National

Retired public servant Roger Wilkins urges colleagues to loosen up

Former Attorney-General's Department secretary Roger Wilkins said the federal public service must think big when it advises cabinet ministers on difficult problems such as collecting evidence on foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. 

On his first day out of the job, Mr Wilkins, 62, has sent the federal bureaucracy his best advice about how to deal with the myriad international dramas Australia has been drawn into. 

"We have a problem which is quite topical at the moment around evidence and what people have been doing in Syria," Mr Wilkins said on Monday. 

"It's difficult to gather the evidence; the evidence is often hearsay and certainly not the type of evidence produced in an Australian court. 

"But I'd encourage public servants to think more broadly. It's not just about Syria and Iraq, it affects cases that may be partly based overseas about child abuse, foreign marriages and negligence."

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The Abbott government is looking at legal mechanisms to stop Australians fighting in foreign conflicts and to prosecute Australians who have taken part in terrorism or violence overseas.  

"Are our standards for accepting foreign evidence too high? Unrealistically high? Do we need to modify our expectations?" Mr Wilkins said. 

"In trying to solve that problem you should think about the bigger picture."

The mandarin said Australia had a world-class public service but too often submissions to ministers from public servants were "narrow, nitpicking, marginal" advancements in policy.

Mr Wilkins has left his almost $700,000-a-year departmental secretary job on his own accord to travel the world as the president of the global Financial Action Taskforce targeting terrorists, money launderers and drug cartels.

The taskforce argues for co-ordinated financial policies internationally to cut the supply of money to criminals, particularly those who use slack laws in one nation to target people in countries with stricter requirements, such as Australia.

When he left the department last week he told his 1700 staff to have ambitious ideas, to look at what was happening across the world, rather than solely in Canberra, and to have a "yes attitude", rather than taking a pessimistic view of an idea from a minister or colleague as the default position.

Under Mr Wilkins's guidance this year his department gave Attorney-General George Brandis advice on a number of hot topics with international dimensions such as the MH17 deaths, data retention and terrorism.

He said bureaucrats needed to take some risks and he noted he was saying this on a day when the Royal Commission released findings into the administration of the Labor government's home insulation scheme.

He believed institutions such as royal commissions, a plethora of watchdogs and the unforgiving view of the bureaucracy's mistakes by the media had created a public service "distinctively" more risk averse than the private sector. 

The man who led the Attorney-General's Department for six years will now live in Sydney and is well known in the capital for his love of bow ties and the odd puff on an electronic cigar.

He leaves the federal public service with some unfinished business.

He said the Australian Government Solicitor should be brought back into the department to enrich the advice it gave the minister, although he stressed it should not take on work now done by private sector lawyers.  

"When the Attorney-General goes into cabinet he should not only have a view on what the law is but a considered view on what the law ought to be on all the various issues that come before ministers," he said. 

He added the public service should stop imposing so much mindless red tape on itself and said it should be wary when it was introducing new regulation on the private sector. 

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