Tony Ayers, who died this week, was perhaps Malcolm Fraser's favourite public servant. But not because he tempered his advice so as to ingratiate himself with his master, or to soften his Pentridge-acquired fondness for expletive.
On one occasion, Fraser, wilfully determined on a course of action that Ayers thought most unwise, saw Ayers about to open his mouth and said, "Tony, I don't want to hear what you've got to say".
Ayers replied, "Prime Minister, I am not here to tell you what you f---ing want to hear. I am here to tell you what you f---ing need to hear."
It's up there in my pantheon of noble phrases about public service with Fred Wheeler's comment to Gough Whitlam when Wheeler was trying, yet again and yet again unsuccessfully, to warn Whitlam about the risks and follies of the Overseas Loans Affair. Whitlam said he had heard the arguments, and rejected them. He did not want to hear them again. Wheeler said, "Prime Minister, you must listen to me. I am drawing to your attention facts your ignorance of which will bring you down."
I knew Tony Ayers, fairly well, for more than 40 years, and I cannot remember ever suspecting that he was being economical with the truth, timorous about expressing his point of view, or inclined to soften it for circumstance.
I miss him already. I would have loved to hear his comments on the suggestion by ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr that we are all being sexist in thinking that one of his ministers has a whopping and insuperable conflict of interest in being married to a lobbyist seeking big favours from the Barr government in progressing the proposed Manuka oval scheme. I'm pretty sure they would include words such as "bullshit" and "crap".
I suspect that these are words Barr does not hear often enough from his political and bureaucratic advisers.
Ayers would have said it to Barr, to the minister, and to the independent adviser to ACT politicians on probity issues, (who has apparently approved of the conjunction). If anyone asked, he would have said it in the public domain.
He would have been just as censorious of a former senior ACT planning and development bureaucrat in the land planning and development area who has left the service to sell, to the same developers his knowledge of how the ACT government is a chancer's paradise. As secretary of Defence, Ayers once cancelled a completed tender process, and reopened bidding, this time forbidding the hitherto successful bidder to reapply. He had discovered that a senior air force officer, associated with the tender specifications, had been hired by the contractor. The contractor said it would sue. Ayers told it to go for its life. It didn't.
Ayers thought the appearance, and substance, of things mattered.
As it happened, he was an enthusiast for the idea of public subsidisation of sport (and was a former member of the Raiders board, a job that sometimes seems ex-officio for Defence secretaries). But he would have thought that even by low ACT government standards, the processes and incestuous appearances of the Manuka development proposal were appalling.
He most emphatically did not agree with the proposition that there could be, or should be, "Chinese walls" in the modern marriage partnership. Nor did he think that classic principles of conflict of interest had to be suspended because both partners had careers. Or because the ACT is a small place where some degree of conflict is inevitable, and thus, should be ignored.
Politics is a game for volunteers, and those who will not submit to the rules should get out. One of the costs of being a politician is a degree of self-denial by spouses – of deciding not to work in the same patch. There is nothing more politically unattractive, nor calculated to further lower the status of politicians, here or elsewhere than the modern appearance of government contracts going to mates, cronies, insiders, and people who have made careers of sidling up to those who wield power. Or to the development of an industry of such mates, who prostitute their knowledge and access for personal profit. It's even more ugly when it is, as it so often in in Canberra, on a merry-go-round of people who never seem to have had real jobs, other than in politics.
If Meegan Fitzharris and Andrew Barr can't see it, the electorate should tell them so, most emphatically, come October.
There's a good argument, indeed, that Fitzharris cannot now retrieve any pretence of disinterest (for example, by persuading her partner, Pierre Huetter, to get a more appropriate job) unless the development proposal is withdrawn.
Husband and wife are enthusiastic careerist political players, and close friends and political allies of the chief minister. One is elected (up to a point at least) after having been a minder. Her partner, now parlaying his inside knowledge of how to persuade ACT politicians, is also a former adviser to Barr. Each is where he or she is because of their power to harness political networks, political connections, insider knowledge and party power to personal benefit. They live and breathe ACT factional politics.
The reality, of course, may differ from the appearances. But appearances are as important, not least in a government which unconvincingly pretends that there is no need for protections of the public interest through an anti-corruption commission. There could be nothing less convincing than the claims by the chief minister, or the minister, that the problem is being addressed by the system they have put in place.
The would-be developer deserves no sympathy because the proposal is now tainted, probably irretrievably, even before its economic, planning and aesthetic merits have been assessed. It hired lobbyists for their connections and capacity to influence Labor politicians. If the scheme needed this sort of inside influence, one is entitled to expect that there's something unconvincing about net public benefit, the externalities, and the public interest.
One question it invites is whether senior officials in the ACT administration are giving their government frank and honest advice about value for money, where the public interest lies, and about good process and administration. Or whether they even have the expertise with which to do so. One has to hope so, if without much confidence, given the government's enthusiasm for appointing enthusiasts and apologists, and its open impatience with process.
But one can be reasonably sure that no one will find out from FOI. The ACT has the weakest FOI Act in Australia, possibly the world.
Ayers, who started his public service life as a social worker/prison officer at Pentridge, alongside a lot of old mates, came to Canberra in 1967 to head the ACT welfare system, then became a social welfare adviser in PM&C. He headed Aboriginal affairs, then social security and was involved in the Block review of practical public service management.
A pacifist, he became head of Defence almost by accident. He made ministers look good, and did not lose many, and almost everyone he worked for revered him. He had a great zest for engagement, as well as a tender care for tending and rehabilitating the wounded. His "club" – the Emperor Court at Yarralumla – was his first aid station.
He was not a leaker, and he was sensitive to the political needs of government, not least with reflexes to protect both ministers and governments from themselves. He counselled me decades ago that leaders are only ever remembered for the quality of their appointments, and the way they develop, shape, and inspire the careers of others. Those who attend his funeral on Tuesday will see from the attendance how content he deserves to have been with his own record.
In years of conversations, and lots of Chinese food, I heard him complain about a million ways of the world, and trends in government, public administration, law and order and social justice. They were continuous seminars on good government – if all too often based on bad examples.
But I cannot remember his ever complaining that he was unable to serve his ministers as well as he might because of the risk that his advice might, if it came into the public domain, embarrass government. Nor can I remember his arguing, even to one of his proteges Alan Hawke (who performed an FOI review for the last government) that high level political advice needed more protection under the law than it was getting. Or as three recent heads of PM&C have argued, that the law ought to be amended, to weaken access rights under the act so as to protect better administration.
Some of Ayers' old colleagues might retort that Ayers needed little personal protection from FOI because he rarely committed anything to writing, and, generally, superintended a process of having expert advice being delivered by bright young deputy secretaries rather than by himself.
When Ayers retired and was being feted by his colleagues, a most senior public servant commented to me that in all the years that he was a colleague of Ayers, he had never seen him with a piece of paper in his hand, nor remembered ever reading anything written by him. Perhaps that was so, but it failed to recognise how much Ayers was across the advice flowing to ministers. Ayers managed by moving around. Most of his time and effort (and intelligent delegation) went into ensuring that the advice which went was the best of which his department was capable. The Ayers signature was discernible enough, as was, in time, who had won and lost the arguments.
The dying days of the first Turnbull government are seeing the revival of a piece of permanent anti-accountability agenda at the top levels of government. There's Martin Parkinson, heads of prime minister and cabinet, a former Treasury head wrongly sacked by Tony Abbott, in part for earlier having been associated with climate change policy.
Parkinson's predecessor, Michael Thawley, moaned about the constraints of FOI just before he returned to financial and political advising in the US. Both seem to take it for granted that modern frank advice now needs be oral, not in writing, so as to frustrate the media and others who might embarrass the government. Both recognise that, if that happens, there can be problems with good government, and frank and fearless advice, because decisions are not well documented, and institutional memory fails.
And there is Peter Shergold, a former secretary of prime minister's, and also a former head of the public service agency, who thinks that one of the reasons public administration is going to hell in a handbasket is because of FOI.
Shergold, as commissioner nearly two decades ago, was the big advocate of public service reform, and adopted, enthusiastically, the idea that the public service was timorous and risk averse. It seems, if one reads his report for the Abbott government, that his reforms did not work. Senior public servants, so many of whose careers were shaped by his reforms, are still, it seems too scared to take risks, and too scared to be frank and fearless. Shergold's confidence that he had devised the right protections for their independence, integrity and expertise, was not, it seems, justified.
The answer, apparently, is to make public servants less publicly accountable for what they tell the government.
Shergold has adopted, virtually, without criticism a royal commission report by Ian Hanger into the administration of the government's roof insulation scheme, as well as a far-from-disinterested review of the Labor Party's administration of the National Broadband Network to ask the rhetorical question of why many big government projects fail.
The answer is not, apparently, that the genesis of such schemes comes from quick and dirty ideas in the minds of politicians and their minders and urgers (NBN) or Treasury and PM&C (roof insulation). Such players in the cabinet process largely escape criticism or censure from Hanger and Shergold, and, surprise, surprise, the paper trail on central control and organisation of these fiascos is surprisingly thin.
The problem with roof insulation, it seems, was incompetence, timidity and lack of frankness by the hapless folk handed responsibility for a project imagined elsewhere and told to implement it in an impossibly short time. By folk whose agencies had been structured, in part by people such as heads of PM&C and Finance, in such a way that they lack program management capacity. With NBN, the real problem was not FOI, but just the sort of "can-do" "bugger process" approach that modern public service "reformers" seem to want.
These supposed disasters are easy to criticise, because the projects are Rudd-era ones. The Abbott government, which commissioned and received the Shergold Review, had been keen to make continuing political capital from claims that any deficiencies were probably criminally negligent.
A Shergold might need more agility, innovation and resilience to critique modern coalition catastrophes, such as the VET blowouts and coalition NBN.
"The program design and implementation of the HIP and the NBN were compromised by the APS failing to provide robust advice," Shergold says. "Public servants did not draw sufficiently on external views and expertise, and the partial evidence they did muster was unable to exert influence through its advice to ministers. There was a failure to provide sufficiently frank and forthright advice to ministers on important elements of policy design and risk.
"There was a significant gap between the inadequate levels of candour displayed in written advice and that reportedly conveyed in oral briefings. Public servants failed to keep detailed records of key decisions and how they were arrived at, nor did they put into writing concerns regarding design features of the program, despite testimony that this was raised orally with ministers.
"The APS, Hanger concluded, 'ought to reinvigorate its willingness to provide, in writing, advice that is as frank and robust as the advice it is willing to give verbally'."
Shergold or Hanger is right about the last bit. Where he is wrong, flat wrong, is in thinking that any public service to protect the minister overrides the duty to give frank, robust and (generally) written advice. Experience shows, more often than not, that the arse being covered is not the minister's, but the public servant's.
It does cabinet a lot less harm than public servants, or minders, think to have it known that ministers were aware that there were other possibilities, and that they canvassed other solutions. And over and over it has been shown that a system which does not properly record its decisions ends up forgetting why it made them.
Turnbull, for one, is happy enough to think aloud, and openly canvas alternatives. On this issue, assuming he survives, he should be looking for broader advice than that being volunteered to him. He, and we, need people like Tony Ayers.