ANDREW PODGER. In defence of an apolitical, professional public service( The Mandarin 24.2.2020)

I cannot let Laurie Patton’s opinion piece go unchallenged. It is a recipe of despair in its dismissal of fundamental principles of responsible government.

The piece’s evident acceptance of Neville Wran’s statement that “Only a mug wouldn’t appoint a mate” when referring to a NSW Supreme Court appointment is telling (Patton was one of Wran’s political advisers). I recall when, as National President of IPAA, I criticised John Howard’s approach to secretary appointments, terminations, and financial rewards: I emphasised my far greater concern with the politicisation that was then happening in NSW under the Labor government. I was pleased when Barry O’Farrell took serious steps (if not as far as I would have preferred) to re-introduce professionalism in the NSW public service, including by re-establishing a public service commission.

Patton suggests we adopt the US practice where a president pursues a complete overhaul of senior levels of the bureaucracy. This was not, as Patton suggests, because “they were ahead of us in having ditched many Westminster traditions” — they never had such traditions since the War of Independence! Theirs is, and always has been, a very different system, with more marked separation of powers than ours. The checks and balances it has may be different, but it is the very existence of such checks and balances that constrains the political power that lies behind responsible democratic government.

Patton’s argument is that we need “to acknowledge the reality (of political appointments) and adapt the system to take this into account”. While strongly opposed to political appointments to senior public service positions, I don’t think that is, in fact, our biggest problem.

More important is what the late Peter Aucoin termed “promiscuous partisanship”, whereby senior public servants go beyond their professional responsibilities to demonstrate support for the current government and then switch so as to demonstrate similar enthusiastic support for a new government. They go beyond the traditional requirement of loyalty to the government of the day, promoting its policies rather than just describing and explaining them. They do this because of the reward system: the way appointments and terminations occur and the increasing level of political control as politics has become more and more professionalised.

This professionalisation of politics is no better demonstrated than by the number and changing role of ministerial advisers. We now have more than 450 such advisers at the Commonwealth level (the UK, where a similar debate is occurring about numbers, influence, and accountability, has 90). Increasingly, the political parties use these positions, and those in the states and territories (and the positions for non-government MPs), to foster political careers rather than to bring in subject matter expertise. There is a narrowing of experience amongst our politicians and an increasing focus on the constant hyper-partisan campaign.

The impact of promiscuous partisanship includes the shifting of resources away from longer-term strategic policy advising to tactical political briefings and short-term political fixes, and a willingness to go along with pressures for program administration that is not impartial, apolitical, and professional. Think not only sports rorts but also robodebt. This also undermines investment in expertise, a concern I share with Patton.

These impacts can be seen when one contrasts the work and capabilities of statutory authorities whose legislation constrains political control, such as the Productivity Commission, the ACCC, the Reserve Bank, and the ABS, with what we now see in too many ministerial departments.

Rather than Patton’s recipe of despair, we need to look to constructive measures to adjust the current system, including measures to reinforce some of the “olde-worlde public service” traditions that Patton seems to despise. These would not, in any way, remove the responsibility of the public service to loyally serve the elected government, but would help to protect the public interest by the way in which it does so.

On the professionalised politics side, there have been a number of constructive suggestions in recent years by observers such as the late Ian Marsh, Rod Rhodes, and most recently John Wanna (in his Allan Barton Memorial Research Lecture last October). These include a strengthening of the role and capacity of the legislature, particularly through parliamentary committees and the support provided by the auditor-general and the Parliamentary Budget Office (Wanna suggests having an Evaluator-General as well).

On the public service side, constructive suggestions include strengthening the role of the APS Commissioner as the “professional head of the service” (this is particularly important if the head of PM&C appears to have political alignment), having the appointment of the Commissioner subject to parliamentary endorsement, strengthening the merit basis for other senior appointments, and further clarifying the respective roles and accountability arrangements for public servants and ministerial advisers.

The Thodey recommendations in these areas, all rejected by the government, point in the right direction (‘though I disagree with some of the details). They should not be allowed to drift into the sand and be forgotten. They should be examined by a Senate committee in recognition that the object of the APS is not just to serve the government but also to serve the parliament and the Australian public (s3, Public Service Act 1999)Patton, like too many political operators on both sides today, should consider carefully the checks and balances that are essential to the principles of responsible government.

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5 Responses to ANDREW PODGER. In defence of an apolitical, professional public service( The Mandarin 24.2.2020)

  1. john austen says:

    Dr Podger and Mr Patton, to follow my earlier comment on Mr Patton’s post: I note Mr Patton’s response cites Ms Middleton – who says there is real doubt about the legality of Commonwealth spending programs, such as on sports. This doubt (actually such program illegality is fairly certain) is known widely in the public service, and if it is not known the relevant staff are unfit to be public servants. Once the threshold has been passed – of officials turning a blind eye to program illegality, perhaps due to ‘superior orders’ – who could be surprised there is some lassitude in setting /administering the criteria for sports/council/amenities/roads grants. Hence, from what is visible, I do not believe the only or even principal problem is party- politicisation of the top tiers of officials but a lack of basic understanding of government principles and of ethics for which a ‘code of conduct’ or public service overseer is no substitute. Perhaps I misread it, but the treatment of the issue by the Thodey review – e.g. comments on States and ‘cooperation’ – was, like that by Mr Shepherd’s ‘audit’, superficial. It was as if it were merely a ‘technical matter’ just needing a bit of a nudge towards more cooperation between tiers of government. That can be contrasted with the harsh criticisms of Profs Twomey, Saunders and Mr Walker who see it as something quite else – a fundamental challenge to the workings of democracy. Thanks for an interesting debate and best wishes.

  2. Jerry Roberts says:

    Don’t draw your pistols gents. This is serious business with no easy solutions and you both make good points. It was another era when I joined the WA public service and departmental heads to a man were Second World War veterans. They did not panic. We will not see their like again. These are changed times but it is desirable to have a non-politically partisan public service. The ex-servicemen were not impressed by politicians and perhaps their attitude washed off on to younger members. The civil engineer who interviewed me said “moderate” attitudes were desirable in the government service. I recall being impressed by the views of Ian Marsh who is mentioned in Andrew’s post.

  3. Wayne McMillan says:

    Thank you Andrew for a well thought out piece. My question however remains if we have a senior executive service appointed politically are we going to receive frank and fearless advice. Checks and balances in the USA system to my thinking have only assisted the status quo and therefore those players who seem to have most of the power. Impartiality and objectivity have disappeared down the beleaguered and underresourced beaurecratic rabbit hole.

  4. Peter Johnstone says:

    Thanks, Andrew, for a necessary and informed response.

  5. Can’t let Andrew Podger’s defence of an age gone by go unchallenged. Only moments ago I read Karen Middleton’s expose in The Saturday Paper revealing that: “The federal government is allocating billions of dollars in grants and making significant policy changes in a way that is likely unlawful, legal experts warn, using a mechanism that bypasses parliament and obscures decisions from public view”. If there was still an effective apolitical public service something like this simply could not happen.

    While I quoted Neville Wran’s remark that only a mug would not appoint a mate I didn’t condone this so much as reference the fact that politicians preferring people they know running things is not exactly a recent phenomenon. I should also point out that Wran argued that his appointee to the NSW Supreme Court was eminently qualified and nobody disputed this fact. In my article I stressed the need for appointments to be on merit even if they are politically motivated. Elsewhere I observed that few people argued that Phil Gaetjens wasn’t sufficiently qualified to be Treasury Secretary.

    But all that’s just a sideshow. The fact that Mr Podger claims to have criticised John Howard’s approach to public service appointments simply reinforces my argument that we need to accept reality rather than pretend we still observe Westminster traditions.

    I didn’t suggest we “adopt the US practice” I merely noted that another country with a UK heritage went a different way. Podger adds meat to the bone when he explains that the American political system has more checks and balances than ours. For example, the powers the Congress has over the president’s spending.

    Podger furthermore points to the prevalence of promiscuous partisanship, “whereby senior public servants go beyond their professional responsibilities to demonstrate support for the current government and then switch so as to demonstrate similar enthusiastic support for a new government”. Surely that’s another knife in the back of the notion of an apolitical public service?

    Podger makes a raft of suggestions such as “having the appointment of the (Public Service) Commissioner subject to parliamentary endorsement, strengthening the merit basis for other senior appointments, and further clarifying the respective roles and accountability arrangements for public servants and ministerial advisers”.

    While these are potentially positive ideas what chance is there they will be implemented given that this would require actions counter to the interests of the politicians that would lose their increasing power were they to support them?

    And of course he notes that my friend David Thodey’s recommendations for public sector reform have been junked.

    I think we have a clear case of “wake up and smell the roses”.

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