Public service must be an antidote to populism: Coca-Cola Amatil boss
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Public service must be an antidote to populism: Coca-Cola Amatil boss

The federal bureaucracy will have to combat Australia's growing vulnerability to populist decision-making by offering a strong voice for good policy, a business leader reviewing it says.

Coca-Cola Amatil managing director Alison Watkins warned the nation was becoming more susceptible to populism, and in a statement this week upped the stakes for a major review of the 150,000-strong Australian Public Service called by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Ms Watkins, a panel member of the review led by former Telstra chief executive David Thodey, framed the bureaucracy as a bulwark against populism in Australian politics.

Coca-Cola Amatil managing director Alison Watkins is on a panel reviewing the Australian Public Service.

Coca-Cola Amatil managing director Alison Watkins is on a panel reviewing the Australian Public Service.Credit:Peter Braig

"As Australia becomes more susceptible to populist decision-making, the need for a strong independent voice and a consistent way of thinking about good policy will become even more important," she said.

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"The APS needs to continue to build consistent and rigorous policy approaches to meet this demand."

While leaders have emerged overseas posturing as defenders of common people against "elites", political figures in Australia have also increasingly resorted to populist rhetoric as trust in governments and other institutions declines.

Ms Watkins said the nation is growing more susceptible to populist decisions.

The former ANZ executive and GrainCorp chief executive, part of what is expected to be the bureaucracy's largest review since the Coombs royal commission between 1974-1976, said the public service must preserve its culture of strong, independent advice and efficient service delivery.

"This review is about enabling the APS to do what it does best, by creating the environment it needs to be successful," she said.

"I’m passionate about helping create a positive future for Australia by ensuring it remains an amazing place to live and work, to get an education, and to grow old. A strong, independent and effective APS is fundamental to these outcomes."

She said there were similarities between the federal bureaucracy and Coca-Cola Amatil, a major manufacturer operating for more than 100 years with a large local employment base.

"Like other industries and sectors, including the APS, we’re also undergoing massive transformation," Ms Watkins said.

"We’re being disrupted by local and global trends, mostly driven by technology. And we face the same imperative around talent - attracting the best people and retaining them.

"These business challenges are mirrored in the APS as it adapts to changes in the Australian community."

Ms Watkins said the public service would have to take more risks in the future, and that its layers of decision-making made change slow and difficult.

In results released on Monday, a public service commission survey of 100,000 public servants this year found only 28 per cent believed they were rewarded for taking appropriate risks and less than half believed their agencies handled change well.

Ms Watkins is not the only leading public figure to cast a spotlight on the public service's purpose in response to emerging trends. In his first speech in October as the commissioner overseeing the bureaucracy's workforce, Peter Woolcott put the public service at the centre of Australia's response to a phase of international relations set to challenge the supremacy of the Western world view.

The review is expected to report to the federal government by mid-2019.

Doug Dingwall is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service and politics.

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