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Attack on public service a case of 'sour grapes': union

Date

Phillip Coorey and Jessica Wright

Scathing...Jennifer Westacott.

Scathing...Jennifer Westacott.

A CALL to cull the number of political staffers in ministerial offices by half has been met with outrage by public service unions who say the suggestion, made by the head of the Business Council of Australia, is ''ill-considered" and a slur on the many "high calibre professionals".

In a scathing speech to public servants at a conference in Melbourne, Jennifer Westacott, the chief executive officer of the council, called for the number of ministerial advisers to be halved and for a mandatory code of conduct prohibiting them from directing public servants.

Ms Westacott said there had been a marked decline in the public service, saying intimidation by growing legions of political staffers has led increasingly to poor policy that hurts the nation economically and saps the appetite for reform.

Ms Westacott, a former senior bureaucrat in NSW and Victoria, believes the public sector has lost its independence and integrity and she urged the public sector to start fighting back against undue political influence.

''Australia can't afford for you to be passengers, spectators, victims of political short-termism,'' she said. ''I urge you to think big and take steps to regain control over your world.''

Ms Westacott's speech was met with derision by the Community and Public Sector union.

Acting national secretary Louise Perse said the attack on ministerial staff was a product of ''sour grapes''.

"We reject completely the BCA's suggestions that ministerial staffers are 'political gatekeepers' who are somehow undermining long-term policy development in the public service,'' she said.

"Ministerial staff play a crucial, co-operative role in government. They are right there at the intersection - where government meets the public service and other stakeholders, including business.''

Staffers were required to work long hours, across a range of complex subjects and were facing an ever-increasing demand to keep up with social media and the 24 hour news cycle, Ms Perse said.

"The BCA is perfectly entitled to disagree with government policy, but it should refrain from hacking into hard-working staffers who are simply trying to do a tough job well,'' she said.

''This attack looks like sour grapes over the BCA's stalled policy agenda.''

Special Minister of State, Gary Gray, also hit back at Ms Westacott's comments saying Australia had one of the best public administrations in the world and its workers did not ''deserve these ill-informed and inaccurate criticisms.''

"Yesterday, the council's chief executive sought to make scapegoats of dedicated public servants with inaccurate and unfair comments," Mr Gray said.

Mr Gray said there was already a code of conduct for ministerial staff, introduced by Labor in 2007 to ensure "that ministerial staff do not have the power to direct APS employees in their own right and that APS employees are not subject to their direction".

During her speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia yesterday, Ms Westacott said poor policy process had contributed to some of the ''most divisive issues in Australia''.

''We now have major policies unravelling before our eyes because the process was poor, the architecture was wrong, a pre-determined political compromise dressed up as economic reform''.

Ms Westacott said not only were the fiscal implications of poor policy ''huge'' but they made it harder to garner public support for much-needed reforms.

Ms Perse accused the Business Council of acting as Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's attack dog, saying the Coalition was on the record with plans to slash the public sector if it were to take government.

"You will not strengthen the public service's long-term policy capacity by cutting it further, outsourcing services to the private sector and increasing forced redundancies,'' Ms Perse said.

"It's disappointing to see the BCA seemingly backing Tony Abbott's proposal for massive cuts to the public sector through yet another Commission of Audit.

"The biggest risk to the public service's capacity is not the changing dynamics of politics. It is the relentless drive for savings leading to an exodus of talent and a paucity of investment.''

Just days after the head of the Defence Department, Duncan Lewis, moved on after only a year in the role, Ms Westacott called for a return to secure tenure for departmental secretaries.

The present contract system cultivated a culture of ''reticence and timidity''.

''It opens the door on a culture of intimidation and bullying of public servants, an environment where merit can be substituted for favouritism,'' she said.

Unless there was a correction, Australia would not be able to properly reform its tax system, restructure the federation, plan for and fund transport infrastructure for Sydney and Melbourne and save the Murray-Darling Basin.

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