Michael Thawley: the delicate dance awaiting Prime Minister and Cabinet's new secretary
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Michael Thawley: the delicate dance awaiting Prime Minister and Cabinet's new secretary

The Abbott government has shown no sign of seriously threatening the APS's non-partisan professionalism.

Ian Watt's departure as secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and his replacement by Ian Thawley mark the end of the Abbott government's first full year in office. What conclusions can we draw about its approach to senior appointments in the Australian Public Service?

Thawley's appointment, like that of John Fraser to Treasury (still to be officially confirmed), is in keeping with the government's stated aim of bringing the APS closer to the business community. Both come from high-profile private sector positions with first-hand experience of how business operates. However, both began their career as public servants and moved to the private sector only after extensive experience in major Canberra departments. Their appointment does not reflect any major shift to a United States-style pattern of appointing business people without any previous government experience to senior public service positions. Nor has the Abbott government turned its back on Canberra insiders, as the appointment of Jane Halton to the Finance Department attests. Similarly, the three secretaries dismissed immediately after the election were all replaced by career APS bureaucrats, not political appointees.

MAIN MAN: The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's new head, Michael Thawley.

MAIN MAN: The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's new head, Michael Thawley.Credit:Nic Walker

Thawley and Fraser will not seriously threaten the APS values of non-partisan professionalism. Indeed, they may help to strengthen these values. Unscarred by the dysfunctional pathologies of the Rudd era and its aftermath, they can bring fresh energy to the urgent task of rebuilding relationships between the public service and the political branch.

Thawley, in his first public statement as secretary-elect, confirmed his support for a non-political public service, unlike the American system he observed at first hand as Australia's ambassador. He also stressed two further points: the importance of telling governments what they need to know, not what they want to know; and the need to maintain a good relationship between the department and the Prime Minister's office. Such sentiments will be most welcome to those Canberra watchers who have been dismayed at the growing gap between public servants and ministerial advisers, and at the increasing marginalisation of public service advice. Ministers, too, it has been hinted, have become impatient with officials who are unwilling to give their own firm views on policy matters. After years of being pressured to trim their advice to suit the inclinations of ministers' offices, many senior public servants seem to have lost the will to give independent opinions. The time-honoured pendulum between responsiveness and independence has swung too far towards responsiveness. Thawley may be the right person to help adjust the balance.

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TREASURY-BOUND: John Fraser, who is likely to replace Martin Parkinson.

TREASURY-BOUND: John Fraser, who is likely to replace Martin Parkinson.Credit:Erin Jonasson

Thawley is reported to be on friendly terms with Prime Minister Tony Abbott's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and her husband Brian Loughnane, which some hostile critics will see as evidence of undue partisan connection. But provided the distinctive roles are clearly understood and Thawley remains focused on tendering robust policy advice to the government, good personal relations will be a bonus, not a hindrance. The most pressing long-term need in present-day government is to let (or make) ministers pay serious attention to sound policy advice. The familiar catalogue of recent developments, including the 24-hour media cycle and the growth in numbers and influence of political advisers, is making this task ever harder. If Thawley can build an effective conduit for soundly based public service advice through his relationship with Credlin, so much the better.

The timing of Watt's retirement as PM&C secretary, though later than some had predicted, still fits a common pattern. Incoming prime ministers tend to rely on the incumbent secretary to manage the transition. Then, after finding their feet, they expect to make their own appointment of someone they find personally congenial. PM&C secretaries, in their turn, often leave willingly, having come to the end of a particularly intense and exhausting period of service to the previous regime. This practice works well, particularly after a change of government. It depends on the professionalism of the secretaries concerned, who need to be trusted to provide effective transitional support to a government opposed to the one they previously served.

To some extent, the practice is contrary to pure Westminster principle, which requires all public service positions to be appointed on strict merit without any political considerations and that all senior public servants should be expected to serve alternative governments. The breach is relatively minor, however, so long as it does not apply to other secretary positions. Any notion that all incumbent secretaries should retire gracefully to allow incoming ministers to choose their own appointees would be a serious assault on the conventions of a politically neutral, professional public service. A partial exemption can be made in the case of the government's chief policy adviser, provided that the individuals chosen are sufficiently non-partisan to be trusted, if called on, with handling a transition to a new government. (Of secretaries in recent memory, only Max Moore-Wilton fails to meet that test, because of his open partisan identification with John Howard and the Coalition.)

That PM&C secretaries are more closely linked with the prime minister and the government is confirmed by the practice that, unlike other secretaries, they regularly absent themselves from Senate estimates proceedings. Presumably, they consider themselves too intimately involved in the inner workings of cabinet to be exposed to direct questioning by opposition senators. Under conventions of ministerial responsibility, all politically sensitive interrogation should be directed through ministers.

The no-show policy only becomes an issue when the actual conduct of the secretary is involved. For example, opposition senators recently wished to question Watt about his decision to recommend the appointment of Coalition sympathisers Janet Albrechtson and Neil Brown to the nominations panel for ABC and SBS board appointments. Labor senator Penny Wong reportedly personally invited Watt to attend the hearing. Watt declined her invitation but indicated he would attend if the committee formally invited him. In the event, the committee did not make a formal request and had to be satisfied with a written statement from the secretary.

Watt's decision on the ABC and SBS board nomination process exposed him to strong public criticism for having acted in a partisan manner (for example, by Paddy Gourley in the Informant in August). Was Watt doing the bidding of Abbott and his office or acting on his own? Either way, the decision looked compromised. The incident underlines the inevitably close association between a PM&C secretary and the prime minister, and the dangers in trying to open a public distance between them. The fault can be traced back to Labor's naive attempt to depoliticise the board appointment process by giving the right of nomination to the PM&C secretary acting independently. In practice, the PM&C secretary can be expected to be apolitical in the traditional sense of abstaining from openly partisan advocacy and from political campaigning, while giving robust and potentially unpopular advice in private. But he or she cannot play the role of an independent quasi-statutory official, making controversial decisions that the government may or may not like.

More broadly, if the PM&C secretary is seen as particularly close to the prime minister and the government as a whole, his or her role as a quasi-head of the APS becomes more ambiguous. On the key issue of public service independence, the PM&C secretary is poorly placed to publicly defend public service professionalism against attacks from ministers. Ideally, this should be the function of the public service commissioner as the guardian of APS values and the long-term steward of a career profession.

However, the future of the position of public service commissioner itself remains uncertain. The current commissioner, Stephen Sedgwick, steps down this month. The government has yet to respond to a suggestion from the commission of audit that the post be transferred to the Employment Department, whose secretary would take on the commissioner's roles and responsibilities. The commission of audit conceded that the commissioner had "an important role to play in supporting merit-based appointments to maintain an apolitical public service" but saw no reason to maintain the position as a stand-alone office. Whether this important function could be adequately performed by an Employment Department secretary absorbed in matters of government industrial relations policy is highly questionable. These are indeed worrying times for those concerned with public sector ethics and constitutional propriety.

Richard Mulgan is an emeritus professor with the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. richard.mulgan@anu.edu.au