It was all a very pre-COVID affair in August last year when Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave his last pep talk to the public service. Audience members sat close together in the Great Hall at Parliament House and could safely shake hands, if the desire so took them. It was a ceremonious event, and so very 2019 as to sound kind of alien, now.
Mr Morrison's latest coach's address to the federal bureaucracy last week was, by contrast, very much of COVID times. He was in isolation in The Lodge, having returned home from Japan, and spoke in a virtual forum. His message to public servants was also different in one important way.
Last year he told them their role was more about implementing the government's policy than giving advice. This year his expectations of the bureaucracy appeared to have shifted, if judging by what he described as its successes in 2020. He shared credit with public servants for the JobKeeper wage subsidy program said to have saved hundreds of thousands of jobs.
In 2021, the Prime Minister said, he wants public servants fresh and ready for a year working on economic recovery and rebuilding.
"We will be asking for fresh thinking and new ideas," he said. That is, the government will seek policy advice.
Is this a Damascene conversion about the role of the public service in government? The shift in Mr Morrison's rhetoric is small but indicates the bureaucracy won't just be a drudge in the broader, longer task of national recovery from the pandemic. At the start of the crisis the Prime Minister assembled private sector figures to lead a commission, and asked it to think up an economic plan. It was something of a snub to the people who had been trained and versed in just that sort of work in the government's very own bureaucracy. If history was a useful guide then Mr Morrison seemed to ignore the pivotal role bureaucrats played helping the Curtin, Chifley and Menzies governments rebuild Australia following its greatest ever challenge.
Beware, though, the words of politicians and especially ones so deft at marketing as Mr Morrison. Perhaps more than most MPs, he matches his message to his audience.
Consider this compliment to the Australian Public Service last week, coming from the man who took Canberra-bashing to new lows in popularising the phrase "Canberra bubble": "You know, a lot is said about this town, in particular ... A lot's been said about it in the past, about how it only looks inward at itself and it doesn't connect with the rest of the country. Well, I think the Australian Public Service has done a lot this year to disprove that."
A lot has been said on that, Prime Minister. In fact, you said it.
His compliment was two-edged, but take it as praise, public servants. But also consider who gave it, and maybe take the whole speech with a grain of salt. Mr Morrison, like prime ministers before him, has become happy to associate himself with the public service as the times prove its advice to be indispensable. In 2019, it was a different story when he held the bureaucracy at arm's length and told it to think less for the government.
Once again, Canberra has shown itself a necessary and invaluable forum for work that protects and rebuilds the nation. Of course the Prime Minister is praising the public service. Maybe he will also give the Canberra-bashing a rest for good, now, too. He needs his bureaucrats fresh for 2021, after all.