the PM&C portfolios, where he is responsible for public service matters including the APSC.”

It seemed to imply that the Australian Public Service Commission would be shifting to the Finance portfolio.

But that’s not the case. Nor, thankfully, has the department been renamed the Department of Finance and the Public Service.

This might have implied, wrongly, that the secretary held the legal powers that actually belong to the Australian Public Service Commissioner and others under the Public Service Act 1999.

In a nutshell, the APSC remains in the PM&C portfolio. Cormann has been sworn to administer both the Finance and the PM&C portfolios, where he is responsible for public service matters including the APSC.

The APSC will report to him in much the same way as, under previous governments, it has from time to time reported to the Employment minister while remaining in the PM&C portfolio.

There is a precedent for its, or rather its forerunner, the Public Service Board, reporting to the Finance minister. That was under the first Hawke government when John Dawkins (also from Western Australia) was, from March 11, 1983 to December 13, 1984, both Minister for Finance and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, while the then Public Service Act 1922, therefore the board, remained in the PM’s portfolio.

During that time, Dawkins pressed a range of major public sector reforms and ushered in the then Public Service Reform Act 1984, at the same time as the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 and the Merit Protection (Australian Government Employees) Act 1984, the latter setting up the then Merit Protection and Review Agency.

The board was abolished and superseded by the APSC in 1987 but that’s another story.

APS commissioner’s statutory independence vital

The Public Service Act 1999 is far more than just a piece of financial legislation (or, for that matter, employment legislation).  It embodies the entire public service, and the commissioner’s statutory independence is vital to maintaining the values and culture of the APS, including the cornerstone of merit selection.

If it had been moved entirely to the Finance portfolio, the APSC would have lost the status and central authority of being in the PM’s portfolio, even though it has often been handed off to a passing parade of (largely uninterested) junior ministers.

It makes sense for it to report to the Finance minister rather than to the Industrial Relations minister given the fraught state of agency bargaining.

“Despite all the sound and fury and ministerial movements there are no machinery of government changes for the APS. That’s very good news in what has been a horror week.”

Finance already has carriage of the powerful Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. It is in charge of governance and APS transformation, as well as whole-of-government procurement and advertising, the Commonwealth Property Management framework and various other financial framework-related functions.

There is, of course, no change to the statutory role of the secretary of PM&C in advising the PM on the appointment of department secretaries.

Giving Cormann oversight of the commission also firms up what has been happening since 2014 when he took the reins of the smaller government agenda and, in every budget since, has effectively issued an update on its progress (or otherwise, depending on your view).

Cormann far better than just a toe cutter

He is a respected and experienced senior minister, even if his ability to count did not, on this occasion, extend to his own party room. He is far better than just a toe cutter; subsequent Finance ministers may not be.

But you wouldn’t bet the house on the government lifting the cap on average staffing levels or cutting the efficiency dividend in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook statement which is barrelling down on the Morrison government, perhaps as a mini-budget.

Ironically, Turnbull’s recently handpicked commissioner and (brief) former chief of staff, Peter Woolcott, will now report to the man who failed to swing the numbers for the great pretender Peter Dutton.

Although the two will probably get along fine, this underlines the need for an official arms-length, impartial and merit-based selection process for the position of commissioner.

It would not have served the APSC well to have been handed to a junior minister in Finance, such as assistant Treasury and Finance minister Zed Seselja who, as an ACT senator, former ACT opposition leader and Dutton man, is well known in the nation’s capital without commanding any noticeable respect from the APS.

The new reporting arrangement is unlikely to affect the review of the APS being chaired by David Thodey, whose secretariat is also undergoing a quick change with the move of Mary Wiley-Smith from PM&C to the APSC as the new deputy commissioner on September 3.

In short, despite all the sound and fury and ministerial movements there are no machinery of government changes for the APS. That’s very good news in what has been a horror week.

Lastly, it is only fair to offer congratulations to PM&C for creating order from the chaos yet again – although, let’s face it, the department has had plenty of practice in the last decade.

Top photo: Finance Minister Mathias Cormann (centre) is seen during the first Cabinet meeting of the Morrison government. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

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.