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Political instability unnerves public servants

Professor John Wanna, School of Politics & International RelationsANU College of Arts & Social Sciences.

Professor John Wanna, School of Politics & International RelationsANU College of Arts & Social Sciences.

Labor's leadership spill has done nothing to provide certainty to the public sector, which has been left in a state of flux over the government's inability to instil confidence in the people who work for it.

The Australian Public Service has been operating in a quasi shutdown mode for some time as the government lurches from one crisis to another.

Reaffirming Julia Gillard's position as Prime Minister will not change the mood in the public service, according to those experts close to the sector.

Australian National University politics professor John Wanna said he believed the Commonwealth public service has been confused for too long.

''I think they've been all at sea since the end of 2009 because of the dysfunction inside the federal Labor Party,'' Professor Wanna said.

''There are only a few ministers doing a competent job and the rest are going from crisis to crisis and that is not an easy place for the public service to be in.

''There is a lack of strategic thinking within government and that has filtered down to the public service. There is almost day-to-day uncertainty at not knowing what's coming next.''

Fellow ANU politics professor John Uhr said a return to Kevin Rudd as prime minister would have provided no more security for the public service.

''We don't know what the Rudd team would look like and so the public service has no idea what to expect,'' Professor Uhr said.

''There would hopefully have been a bit of opportunity for deep learning on both sides, because the public service has experience with Kevin as prime minister and maybe he has had time to reconsider his forcefulness with how he dealt with it.''

The Canberra Times has learnt that federal government departments are being tasked with producing case studies to back up Labor's policies as the election draws nearer.

A survey of contacts across five Commonwealth departments has revealed case studies have become a priority for public servants, even to the detriment of other policy work normally deemed more important.

"Case studies are often part of our work and always in an election year before it goes into caretaker mode,'' one source said. ''But this year is different because we know the election date yet we're not in caretaker mode.

"That means we're doing case studies that are likely to be used as ammunition for the government when the campaign officially starts."

But ANU political lecturer Andrew Hughes said that case studies were ''really bipartisan kind of work and they get dragged out when the public service is in shut-down mode''.

''No one will lose heads over case studies,'' Mr Hughes said.

Professor Uhr said the government of the day was always good at using public servants to back up its arguments.

''The public service is the biggest public asset the government has and it would be sensible to use it as creatively as possible,'' he said.

''On the other hand the public service has a code and duty not to be partisan. It can be a fine line in the execution.''

In January, Ms Gillard made the unusual move of announcing an election date eight months in advance.

She said Australians would go to the polls on September 14, with Parliament to be dissolved and election writs issued on August 12.

While she insisted the move was not meant to "start the nation's longest election campaign" it is clear that both sides of politics have ramped up their electioneering.

Another senior public servant said other work had been pushed aside to increase the number and types of case studies being commissioned. "We've been reduced to case studies," he said, "when there is a lot of policy work we could be getting on with."

According to other sources, the Parliamentary Library is currently "experiencing a massive increase" in approaches from government ministers' offices seeking information.

"That's because the government is at the point of trusting the public service less and less," one said.

"Ministers don't trust their departments not to leak against them, so whenever they can they are going directly to the Parliamentary Library for information and research."

All MPs can use the library but ministers generally use their departments more.

14 comments

  • "Australian Public Service has been operating in a quasi shutdown mode for some time"

    Trust me, as someone who works in the APS, this simply isn't true.

    Such a sweeping generalisation that doesn't reflect reality. We aren't in the caretaker mode and the vast majority of the public service is operating business as usual...

    Commenter
    Kincuri
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    March 22, 2013, 9:11AM
    • Which Public Servants?

      Which Departments?

      The only ones in a state of 'flux' are the disfunctional ones, and that has nothing to do with politics outside their squalid little offices.

      Maybe this could be a time for tidying up rubbish that has been ignored for years, in some of these departments, instead of greasy pole climbing (sorry, career leveraging).

      Commenter
      Perplexed
      Date and time
      March 22, 2013, 9:35AM
      • When will these pollies learn that there is HUGE difference between a politician and a statesman (woman). It is a statesperson who is fondly remembered well after their time is over, not an aimless PM nor a dirty scrapper. WE NEED A STATESMAN (OR WOMAN)

        Commenter
        snafu
        Date and time
        March 22, 2013, 9:52AM
        • So by this logic, Rudd being re-instated would have provided more certainty even though we wouldn't have known what the make-up of his team would look like .. that doesn't make even begin to make sense.

          And frankly, the constant conga line of redundancies and the occasional MOGs has been more disruptive to the public service than leadership rubbish which when it came to it, was all dough and no biscuit. Whatever the news about the spill, my team would still go about its work, because multiple articles a day for months have rabbited on about this spill .. and I don't believe anything I read in the press anymore.

          My Minister is performing pretty well and has remained responsive and on top of everything. If anything his staffers are the ones causing all the headaches for us on a daily basis.

          Commenter
          Lucy
          Date and time
          March 22, 2013, 9:55AM
          • SAY WHAT: ? politicians fearing ? the very causation is fearing ? Well, what about the poor old voters they have all been neglecting, how they fear via virtually seeing a whole term of nobody governing Australia on important issues, bickering, power-plays, jet-setting, PM Rudd hijacked, a reneg on no-carbon tax, and naturally voters are watching the Govt OBLITERATE before their eyes. A strong leader no, a foolish one yes. On election day the vision is Titanic sinking underwater until the last part of captain Gillard's head submerges to close the ALP, the titanic as the ALP and Julia on deck pushing it down

            Commenter
            brian
            Location
            glenroy
            Date and time
            March 22, 2013, 10:53AM
            • Don't think it's Labor leadership problems causing instability in the Public Service. I think it might be Abbott's suggested cuts of up to 24,000 that may be causing instability. The Coalition's frenzied hatred of the public sector is as irrational as the electorates hatred of Gillard. I wouldn't want to be a public servant with Abbott coming into power, they're an endangered species.

              Commenter
              Bleeding obvious
              Date and time
              March 22, 2013, 11:11AM
              • Your fear of the LNP (and Abbott), is as irrational as the alleged hatred of the PM you refer to. 24000 cuts now? Isn't that a number that labor has thrown up? Hey, it sounds more scary than 12000 doesn't it?

                Commenter
                Capo
                Date and time
                March 22, 2013, 2:09PM
              • You obviously don't read the news. The report has been in the papers several times over the past few days. Mooted cuts of 24,000. Privatising the ABC and SBS, scrapping the NDIS, etc, etc. Abbott hasn't denied it.

                Commenter
                Lord Lucan
                Date and time
                March 22, 2013, 4:27PM
              • @Capo,

                Public servant fear of the coalition's intent on gaining office is hardly irrational. Leaving aside what has happened in the states (the QLD LNP being merely the mostly irrationally exuberant in eviscerating public servants), the 24,000 number has already been bandied about by federal coalition spokespersons. I don't think it is unreasonable, given recent experience in this country, to take them at their word on this point.

                APS employees would be well advised to get their personal expenses under control and save what they can between now and the election. Unfortunately, that will probably have the same result as Brisbane; a local recession.

                You're not paranoid, they are out to get you!

                Commenter
                MarkH
                Date and time
                March 22, 2013, 5:17PM
              • With Australia edging toward a $300 billion debt, cuts are going to have to be made with the only other option is paying higher taxes. Both parties will have have to make at some stage and the longer they put their head in the sand the deeper cuts will have to be. So i see that they should be worried. Australia is following the European disaster of high debt but we won't have anybody to bail us out.

                Commenter
                Mal
                Location
                Cranbourne
                Date and time
                March 22, 2013, 10:34PM

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