Phil Gaetjens, former Treasury official, former boss of Scott Morrison's private office and now head of the Prime Minister's Department, is an unusual public servant who seems to have accepted it as his lot that he is never going to be regarded as any sort of detached public servant independent of the government of the day.
Right now, he is again making us wait on a report about what Morrison's minders knew about an alleged rape in Parliament House.
He's not the first head of PM&C to have had a background of working directly for politicians, or of being closely associated with a particular side of politics. But his relationship with his boss is as much intimate as professional, and he seems to lack the power to resist tasks more fit for the courtier than for the steward. Neither politics nor public administration is improved as a result.
A good example of the problem might be in his acceptance of the Prime Minister's request that he investigate grants to sporting organisations made in the sports rorts affair. The Auditor-General, Grant Hehir, had been very critical of the way the grants had been administered, and it appeared that they had been sharply politically focused on Coalition seats and marginal Labor seats the Coalition had been hoping to win at the 2019 election. There was considerable evidence of close supervision of the grants process by the Prime Minister's office.
While Gaetjens found that the minister for sport had breached ministerial standards by having a conflict of interest, he essentially rejected the auditor's findings. There was, he said, "no basis for the suggestion that political considerations were the primary determining factor" in the grants. Such considerations had not unduly influenced the decision-making process.
To be fair to Mr Gaetjens, outsiders were never able to read the actual report, and had to accept in its place a self-serving summary from the Prime Minister. The report was unable to be publicly accessed, being said to have been prepared for cabinet - a fairly standard swizz of modern government (originally invented by Kevin Rudd while working for the Queensland government) for avoiding public accountability.
But under questioning in Senate committees it was quite apparent that Gaetjens interpreted his brief (whatever that was, because it was not disclosed either) very narrowly, and that his curiosity did not extend to very much detail of the grant-giving, including the colour-coding of grants by the party that held the relevant seats. Nor did he seem to interview very many people involved in the process, or later, to show much intimate understanding of facts outlined by the auditor that were not in contest.
It certainly makes it appear that Gaetjens has let himself be used for crude political purposes, which has devalued his cred.
His report, as abbreviated by Morrison, served its political purpose - of appearing to "exonerate" Morrison personally, and the government generally of credible accusations of an outrageous rort of public money for party-political purposes. The Gaetjens report presented the public with no new perspective. Nor did it draw attention to facts the auditor had failed to take into account. Morrison demonstrated no keenness to use either the factual findings or the arguments Gaetjens used to come to conclusions 180 degrees opposite to the Auditor-General. It was sufficient merely to say that there was a document - secret, as it turned out - that contradicted what was on the record.
If Gaetjens was used, and for a directly political purpose, it hasn't seemed to trouble him. Nor has the damage to the standing of his office seemed to affect his willingness to conduct investigations when requested by the government. But his reports have not done the government much good in the public domain. The credibility and public standing of the Auditor-General, for example, stands well above that of Gaetjens, before and after the Gaetjens report. It is difficult to see how anyone, other than those who directly benefit, would pretend to take the Gaetjens report seriously, or to think it objective or useful. If anything, the secret report - whatever it said - diminished the standing and credibility of Gaetjens in the eye of the public at large, and in the public service. The reaction of many who had previously served at his level of the public service, both in PM&C and other senior departments, was scathing.
Phil Gaetjens is not the only senior public servant who can appear, from the outside, to lack independence, even when being asked for an objective opinion. There's all too much advice coming to government which is presented as independent judgment but has been prepared by consultants who know where their bread is buttered. It is even getting to the point that some "independent" reports are being reworked in ministers' offices, before being issued as disinterested expertise.
Generally the quality of public service reports is higher. But there have been occasions when public servants purporting to act independently have shown remarkable attraction to particularly unsuitable consultants, who would be considered by the public as virtually guaranteed in advance to deliver a result favouring the government. The reputation of senior public servants in Finance - indeed, the reputation of the department itself - was seriously affected by a major error of judgment in selecting a law firm to pass judgment on the conduct of minister Michael Sukkar. Before going into politics, Sukkar had worked for that very firm.
If the Department of Finance - the supposed guardian of public money, proper process and adherence to the spirit and letter of the law - now sets such slack standards, one must wonder whether we have a system of constitutional government at all. It is badly in need of better leadership, and it seems clear that this is not going to come from the minister. As General Dave Morrison once said, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.
In more recent times, Phil Gaetjens accepted another prime ministerial brief quite unsuitable for a person in his office - of establishing just who in the PMO knew or was in any way involved in the aftermath of an alleged rape in the office of the then Minister for Defence Industry, Linda Reynolds, before the May 2019 election. It was the more unsuitable for him because of his past direct association with the PMO.
Even before a mysterious conversation with the AFP Commissioner, Reece Kershaw, brought the investigation to a temporary halt, Gaetjens did not appear to be treating this investigation with any great urgency, a matter that very much suited the interests of the government of the day. After some delay, the investigation seems to have resumed, if with the same glacial pace: Gaetjens, for example, has yet to interview the complainant. This week, before a Senate committee, he refused to say which members of the PMO - or other parties - had been interviewed. This was, it seems, on privacy grounds.
At the same time, a closely associated inquiry by the chief of staff of the Prime Minister, Dr John Kunkel, was sadly reporting that no member of that office would own up to having backgrounded journalists with negative information about the alleged rape victim's boyfriend. He could not find that anyone had in fact done so. Scott Morrison was quick to claim that this far-from-independent report making far-from-definite findings had "cleared" his office, and by implication himself, of suggestions that while he was expressing his well-known empathy to the victim, his henchmen were secretly defaming her partner.
Dr Kunkel's inconclusive report was contradicted by the evasive and dissembling face of the Prime Minister in Parliament, as well as by said Prime Minister's characteristic misrepresentation of its contents.
No one would suggest that Dr Kunkel would suppress information presented to him on a platter by a very foolish PMO staffer, but no one imagines that the want of a positive result was in spite of a vigorous inquisition. One might assume, after all, that people so directly in the PM's employ would have watched him fudge, prevaricate, haver and dissemble about the question in a long series of question times. At the very least, the PM's approach suggested guilty knowledge, and was hardly likely to encourage the production of any evidence not already drowned in Lake Burley Griffin.
Even with the minder system, senior public servants will inevitably be involved in giving governments close political advice. The duty and, one might say, the purpose of a secretary of PM&C is to help the government of the day succeed in its policy hopes and intentions, and if he, or one day a she, does that well, a consequence may be that the government is re-elected. In this sense, the head of PM&C simply cannot help but be political, and with a focus, while the government is in power, of helping the government.
One can do all of this while being able and willing to serve a succeeding government in exactly the same way. In recent times, at least since the accession of Paul Keating as prime minister, it has become usual for a new prime minister to have a new secretary - if usually already a senior public servant - at his side. But even where the two have had some rapport and relationship - such as John Howard with Max Moore-Wilton, for example - this has not usually been seen as a directly "political appointment" in the manner of the US system when an administration changes.
There was little doubt that Moore-Wilton, for example, preferred to serve Liberal governments and agreed with most of their policies, but he maintained proper distance and was often critical of developments, for example about the activities of minders and ministerial staff. He was also conscious that he was, as head of PM&C, de facto head of the public service, with a duty, along with the public service commissioner, to preserve and defend its independence and its professionalism. That included, sometimes, defending the rights of public servants in conflict with the government, or organising exits that respected their rights.
Some would say that the greater the perception of political and personal closeness between a prime minister and his top public servant, the more careful both should be of offering or accepting tasks with the potential to cross the line that separates the public servant from the partisan. It is, for example, far from uncommon for governments to want short, sharp investigations to repudiate public criticism of the way that something was done. There will be occasions when this might merit a public inquiry - even a royal commission.
But there will be other times when a former judge, retired public servant, or distinguished citizen will be asked to review the materials, to advise the government about the facts and to recommend where to go. The more independent the person conducting the review, the more detached they are from the important short-term tasks of government, the more cred such reports will have. Particularly if they are - as once most used to be - made public. Over the years, regular report writers with high cred have included Tony Blunn, Andrew Menzies, Alan Hawke and Vivienne Thom. By contrast many reports - these days often secret - from favourite government consultancies have had much lower status, if only for acquiring reputations of saying exactly what government wanted to hear. In some cases, significant sections of such reports have been rewritten, without protest, in ministers' offices.
When prime ministers instead ask their most senior advisers to do reports, they are firstly taking them away from day-to-day tasks of government, which involve not only seeking to achieve what the government wants but also the routine administration of the department and other roles implicit in the job. They are secondly putting them in a position where, as a person in a continuous relationship, they must weigh how a frank and fearless report - often having consequences for ministers or the government's standing - will impair capacity to provide routine advice, or even to help the government manage the politics of a situation before the report is received. In some cases, matters that officials can be asked to report on put a department's interests up against the government's political interests.
All good reasons why a PM&C head should resist being personally drawn into handling inquiries, or being asked, in a political context, to give the government of the day a clean bill of health. Martin Parkinson did his reputation among his peers considerable damage by a report to Morrison pooh-poohing the idea that former ministers who went straight into lobbying were prostituting their former knowledge and access, and in breach of even weak ministerial codes. Very useful for government, but hardly a ringing endorsement of standards.
Gaetjens is expected to retire this year. No doubt he will leave with high credit with Coalition ministers whose interests he has served, mostly behind the scenes. But the public will have less reason to know him. He has yet to deliver a significant public speech about anything, let alone about public service, matters of duty, professional objectivity and independence of mind. There's a good chance indeed that he will be chiefly remembered for allowing his office to be used by Morrison to get him off the hook.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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