The Prime Minister is said to see Public Service Minister Ben Morton as his apprentice. Whatever might be imagined about being so related to a political tradesman like Mr Morrison, it's supercharged Mr Morton's career, getting him into cabinet just five years after he entered the Parliament.
And Morton is quick at picking up on his master's voice. So, as Morrison ducked the French President calling him a liar by saying it was a slur on Australia, Morton fumed that allegations of politicisation of the public service were an "outrageous slur ... on the public service ... that's offensive to public servants". While it's nice to see the word "slur" getting a jolly good work out, Morton's attempt to convert an allegation against the government into a slur on the public service is a sleight of hand without legs. Indeed, his claims are a slur on the citizenry, as they impute to them a gullibility they could not reasonably possess. How dumb does he think the citizens he's supposed to be serving are?
Morton says he doesn't "accept the allegations of politicisation", yet he's not reported as either facing up to any of the particulars or taking the trouble to define his terms.
Politicisation is generally understood to encompass the appointment and tenure of officials on the basis of their political sympathies, or the manipulation of policy advice and administration so governments and ministers are told what they want to hear.
So, minister, what do you have to say about the sacking of departmental secretaries without explanation, but with reasonable suspicions that at least some instances have been politically motivated? The slow and cruel removal of Dr Martin Parkinson from Treasury, possibly because of his association with the climate change policies of the Rudd/Gillard governments, is perhaps the most pointed, but not only, example. Minister, what message do you think that sends to officials about the perils of being forthright with policy advice?
How about the relatively modern habit of having the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet formally investigate and report on cases where there are doubts about the behaviour of ministers? This bad governance practice drags the head of the public service into the heart of politics, risking, at best, the appearance of politicisation of an office that is supposed to set an example of political impartiality. Subordinate officials should not be asked to investigate and judge the behaviour of their ministerial superiors who have the tenure of departmental secretaries in their hands. These matters should be decided by the Prime Minister unaided or, in exceptional circumstances, with the counsel of an outside, independent adviser. As the PM&C secretary has no place advising on ministerial appointments, so that officer should not be dealing with questions of their tenure.
What is the point of officials providing disinterested advice in the public interest ... when they know final decisions will be made on the basis of pure politics?
Then there's the apparent diminution of the critical policy role of the Treasury. In his history of the department, one of its former senior officers, Paul Tilley, says "The habit has d eveloped of not providing policy advice that ministers don't agree with." How could that be? Well, Tilley says when he was the Treasurer, "Morrison's view was that the department should not have a policy agenda ... with its role being limited to advising on and implementing government policies." Tilley also claims that Treasury was asked in one instance to provide a long list of options only, it being assured that the ministerial "office would put policy advice over the top". More recently, the Treasury was effectively kept out of developing advice on the government's climate change policies, notwithstanding their huge macro-economic consequences. Why might that be?
The politicisation of rafts of community development grants - sports facilities, car parks etc - involving hundreds of millions of dollars has become proverbial. In this unfortunate line of business the government continues to favour Coalition electorates with largesse, while rejecting public service advice ostensibly trying to achieve greater evenhandedness in the public interest. That is to say, what is the point of officials providing disinterested advice in the public interest on the allocation of community grants when they know final decisions will be made on the basis of pure politics?
Finally, why has the government filled so many vacancies on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with persons associated with it, leading the Australian Law Council to say that these appointments "may give rise to an apprehension that [Tribunal] decisions are affected by political considerations and therefore compromise the reputation of the Tribunal"?
There are many more such examples, but these give the flavour of the government's actions and decisions on which allegations about the growing politicisation of the administration. These allegations are not a slur on the public service - they're a criticism of what the government has done. If Mr Morton doesn't have the guts to defend those actions, he ought to put a sock in it rather than trying ineptly to slide away from his responsibilities.
Then, while putting one foot in it on politicisation, Mr Morton has done likewise with his other on public service pay.
Last year the minister replaced an already absurd pay policy with one at the very peaks of absurdity - possibly the most ridiculous such policy in the known history of public administration in any country at any time. Rather than basing increases in remuneration on productivity bargains at the agency level, allowing maximum pay increases of 2 per cent a year, Mr Morton linked pay increases to the ABS index of private-sector wage increases.
The reason for this idiocy was presumably that, since 2013, the private-sector wage index has lagged behind the public-sector one, while indicating increases both below and above 2 per cent. The average annual increase in the index per quarter since 2015 has been 1.9 per cent. In the June quarter this year, the private index exceeded the public one, 1.9 per cent to 1.3 per cent.
Now Mr Morton has thrown down the gauntlet to the main public service union, asking if public servants would be better off under his new policy or the old one. On the basis of recent history, they would have been marginally worse off under his new policy, although he claims private-sector wage growth will "grow past 2 per cent". Maybe, although if wage growth exceeds that in recent years, it would not be feasible to maintain a 2 per cent cap in any event.
Chasing movements in wage indexes is a fundamentally unsound basis for fixing pay. That's not what sensible private companies do. The public sector is the most relevant point of comparison. What is important is for levels of remuneration in the public service to match those in outside labour markets, especially public-sector ones, on an occupational category basis.
If that were to be done, it would be logically necessary, and to the benefit of all, for rates of pay and other conditions to be fixed on a uniform, APS-wide basis, as many conditions such as superannuation, workers' compensation, maternity and long service leave now are. This would ditch a quarter of a century of foolish attachment by both Coalition and ALP governments to devolved agency bargaining with its massive transaction costs and greater inefficiency without any evidence of improved productivity; indeed, it's most likely labour productivity has gone backwards.
If Mr Morton were to arrange for public service remuneration to be fixed on the basis of matching levels paid by other employers for comparable work, he could, with solid justification, begin to blow his bazoo - because he would have not only a fair and rational remuneration policy, but one properly supporting the recruitment, retention and motivation of staff. For the moment, the minister's hare-brained policy doesn't do that. It is a matter of shame and embarrassment which he would be sensible not to draw attention to, still less boast about. It might be hoped that the prime ministerial master might be able to teach his apprentice a few uncomplicated lessons - hoping against hope, if you will.
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