"So far, the running on policy and direction has largely fallen to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey and a few other key, senior ministers." Photo: Andrew Meares
After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, France and Britain declared war. It took six more months for this to break out into a major conflict. Some clashes broke out, especially at sea, but it was not until April/May 1940 that large-scale warfare began. The months leading up to this came to be known as the phoney war. Soldiers and their generals, on both sides, were largely inactive; they watched with nervous apprehension for events to unfold and for their political leaders to launch them into action.
Since Australia's federal election in September 2013, Commonwealth public servants have been in their own state of watch and wait. It won't be until the release of the commission of audit's report and the May budget that they will have a real sense of what this new government wants from them.
Senior public servants suggest they are still feeling their way with new ministers. The slow pace of recruitment of ministerial staff has not helped.
Reports from senior public servants suggest they are still feeling their way with new ministers. The slow pace of recruitment of ministerial staff has not helped. It has taken months for some offices to have a full complement of staff. Even after the appointments, new ministerial staff can be hard to deal with until they reveal their attitudes and preferences over some months of interactions.
There has been only one high-profile departure of a chief of staff so far; Professor Richard Mulgan writes about that on page 4 of this edition. That is good performance for a new government. In their first 12 months, both the Hawke and Howard governments lost not only staffers but ministers over misconduct. One positive feature of a slow and painstaking selection process for staff is that it can - with the notable exception of Alistair Furnival - discover potential conflicts and problems in advance.
The downside is that many ministers are taking longer than usual to get their thoughts in order about what they actually want to achieve now that they have the job. Remember that ministers, especially junior ministers, can often be appointed to a portfolio with little background on what it involves. They may have taken part in a committee inquiry or handled constituent complaints about the department concerned, but have no idea of what it actually does. When the prime minister's office phones them and asks them to take on a portfolio, they must study rapidly to find out what it involves. The departmental briefing for incoming ministers tells them the basics of what goes on and the pressures they face, but they need political advisers to help them work out what - if any - changes to make and how it fits in with the government's political strategies.
This means that, so far, the running on policy and direction has largely fallen to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey and a few other key, senior ministers. This leaves behind the very large number of issues that are not high-profile or important enough to escalate to this level, but where the department does want a steer from the minister. If the minister is still struggling to get on top of the brief and has only just appointed staff, there is a vacuum around these smaller but still important policy issues. It is a transition issue and will resolve in time, but has created awkwardness in interactions between public servants and the outside world. There's only so many times a public servant can say ''we can't comment until we know what the minister thinks'' before it becomes embarrassing.
This year is difficult for ministers for other reasons. The economy is highly fragile: boom conditions in mining are returning to normal trends, the high dollar has put pressure on exporters (especially in processing and manufacturing), and unemployment is rising. Many of the programs put in place in the days of the Howard government, and continued in the Rudd/Gillard years, are no longer sustainable. It is clear from his recent speeches and statements that Hockey realises this. One suspects, though, that many of his ministerial colleagues had an uncomfortable ''oh s---!'' moment when confronted with this new reality. It was not like this the last time the Coalition was in power. Economic conditions have turned around. The commission of audit is bound to highlight the sustainability problem Australia faces, and ministers (at least those who have not seen its draft report) are dreading its conclusions as much as their public servants. Coming up with effective policies in this climate is hard work - much harder than they were expecting.
For the public service, the phoney war is playing out in other ways. There was a freeze on recruitment, which now seems to be unfreezing slightly, but departments remain wary about staff appointments. Quite aside from the well-publicised interchange between Labor senator Stephen Conroy and Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell about Operation Sovereign Borders, a number of public servants at estimates hearings seem to have taken the practice of knowing nothing and saying less to greater extremes than usual. Information flows are sluggish and uncertain. It all comes down to watch and wait.
An unrelated matter, but perhaps an indication of a misstep in process due to a department's eagerness to work to the new government, was the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's decision to release cabinet documents from the previous government to the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program.
There is a good argument that the convention that cabinet documents remain secret has no place in an open society. New Zealand regularly releases cabinet papers without much fuss. Far from causing a collapse of society, New Zealand's government performance, especially in economic management, is currently being held up as a model for other countries. It would be feasible for us to move to this model.
What would be a serious problem though, and cause cabinet discussions to be stifled and ineffective, is the prospect of a newly elected government poring over its predecessor's cabinet papers and releasing a selection of those that are most politically damaging and embarrassing. If all papers were released automatically, this would not be a problem, but selective release is. That is why the convention exists: to allow cabinet discussions to be open and honest, and the records to be complete.
While PM&C made it clear it had not given the papers to the current government, handing them to the royal commission led to a strong protest from Labor senator John Faulkner that it had breached long-standing conventions. It is more troubling because the home insulation royal commission is so clearly aimed at finding fault with actions of the previous government. That contrasts with the other royal commission now under way into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, an inquiry with bipartisan support.
There is a way to release cabinet papers of a previous government that sits within the conventions: the leader of the opposition (i.e. the party that was previously in government) can be asked to consent to releasing the material. There was no evidence at the estimates hearing that PM&C had approached Labor's Bill Shorten in this case. Maybe it already knew what the answer would be, given the Labor Party has vigorously condemned the home insulation royal commission, but it would have been polite and within the conventions to have asked. Failing to do so runs the risk of appearing politically partisan.
Stephen Bartos is executive director, Canberra, of ACIL Allen Consulting and a former senior public servant. firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly said the Allies in Europe expelled Germany from the League of Nations in 1939; they in fact expelled the Soviet Union.