Political fodder ... Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson's days are numbered. Photo: Rob Homer
The dust may have settled on the Abbott government's decision to sack three departmental secretaries immediately and Treasury head Martin Parkinson more slowly, but the damage has been done.
And Prime Minister Tony Abbott has put a further discount on his professed respect for the public service. He made that dubious enough with his promise to cut 12,000 jobs from it without having the guts to identify functions he'd drop, queues for services he'd allow or indicate where he believes current staff levels are over the odds. Those fundamental government functions have been outsourced to representatives of the business community via the so-called audit commission. At least it has a bottom-line answer: tell us how to get 12,000 staff out the door, or is it 20,000?
In opposition, Abbott was happy to settle his positions on the carbon tax and asylum seekers on the basis of politically profitable lies.
As is well known, in 1996, the then new prime minister, John Howard, sacked six departmental secretaries. No reasons were given and Howard's Lazarus, his fine volume of memoirs, sheds no light on the event. Much speculation by many far removed from the scene has been unconvincing. Perhaps Howard was simply giving belated vent to frustrations he may have experienced with some officials when he was a minister in the Fraser government.
Gone ... Sacked secretaries Andrew Metcalfe, Don Russell and Blair Comley.
What is known is that all of those shown the door were thoroughly professional and competent officials who had been properly reticent in public and who, except for one, had neither distinguishing associations with the Labor Party nor any special closeness with the Hawke-Keating governments. And the exception was an officer with impeccable beliefs in traditional verities about the role of public servants; indeed, he was one of the few who declined an offer of contract employment in order to qualify for performance pay. His problem was that he'd worked as a public servant for a senior Labor frontbencher.
That is to say, five of the Howard sackings appear to have been random while one case was unwarranted other than as an act of political bastardry. What they signified, however, was a major departure from habits of the Menzies and Fraser governments in the handling of senior appointments - a far greater emphasis on political alignment, particularly for statutory positions with powers independent of ministers where the tribalism practised was probably unprecedented in the history of the Commonwealth.
But Abbott's sackings are not random. Don Russell seems to have been tripped up by his employment as a public servant about 20 years ago in Paul Keating's office. Parkinson, Andrew Metcalfe and Blair Comley are almost certainly victims of the work they were required to do by virtue of the positions they held during the Rudd and Gillard governments, dealing with climate change and asylum-seeker policies. Therefore, these sackings are more insidious and damaging than Howard's.
It would be reasonable for the new government, with its markedly different approach on climate change and asylum seekers, and its alternative take on aspects of economic policy, to change the secretaries of the related departments.
It is an entirely different matter, however, to take the secretaries who served in these departments under the previous regime and put them on the street. The message is that those who have the misfortune, under a Labor regime, to serve in areas where there are sharp policy differences run a high risk of having their public service careers terminated by a succeeding Coalition government.
The former Treasury secretary and former chairman of Westpac, Ted Evans, said that to see these secretaries ''treated in a political fashion is more than disappointing, it's sad for the country frankly. We'll end up as bad as other countries … where appointments are purely political; the US for example.'' He's dead right.
And that might not be such a big step as it seems. Indeed, if governments start booting out departmental secretaries because they are perceived, fairly or not, to have intransigent policy views, it's a logical step to replace them with those they know are politically sympathetic and meek. That is, merit staffing is replaced by political staffing.
That doesn't seem to concern Chris Berg, the director of the nanny state project at the Institute of Public Affairs. In a recent contribution to the ABC's The Drum, he alleges that the idea of a public service providing sound advice while obeying elected governments ''has always been a self-serving fiction''. It's not, of course, but that doesn't bother Berg; I mean, he's got the ''nanny state'' to worry about.
It's unclear exactly what Berg would want for the public service but if he prefers the system in the United States federal civil service, where a large number of senior jobs are reserved for the appointment of people politically sympathetic to the president, then he could disabuse himself by reading Hugh Heclo's book A Government of Strangers. But maybe that would be a waste of time, as erstwhile denizens of his institute typically are more interested in beliefs than facts, practicalities and evidence. It might be fine for appointments to jobs at the institute to be regulated by ideological bias but the country would suffer if it were to be the rule for important organisations like the Australian Public Service.
For the moment, Abbott has not replaced the sacked officials with political appointees. One of the vacancies has been filled by the transfer of an existing secretary and two by the promotion of senior officials from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The nomination of Parkinson's successor is awaited.
The two promotees may be entirely worthy, though the process by which they were elevated was inadequate; there was simply no time for the due consideration of merit required for the filling of vacancies to all other positions in the public service. Few other serious organisations would be so cavalier and it's not a good sign that Abbott was prepared to be so.
Writing in the Murdoch press, ''regulatory economist'' Henry Ergas said the recommendations of the 1976 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration on departmental secretaries ''were embodied in the Public Service Amendment (First Division Officers) Act 1976''. That's not true, unfortunately; indeed, these recommendations were dealt with by the Hawke government in 1984. It accepted, if in slightly modified form, the commission's views that secretary vacancies should be advertised and that candidates should be assessed by a panel in consultation with the chairman of the former Public Service Board, with a short-list of possible appointees being provided to the relevant minister and the prime minister. These arrangements have largely fallen by the wayside. However, if Abbott is serious about efficiency in public administration, he should think about reviving them rather than hastily elevating, via a skimpy process, personnel who are close at hand in his department, no matter how worthy they are. After all, the Coalition is supposed to believe in the virtue of competition.
A fundamental responsibility of departmental secretaries is to organise honest, comprehensive and wise advice which, while properly taking into account government policy, doesn't hesitate to tell ministers and governments things they might not like to hear. Abbott's sacking of secretaries who were associated with policies of the previous government with which he disagreed looks like a sign that he and his government would prefer only to hear advice that is music to their ears. It is also a sign of Abbott's lack of faith in the public service's capacity to serve loyally whatever government is served up by the electors. It's an inauspicious start for the new government and it will be disastrous if it leads to the appointment of department heads and others on the basis of their perceived political sympathies.
In opposition, Abbott constantly alleged that the Gillard government was the worst the Commonwealth had ever seen. That's a matter of judgment. It might also be said that Abbott's ministers have less raw governing talent than any other federal ministry. When passed the first division of Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Robb, Ian McFarlane and Arthur Sinodinos, and the second of Julie Bishop, Warren Truss and Mathias Cormann, things fall away rapidly until one is in the unsettling company of Christopher Pyne, George ''Weddings'' Brandis, Greg Hunt, Kevin Andrews and their like, while Scott ''Migrants'' Morrison deserves a category of his own.
In opposition, Abbott was happy to settle his positions on the carbon tax (sic) and asylum seekers on the basis of politically profitable lies: the tax would be a ''wrecking ball'' in the economy and asylum seekers were a serious threat to national well-being. If he is to serve the country well in government, he'll need to make policy more the product of a rational analysis of what is in the public interest. Especially given the thinness of his ministerial team, he'll need all the help he can get from his public service advisers. The kind of relationship needed to bring this about is not aided by dismissing talented secretaries whose only failing was to loyally help the previous government develop policies with which the Coalition disagreed.
Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant.