Public service deserves a leader who respects it
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Public service deserves a leader who respects it

The position of merit protection commissioner for the Australian Public Service doesn't receive much public attention. Despite its low profile, it plays a crucial role in ensuring integrity across the APS. It is deeply concerning that the Turnbull government allowed this position to remain vacant for over six months.

To make matters much worse, the new commissioner, Linda Waugh, begins as her office is considering a serious allegation against the very head of the APS, Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd.

Outgoing Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd is being investigated for alleged misconduct.

Outgoing Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd is being investigated for alleged misconduct.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Shortly before Waugh took up her new post, Lloyd announced he would be resign in August for what he says are reasons unrelated to the complaint he is facing. The Senate has been advised that the investigation of his alleged misconduct cannot continue after he leaves office, raising the prospect that it will be abandoned before it reaches a conclusion. We deserve better.

There are some countries, like the United States, where it is usual for senior bureaucrats to be partisan. The Australian Public Service is not supposed to be like this. Our public service may serve the government of the day but it does this by giving frank and fearless advice. The public service is a tool of government, not a tool of politics.

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This is how the APS has worked with governments of all persuasions over the last 117 years. Ministers in each of those governments have no doubt been frustrated at times by departments giving inconvenient advice, but that's exactly what the public service is meant to do. Its purpose is to tell the government what it needs to hear, not merely what it wants.

Lloyd's appointment as commissioner in 2014 by then minister Eric Abetz marked a break from our public service traditions. He came into the role after time at the Institute for Public Affairs, a right-wing thinktank that has publicly denigrated the APS and called for its staffing, budget and role to be slashed.

Five years later, it is clear that his appointment was another failed ideological experiment by the Abbott/Turnbull government. By appointing someone from outside the APS, the government hoped to expose its shortcomings and flaws. Instead, it highlighted the importance of the public service's values and traditions.

It seems Lloyd was never able to put partisan leaning completely aside. As commissioner, he supported a draconian social media policy for APS staff that many felt unduly curtailed ordinary rights of political association and speech. At the same time, he used his work email to comment on remarks Senate opposition leader Penny Wong made in the media. He spent years trying to stymie public servants' pay rises and cut their conditions. At the same time, he was providing the public service's work product to his friends at the IPA.

Imagine what could have been achieved with a commissioner who wanted to lead the public service instead of undermine it over the last five years. Governments face challenges and opportunities as they respond to emerging technologies and the changing needs of those they serve: the public. The public service can and should be at the centre of these discussions. Indeed, many of these questions are likely to be considered as part of the independent review of the APS initiated by the Prime Minister.

With the commissioner resigning under a cloud, the government should ensure that, this time, the position is filled by someone who understands and supports the importance of an impartial and properly resourced public service.

It has never been more important.

Jenny McAllister is a federal Labor senator.

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