After its election victory, the Labor Party lost no time in pointedly offering full support for the Australian Public Service, as a mark of difference from the outgoing Coalition government. The prime minister-elect, Anthony Albanese, echoed previous Labor policy, introduced by Kevin Rudd, that incumbent secretaries would keep their jobs. There would be no night of long knives on the model of John Howard or Tony Abbott. His declaration was made possible by the immediate, voluntary departure of Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of the Prime Minister's department. Mr Gaetjens had forfeited the confidence of the Labor opposition by allowing himself to be openly identified with the political interests of Scott Morrison. As a career public servant, he would have recognised that his new role was to facilitate a smooth transition of power, which in his case meant a quick exit, leaving a capable deputy in charge.
At the time, some eyebrows were raised at the survival of other secretaries whom Labor had attacked for their support of legally questionable policies. But, it was hinted, such matters would be dealt with as part of the normal management of the public service. A month later, in the general review of secretarial positions accompanying the new administrative arrangements, some secretaries in whom the incoming government did not have full confidence were moved sideways.
Some observers suggested that the long knives had merely been delayed and hidden, not buried. But the difference with Coalition practice remained significant . There were no ritual public sackings to demonstrate a new government's control over allegedly recalcitrant mandarins. Secretaries retained their tenure. The Rudd policy, that all secretaries would remain in their current positions, was always an over-reaction to Howard's mass dismissals. Taken literally, it implied that no secretary of a department under a Coalition government could ever forfeit the confidence of an incoming Labor government, no matter how politically compromised their behaviour. The Albanese government's arrangements mark a sensible compromise. Secretaries cannot count on retaining their present positions but they will be treated with respect.
Initially, however, it was the differences from the Coalition that mattered. Not only would public servants' tenure be protected but their advice on policy would also be welcome. Jim Chalmers, the new Treasurer, following the example of his mentor, Wayne Swan, staged a meeting with the treasury secretary, Steven Kennedy, to indicate the new government would be leaning heavily on the department's advice. Tanya Plibersek, taking over the department of environment and water, publicly assured her officials that she would welcome their frank and fearless challenges to government policy. These statements were obviously intended to mark a sharp contrast with Scott Morrison's insistence that ministers were responsible for policy and that public servants should stick to implementation.
The rise in APS stocks received another boost with the appointment of Glyn Davis as secretary of PM&C and head of the public service. A much-respected academic expert on public administration and champion of public service professionalism, Professor Davis had been a key member of the Thodey review into the public service. He could be expected to pursue some of Thodey's recommendations that the Morrison government had rejected, for instance strengthening the functions of the public service commissioner and reducing the reliance on external consultants. The subsequent appointment of Gordon de Brouwer as a secretary for public sector reform working with the public service commissioner underlined the new government's commitment.
Overall, the new government has sent a clear message that Labor is the party that trusts the APS in contrast to the Coalition which denigrates it. Left-of-centre parties have generally favoured the public sector just as pro-business conservative parties have always tended to be anti-government. Ideological conservatives in the Anglophone democracies have added a sharper edge to their criticism by co-opting government bureaucracy into the culture wars. The public service, along with the universities and public broadcasters, is seen as a bastion of dangerous progressivism. It is drawn from an increasingly dominant knowledge class which combines respect for evidence and the scientific method with a commitment to progressive social values. The entire Labor leadership belongs to this class, as do the more moderate elements of the Coalition. But the current ascendancy of more hard-line conservatives means that ideological antagonism towards government bureaucracy has become a central feature of Coalition policy. For the foreseeable future, the public service can expect to be a battleground for this partisan contest.
How should members of the APS respond? The natural reaction is to welcome the incoming government with open arms. After all, who doesn't prefer positive affirmation to negative rejection? Many public servants will have had an extra spring in their step since the election.
On the other hand, a defining principle of a career public service is to give equal loyalty to whichever party is in power. Part of this apolitical ethos is to refrain from any behaviour that would compromise one's capacity to gain the confidence of an alternative government. Public servants will need to curb any public expressions of support for the current government. They should discourage ministers from using them publicly as independent advocates or partners for controversial policies or decisions. Notwithstanding the demands of FOI, the old principle that public servants advise in confidence and ministers take responsibility in public helps to sustain a strong professional bureaucracy.
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