Finance Minister Mathias Cormann seems not to appreciate the irony of his frequent claims about the "methodical" proceedings of the Abbott government.
Can anyone believe that last year's budget, not helped by Tony Shepherd's amateurish National Commission of Audit report, was prepared methodically? It's come an absolute gutser because it imposed the principal burden of "fiscal repair" on the less well-off and marked the beginning of a grave decline in the government's fortunes.
Since the budget, the government has been as methodical as a spaniel pup. It's made the Rudd, McMahon and Hughes governments look relatively well-ordered, while Julia Gillard's shines on the near horizon as a comparative paradise of sound administration and rational policy.
While opposition leader, Tony Abbott was fond of saying Gillard was our worst prime minister; that distinction is now his. He's become the Captain Queeg of Australian politics.
Amid the government's disorder, Cormann is, in one respect, trying to apply the discipline of "methodical" thinking to the number and shape of government organisations. It's been a hit-and-miss affair but at least he's having a go.
In the middle of 2014, Cormann released a paper titled Smaller and more rational government setting out, among other things, the abolition of a significant number of agencies and haircuts for others.
In December, associated with the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook released that month, Cormann produced a further paper titled Smaller government – towards a sustainable future. It flagged the abolition or merger of a further 175 statutory authorities, advisory committees and the like.
Cormann has also released a policy statement that, he says, "strengthens governance requirements at the establishment phase and provides constitutional design principles that will help shape the strategic management of functions throughout the life cycle of a government body". Get the idea? Yes, the document is badly written and has more typographical and grammatical errors than the average newspaper article.
Nevertheless, some of the guidance in the policy statement is sound. For example, it:
Unfortunately, Cormann's policy statement is markedly inferior to guidelines for statutory authorities and public sector business enterprises produced by the Hawke government in 1987. These guidelines are more clearly expressed and far more comprehensive. For example, they include advice on ministerial responsibility and powers of direction, the form and membership of governing boards, annual reporting, the appointment and tenure of statutory officers and their terms and conditions, the position of departmental officers on statutory boards, general staffing arrangements and the question of subsidiaries including companies.
None of these things are covered in Cormann's policy, which is surprisingly less forthcoming on financial management. That is, the government now has a policy on the machinery of government that is weaker and less helpful than a 1987 policy.
Moreover, there's room to quibble about some of the guidance in the Cormann paper.
First, the initial "gateway test" for setting up a new agency is whether "the Commonwealth has the constitutional power to undertake an activity". Guidance perhaps, but do responsible officials need to be reminded of the bleeding obvious?
Second, Cormann specifies "as a general principle" the use of "sunset" provisions, whereby reviews of organisations are scheduled five or more years after their creation. This may be fine where tasks are finite but it is silly to program reviews of agencies with continuing functions years in advance. Agencies should be reviewed when there is a need to do so and it will generally not be possible to predict that need five or 10 years in advance. For a government devoted to rooting out unnecessary regulation, this is a pointless embuggerance.
Third, and perhaps most seriously, Cormann's paper is insufficiently perceptive about the need for some government functions to be performed independently of ministers and governments. It says that:
This is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go near far enough.
The primary reason for creating agencies separate from departments is the need for their functions to be performed independently from ministers.
It is inconceivable, for example, to have the ABC or the SBS operated from within the Department of Communications or for the Tax Office to be a part of the Treasury. It is in no one's interest for there to be the slightest perception that ministers may be directing the content of public broadcasters or involving themselves in decisions about the tax obligations of individuals.
That also goes for decisions about who is admitted into the country as a refugee, where there are equally strong reasons of principle as to why such decisions should not be politicised by having ministers make them. That is, the need for independence in government functions goes way beyond regulatory authorities, cops and spooks – indeed, these are relatively minor players in the scheme of things.
The incompleteness of Cormann's ruminations about the need for independence in some government functions is as nothing compared to the Abbott government's insensitivity to the need for appointments to independent statutory positions to be based on merit rather than political affiliation. Filling statutory positions with political fellow travellers undermines their independence always as a matter of perception and often in reality. This is exactly what has happened.
The rot set in early when Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop, whose awful behaviour in Senate estimates hearings did much to politicise them, was nominated by the government to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives. In this role, her record speaks for itself. Since she's been in the job, she has suspended members on 285 occasions – only five have been from the government benches.
With this triumph under his belt, Abbott picked good old Maurice Newman, who helped found the conservative "think tank" the Centre for Independent Studies, as his business adviser. He also made Gerard Henderson, a person not well known for leftist views, a judge of the Prime Minister's Literary Awards.
Then Arts Minister George "Bookshelves" Brandis booted the journalist Barry Cassidy off the Old Parliament House advisory council because Cassidy said he wanted to maintain its "apolitical and non-partisan character". Brandis then shamelessly replaced Cassidy with Rod Kemp, a former Liberal minister and denizen of the Institute of Public Affairs, a noisy, conservative organisation that spends much of its time barracking for the Abbott government. To make his motives clear, "Bookshelves" then appointed the crusty monarchist, Quadrant contributor and ill-informed critic of Sir Frederick Wheeler, Sir David "Davo" Smith, to the council.
Others from the Institute of Public Affairs have been favoured. Tim Wilson got the nod for the Human Rights Commission and John Lloyd has been made Public Service Commissioner, where he will be expected to help preserve the "apolitical" nature of the public service and advance the cause of open, merit-based procedures he did not have to endure to become the commissioner.
More recently, "Bookshelves" got back into the act, appointing former NSW Liberal Peter Collins and Howard government minister Ian Campbell (who once boasted about causing a recession in Canberra) to the board of the Australian National Maritime Museum, former Liberal-National House of Representatives member Paul Neville to the board of the National Film and Sound Archive and former ACT Liberal senator Gary Humphries as a deputy president of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – all these on the one day.
The list goes on and on.
Late last month, prominent businessman Andrew Mohl was reported as saying he was not reappointed to the Export Finance Insurance Corporation because of an Abbott government decision not to renew the terms of any directors appointed under Labor. If true, this shocking allegation is the pits of impropriety and makes a mockery of Cormann's efforts to ensure Commonwealth agencies are as efficient and effective as possible. The government should come clean on this.
All governments tend to roll out a few jobs for the boys and girls but it's hard to remember a government that has been more relentlessly partisan than Abbott's. The unavoidable impression of this wholesale stacking of statutory positions is that the government is trying to bend authorities to its will.
Nowhere, however, has Abbott's politicisation of appointments been more forcefully on show than in his reintroduction of knighthoods and damehoods into the Australian honours system. Awards in the Order of Australia are considered by an independent committee that advises the governor-general. Politicians are excluded from the process although they are free to make nominations for the committee to consider.
Abbott's decisions on knights and dames go through no such process; they are selected on his whim and approved as a matter of course by the Queen. She could hardly say no. As laughable as the recent fiasco with the Duke of Edinburgh was, the more important point is that these awards are not real knighthoods: in substance, they're Abbotthoods, doled out in the absence of any due process by one of the country's most unpopular and inept prime ministers. For Abbott to say he's now going to consult more widely simply shows he doesn't get it. By any respectable standard of modern governance, he should not be involved in the process at all.
So Cormann needs to think more deeply about the role of independence in decisions about the machinery of government. And the Prime Minister should refrain from undercutting Cormann's good work by his ruthless politicisation of statutory and other appointments.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
But let's conclude on a matter of unadulterated farce: the state of enterprise bargaining in Commonwealth employment.
At the first whiff of grapeshot over tiny pay increases for the Australian Defence Force, the government simply withdrew part of its justification for them: the "rationalisation" (read reduction) of certain conditions of employment, an unscrupulous concession that was rubber-stamped by a supine Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal.
Meanwhile, staff in Eric Abetz's Employment Department voted by a large margin to refuse a pay offer considerably lower than that given to the ADF. It was based significantly on reductions in employment conditions that had nothing to do with productivity, improvements in which are supposed to fund new agreements. That is, Abetz is not abiding by his own policies. Ministerial hypocrisy rarely gets worse.
Then Abetz wrote to The Canberra Times, saying the rate of increase in public service wages has been exceeding the rate of price increases and private sector wage increases. These considerations are irrelevant to his policy, which links improvements in remuneration to internal productivity. Thus, if an agency could improve productivity by 20 per cent, Abetz's policy would allow an equivalent pay increase regardless of what is going on the wider labour market. How stupid is that?
Finally, in his letter to the Times, Abetz defines productivity gains as "demonstrable, permanent improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and/or output of employees, based on improvements in work practices or conditions". How many times does this need to be said: this is not what productivity means. Productivity is improved by increasing units of output per hour worked. Abetz doesn't seem to understand that employees could increase their output or become more efficient but their productivity may go down. Abetz is wholly out of his depth as minister for the public service. He should be given a job he can do or he'll never get an Abbotthood.
Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.