Ian Watt's 'path forward' for regulating silliness

Five months after the election, the Abbott government has shown little interest in actually governing, Paddy Gourley says.

At the height of his career, Australia's former cultural attache and National Cheese Board chairman, Sir Les Patterson, said: ''I'm not an orator, ladies and gentlemen; I'm an Australian public servant.'' Such an acute insight could only have come to Patterson in the brief morning interval between recovery from the previous evening and the furthering of his reputation as a terrifying legend in his own lunchtime.

With the possible exceptions of Peter Shergold, J. O. Stone and the late Charles Perkins, it's hard to recall a senior Commonwealth official with significant oratorical claims. For all his abilities, the current secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ian Watt, would appear to be another in the honourable line of public servants short on Churchillian flourish.

The master servant ... Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Ian Watt.
The master servant ... Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Ian Watt. Photo: Nic Walker

His stylistic modesty is evident in a couple of his recent speeches. But they're important speeches and presumably, in the exercise of his leadership responsibilities, he sent them to the heads of all public service agencies, asked for them to be discussed with staff and sought comments. If he hasn't, he should. And if he finds any agency heads who've done nothing with the speeches, he should put their names on a list the government could use the next time it gets into a sacking mood. This would give it a legitimate reason at least: a failure of leadership, the gravest sin in modern public administration.

Watt's speech in Canberra in early December was titled ''The path forward for the APS''. It contains some reflections on the public service under the Rudd-Gillard governments, the ''transition'' to the Abbott one and its ''agenda'', the ''budgetary environment'' and the ''task ahead''. It's good ripe material containing a few mild provocations.

Watt is pleased with the way the public service adapted to the recent period of so-called ''minority government'' but says ''we can also hope … that our recent history is not repeated too often or too soon''. No doubt the ''minority government'' brought its difficulties but it did not result in government stasis and there's no evidence it caused significant economic damage as clownishly claimed by the Australian National University's Professor Warwick McKibbin. Keep things in perspective. We now have a Coalition government, with a National Party whose leadership team of Warren Truss and Barnaby Joyce veers between ultra-sensitivity to its constituency and, in Joyce's case, sustained bursts of incoherence. It will be a miracle if the Nationals permit the government to get close to a budget surplus for a very long time let alone do difficult things to promote greater productivity in agriculture or elsewhere.

Meanwhile, without a majority in the Senate, the government, after July this year, will need to deal with the most eccentric and day-to-day unpredictable group of crossbench senators the Federal Parliament has ever seen. Former prime minister Julia Gillard's relations with the crossbenchers in the House of Representatives will look like child's play in comparison.

So the public service should keep whatever lessons it learned in compromise and realpolitik from the previous government in the front of its mind, for it will need to help manage a much bigger dose of this over the next few years.

Watt is pleased with the way the Australian Public Service has made the ''transition'' to the new government. He says ''we have done at least as well as … 1996 and 2007, and, in many respects, better.'' It's to be hoped so, for the ''transition'' in 1996 was among the worst. He says Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants to ''work professionally and respectfully with the APS'' but, of course, he cannot mention that one of Abbott's first acts was to sack three departmental secretaries quickly and one slowly for no good reasons, leaving Watt and Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick to convey the bad news to those affected. The lesson for senior public servants - since reinforced by the partisan nature of many of the government's senior appointments - is clear enough and requires no elaboration here.

Still, there are some positive signs in the ''transition'' to the new government. Proper cabinet processes are apparently being enforced and the revised Administrative Arrangements Order is an improvement. Watt says future machinery of government changes ''will be concentrated after elections''. It's to be hoped, therefore, that scuttlebutt about Kevin Andrews's desires to merge the social services and human services departments can soon be put in its box.

According to Watt, ''we have been beneficiaries of the methodical, measured and unrushed approach'' of the new government and there's been ''no climate of unnecessary haste'', though the government ''won't dawdle''. But the government is dawdling. Apart from the secretive, militarised application of its ''stop the boats'' policy and its attempts to dismantle vestiges of the old regime, it's done little more than refer difficult problems to inquiries and reviews. Sure, it's appointed a mature-aged political ballboy, Maurice Newman, to retrieve hoary old chestnuts for the young master to serve up, but Newman's early retrievals have been charmlessly naive and worthless.

Abbott is leading a government of wishful thinking. It's as if he's hoping psychokinesis will bring about the good things he wants. It will not and he'll need to jerk his crew into gear before the considerable advantages of the early months of any government have slipped through its fingers. Watt says the public service should ''not be waiting for the commission of audit'' and that it should ''anticipate and get ahead of the curve''. That's right and it will be all for the good if the government can thereby be helped to throw off its lassitude. Abbott should forget about the ABC and pay more attention to policy than politics.

Watt rightly points out that the public service needs to ''understand and adapt to'' the new government's ''underlying philosophies''. The problem is that some of these ''philosophies'' are Delphic and dubious. For example, it has said that ''government should do for people what they cannot do efficiently, for themselves, but no more''. This has been set as a ''principle'' for the commission of audit. The words seem to have been lifted from, of all places, a speech by President Barack Obama, in which he summarised and distorted the views of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said: ''The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves.'' That's quite different from the Abbott ''principle'', where the idea of the government working in the public interest is lost and where there is insufficient recognition that many people can do lots of things for themselves while injuring their compatriots in the process. It's to be hoped the commission of audit treats this ''principle'' with caution; public servants should do likewise. The government should ditch it for it can't be practically applied and it is politically and morally deficient.

The government is setting up 'deregulation units ... in all departments'. That is to say, more regulation is required in order to reduce it.

So we get to the government's concern about the costs of regulation. Watt says ''we are moving to a presumption against regulation'' and that ''the tendency for the public service to turn, almost by reflex, to regulation'' must be ''reversed''. But hang on: the business of government fundamentally is about regulation and, if it were to be removed, there would be virtually nothing for governments to do. And it's not as if the public service turns reflexively to regulation; that's what governments and ministers essentially want to do by involving themselves in the affairs of the citizenry to promote the common interest according to their political beliefs. Watt says: ''The government believes, as do most economists, that regulation tends to inhibit enterprise, innovation and economic activity.'' It can, but it can and does promote and foster all of these things.

The ''belief'' of the government ''and most economists'' to which Watt alludes is hopelessly one-sided yet it is reflected, for example, in Abbott's assertion at the recent Davos talkfest that no country has ever taxed itself to prosperity. But that's exactly what the richer countries have done while the poverty of others owes a lot to the ineffectiveness of their tax systems.

Sure, regulations are costly. The question is whether they provide compensating benefits, and not just monetary benefits. There should not be a ''presumption against regulation''; there should be a sophisticated and clear-headed consideration of where regulation is worth it and where it is not, in the broadest possible sense, free of the twisted perspective that ''regulation tends to inhibit enterprise, innovation and economic activity''.

Then it gets silly when Watt explains that the government is setting up ''deregulation units … in all departments''. That is to say, more regulation is required in order to reduce it. Such problems as exist will be better solved if they are managed by responsible ministers and line managers rather than removing part of their basic responsibilities to ''deregulation units''. Apparently the pathetic history of so many such off-line units is yet to sink in.

Then it gets ever sillier. Watt says the government intends to ''link reductions in red tape [spare us the emotive language, Doc] to SES and secretary performance agreements. And we will all be judged by our successes and failures.'' There may be room for these judgments to be nuanced, but the fact remains that ministers are primarily responsible for the extent of regulation, that some have and will be more profligate or careless than others, and the scope for regulatory removal will be uneven. Thus, it is likely that senior officials in agencies that have been regulation addicts and where the prospects of reduction are greater are likely to be judged more favourably than those who have had a ''presumption against regulation'' and where there may be little scope for reductions. What would ''some economists'' say about incentives like that?

Regulatory burdens should be eased as and where they can. It's just that the government's ''underlying philosophy'' is unbalanced enough to put at risk the proper implementation of its wishes.

Towards the end of Watt's speech, he emphasises the importance of ''investing in people'' and the notion of the ''one APS''. The former must now be under great pressure, as the recruitment tap is running at a slow drip and budgetary restraint is squeezing training. Meanwhile, the ''one APS'' idea will continue to be elusive for as long as the 100 APS agencies maintain different personnel management arrangements. Sedgwick is recently reported as saying that, by 2025, we will have ''whole-of-APS talent pools''. That's what the public service had before pay and conditions fixing was devolved and it will not have it again until that is ''reformed'' - before 2025, it might be hoped.

At the official level, Watt is the head of the public service. His paper about the ''path forward'' for it should be studied by all public servants. Anyone with views on what he's said should drop him a line; he should be pleased to hear from you. He doesn't include his email address in the government directory but any messages for him could be sent to his executive assistant.

Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant.