What are the major parties' plans for the public service after the election? We don't really know. There are hints only. There has been no announcement of a public service policy with any degree of what former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd might call detailed programmatic specificity.
The Labor Party national platform has a section on the public service (page 70). There is no guarantee it's what a newly elected Labor government would do. Past Labor governments have routinely ignored their party platform. In any case, it is high level and abstract. It says Labor will rebuild the capability and capacity of the public service to deliver better outcomes for the community. But how? What measures exactly does this involve?
Most of what Labor identifies in its platform for the public service are things the Coalition could equally claim credit for: secure and fairly remunerated jobs; flexible working conditions; opportunities for advancement; continuous education; diversity; oversight by the parliament, auditor and Ombudsman, and so on. Trade union engagement not so much, and criticisms of outsourcing not at all. But otherwise, the two parties are on much the same page.
A better idea of Labor's plans comes from an in depth and honest interview with Anthony Albanese by The Canberra Times last August. Among other things he addressed political appointments at the top of the public service head-on, refusing to guarantee all the people concerned would be retained if there were to be a change of government (a stand previous newly elected Labor governments have not taken, much to their own detriment).
There have been speeches from Labor's shadow ministers that also provide hints of a different approach. Jim Chalmers, shadow treasurer, said in a speech last year to the Economics Society if Labor won "I want to ensure the Treasury is at the very centre of the action where it belongs".
The Liberal party has a federal platform, also at a high level of abstraction. It starts with the party's beliefs, the challenges of national building and "The Liberal Way". The section on "governing well" commits to limited government and providing assistance to the private sector only where there is a clear public benefit - although recent auditor-general reports on grants programs cast doubt on whether that's always the case. It also says "Liberals support governments open to public scrutiny and with effective mechanisms of accountability". Those mechanisms don't appear to include a federal integrity agency, plans for which have been put on hold.
The more detailed outline is in Prime Minister Scott Morrison's speech to the public service in August 2019 - notable for its dismissal of the public service to an implementation role, while ministers made the policy decisions. It's dated but remains the clearest expression of how the Prime Minister thought about the public service.
Early in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic there were hopes among public servants they might regain a more strategic role, working in partnership with the government. It seemed like that for a while. Health department bureaucrats and chief medical officers were given greater prominence in decision-making, and Treasury played a central role in devising the economic response to the pandemic. At the end of 2020 the Prime Minister went so far as to praise the work of the public service in a speech to the parliament.
It has not lasted. The government has again lost faith in the ability of the public service to deliver. This is in part due to missteps in pandemic policy and operations on the part of public servants themselves, including what appeared to be inconsistent advice from the advisory group on vaccines ATAGI (there were reasons for the changes, but the problem was in how this was communicated and the perceptions that arose), delays in the vaccine rollout and a noticeable lack of rapidity in purchase and distribution of rapid antigen tests.
The Prime Minister has shown signs of impatience and frustration with the handling of the pandemic, and that flows through to his views of the public service.
There are good reasons for politicians to have concerns about public service performance. Problems abound: deaths in aged care that could have been prevented by better regulation and oversight; poor public service planning and lack of collaboration in handling the Novak Djokovic visa shambles; ongoing failings in administration of grants programs, with recent revelations coming from Defence and jointly, Home Affairs and Industry, with the safer communities fund; continuing problems with Centrelink waiting times ... the list continues.
It would be good to know what the major parties think about the situation - their understanding of how the problems have developed and what their plans are for dealing with them.
Labor will be tempted to go the easy route of saying "it's because the Coalition has been in government, we'll be better". But voters deserve deeper analysis and a plan setting out what reforms Labor proposes.
It is harder for the Coalition - it has been in government, so has ownership of the situation - but it would gain credibility if it acknowledged there have been problems and put forward a plan to rebuild public service capacity.
Minor parties and independents may have views on the public service but won't form government. Either the Coalition or Labor will. With government comes control of the levers that drive the public service - which is why we need to hear their plans before election day.
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