It is becoming increasingly tricky to line up the behaviour of some senior Commonwealth officials with their legislated ''values'' of political impartiality and accountability.
It is easy to feel sorry for the Treasury secretary, Martin Parkinson, whom the government is sacking slowly. It told him just after the election he was unwanted and Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the secretary will be gone by the end of this year. Why Parkinson has allowed the government to inflict this protracted departure, with all its attendant difficulties, on him is anyone's guess. In the nicest possible way, he could have told Abbott to stick his job and taken up lucrative work in the private sector as have many of his predecessors.
In the circumstances, it would have been understandable if Parkinson had become prickly about government economic policy; goodness knows there is room enough. Instead, he has come out swinging against those who've had the temerity to criticise the ''not your ordinary Joe'' budget. In a speech early last month, he said: ''It is one thing to argue that reform proposals should be designed with fairness in mind … It is quite another to invoke vague notions of fairness to oppose all reform.''
Vague notions? What on earth is Parkinson talking about? He should send some runners to and fro to see how ''vague'' unemployed young people find the budget's move to deny them any government support for six months and tie them up in a dispiriting, useless thicket of job-application red tape.
Apart from falling for the disingenuous error of claiming all change as ''reform'', Parkinson's barracking for the budget fits ill with Public Service Commission warnings against officials ''advocating or being perceived to advocate a government position'' and avoiding ''partisan comment''. That's exactly how his comments were taken up in ''the media''. In a contribution to John Menadue's blog, a former fellow secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Michael Keating, said Parkinson's outburst was ''an almost unprecedented intervention into political debate''. ''Almost'' indeed, especially for those who can remember the antics of J. O. Stone when he was in Parkinson's position at Treasury donkey's years ago.
Then there is the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, a military officer being wasted on a civilian job. At a Senate committee on July 11, Campbell made what he called an opening ''contextual statement'' covering the waterfront, if you will, on asylum seekers. It could have been made by the minister, so full was it of references to ''profiteering criminals'', ''organised criminals … motivated by profit not compassion'', ''the price of border security is eternal vigilance'' and so on and on.
When he finished, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young asked about the location of the Australian boat that was holding more than 150 asylum seekers, whose case is before the High Court. Campbell stonewalled and asked the committee chairwoman, Greens senator Penny Wright, if ''questions beyond the specific subject of this committee's hearing are open to discussion''. Wright said they were and helpfully pointed to the inquiry's terms of reference about ''any other related matter''.
But the general had one up his sleeve and said the matter raised by Hanson-Young was ''under consideration by the High Court, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment further''. This is an abusive use of the sub judice rule. It does not provide a blanket excuse for not commenting on matters before courts, especially if there is a competing public interest. It exists to deter public comment prejudicial to court proceedings and their results, particularly in criminal cases before juries.
Some days before Campbell's evidence, Commonwealth counsel had told the High Court where the asylum seeker boat in question was intercepted. How the disclosure of the location of the Australian government boat on which these asylum seekers were being held could in any way prejudice High Court proceedings affecting them is beyond rational imagination. These people are now getting a bracing Australian welcome at the Curtin air force base base in remote Western Australia, and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is not allowing sub judice rules to prevent him from making potentially prejudicial comments about how none of our temporary guests will face any problems if they are taken to India.
Campbell should bone up on Public Service Commission advice that official witnesses at parliamentary committees ''should not refuse to answer questions allowed by the committee chair, unless directed by the minister''. That might come as a shock to him, as he seems to think he is responsible for deciding what is said or not said about Operation Sovereign Borders. Who could blame him, when the minister justifies refusing to be accountable by citing ''communication protocols'' handed down by the general.
Let's be clear: within the provisions of the law, it is for ministers, not military or civilian officials, to decide what information is released by governments. Morrison's hiding behind the khaki skirt of Campbell's ''protocols'' is just another example of misusing the military for political ends.
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Let's go now to the PM&C secretary, Ian Watt. He recently distinguished himself, in a manner of speaking, by appointing Janet Albrechtsen and Neil Brown to the nominations panel responsible for making recommendations to the government on appointments to the boards of the ABC and the SBS.
To appreciate the significance of these appointments, it is necessary to go back to about 2010, when the Parliament legislated to depoliticise appointments to the ABC and SBS boards. (Albrechtsen can claim some of the credit, for, in part, it was her controversial appointment to the ABC board in 2005 that motivated the law change. Both Albrechtsen and Brown have been reasonably described as ''dyed-in-the-wool culture warriors from a long way to the right of the political spectrum''; that is, people unsuited to board positions at the ABC or SBS, or involvement in those appointments.)
Anyway, the 2010 laws included:
- selection criteria for appointment to the boards;
- a ban on appointing politicians and their senior staff within 12 months of them ceasing such jobs;
- a nominations panel to make recommendations to government about appointments to the boards;
- a requirement for the government to table statements of reason if people without a nominations panel recommendation were to be appointed; and
- the vesting in the PM&C secretary of an unqualified power to appoint people to the nominations panel.
As the second-reading speech made clear, the purpose of the legislation was to take ''politics out of the appointment process and focus on getting the best candidates on boards''. In appointing a couple of ''dyed-in-the-wool cultural warriors'' to the panel, Watt has brought politics back into the appointment process. The current members of the panel, former departmental secretary Ric Smith and businessman David Gonski, bring no obvious political baggage to their task; it's hard to see that Albrechtsen and Brown will bring anything other than political baggage.
How did Watt get to make these appointments? The Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, says he was not consulted and: ''You have to assume that Dr Watt chose Neil Brown and Janet Albrechtsen in his own discretion.'' It is to be hoped this is not so, for that looks too much like an official suppressing what should be his better judgment to enjoy the favour of his political masters.
It would have been better if Watt had received an instruction from Abbott (or someone acting on his behalf) as to whom to appoint to the nominations panel and, if he intended to abide by such an instruction, that he asked for it to be put in writing and he recorded his views about it on the file.
But we don't know what he did. Watt was asked a number of questions about the processes he followed. He said he did not wish to comment. So while allowing the public service ''value'' of accountability to languish, Watt lets doubts linger about whether he behaved in a politically partial way. However that may be, the intention of the law has been subverted.
These cases are concerning because they involve behaviour at the most senior levels of the public service that does not sit well with values in the Public Service Act about political impartiality and accountability. They are not a great example for other staff and they degrade the capacity of the most senior staff to promote the values as they should, a special responsibility for the PM&C secretary, who is the nominal head of the public service.
But is something more serious amiss? While public servants must be subservient to ministers, could it be that Kevin Rudd's appalling administrative record, the extensive outsourcing of policy advice and management to often ill-equipped and ignorant consultants, the without-reason sacking of departmental secretaries, the Abbott government's relentless selection of political mates for senior statutory and other positions, and the apparent growth in the power of ministerial staff has made senior officials more timid and docile in dealing with governments? It is hard to know but, if it has, government administration and the wider public interest has lost something of great value.
In particular, any loss of confidence within the leadership of the public service will likely mean that the Prime Minister and his ministers will not receive the quality of advice they need. We might not need to go back to the robust days of sirs Frederick Wheeler, Arthur Tange and Lenox Hewitt, but we may now be at the wrong end of that spectrum. The danger is that ministers and their staff will, over time, instinctively operate on an assumption that public service advice on critical matters of national interest can simply be ignored in favour of whatever favourite court jester is passing by.
This should be a prime topic for the Public Service Commission's annual State of the Service report, though secretaries of departments should be among the last to be consulted in any related investigations. Ministers, however, should be at the front of the queue. And plenty of sodium pentathol should be kept on hand.
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Finally, to conclude on an even more depressing note. As could have been predicted, the negotiations over pay and conditions in the public service are beginning to unravel.
The policy introduced by Employment Minister Eric Abetz maintained agency-based bargaining but with stricter requirements that any improvements in remuneration be wholly funded from ''productivity'' gains.
Recent reports suggest that bargains in the departments of defence and social services will seek to justify small pay increases on the basis of things like slightly longer hours of work, slower career progression, reduced ability to accrue leave and so on. None of these things have anything whatsoever to do with productivity; if anything, they are likely to reduce it.
What appears to be happening is utterly inconsistent with the minister's policy, and presumably he and the Public Service Commission will not approve any bargains that involve trading off conditions of employment for pay increases.
Abetz was asked if he intended to get the current negotiations back on a track consistent with his policy. He didn't answer the question other than to say he did not wish to provide a ''running commentary'' on what was going on. He now has three options - two invidious and stupid, and one sensible:
- Allow things to proceed as at present and then not approve the bargains if reports about their justification are correct.
- Change his policy to fit it around what is apparently going on.
- Start again on the basis of a policy that says the public service should seek to set remuneration for its staff in a reasonably competitive position with rates for comparable work in the general labour market.
There are no prizes for picking the invidious, stupid options.
Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. email@example.com