Praise of the Australian Public Service for its COVID 19 efforts last year, and appearances of respecting its policy contribution, seem now to have disappeared. The PM’s disdain of the public service as a key institution in our democracy, shown in his response to the Thodey Report in December 2019 and his earlier disparaging of its policy advising role, are apparent again in his departmental secretary appointments last week.
I recently wrote about the need to respect the different roles, expertise and cultures of the public service and the military, generously acknowledging that drawing on the military’s project management expertise to assist with the vaccination roll-out was no bad thing (though it should be followed by effort to strengthen such expertise within the APS). But it is increasingly evident that the Government’s preference for uniforms and military cultures is not based on sound consideration of respective roles or expertise.
Two departmental secretary appointments late last week raise serious issues for the public service and for both social security and foreign affairs policymaking.
DSS is a policy department. Administration of the programs it helps to design and evaluate is conducted by Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency. Its policy expertise has already steadily declined over the last two decades as demonstrated in an article by Rob Bray, Matthew Gray and David Stanton published last year. It desperately needed a new secretary with a strong policy background who could attract and nurture the people it requires and who was willing to invest the necessary departmental resources into policy research and evaluation and policy development. This surely points to a career public servant, preferably one with a strong social policy background.
DSS does not need a former Navy admiral (Ray Griggs) as its secretary. And it does not need to consolidate the command-and-control culture that seems to have developed there in recent years. On the contrary, it needs to foster a culture where different views are encouraged, information is shared, evidence is valued, and external engagement is promoted.
Kathryn Campbell’s appointment to DFAT raises wider issues. Campbell was DHS Secretary when the Robodebt proposal was developed and DSS Secretary as the scale of the fiasco became clear. While ministers should be held most responsible for the fiasco, as I argued last week, the public service should reflect on its own responsibilities and address its failures. Without a Royal Commission, we will not know the advice provided to ministers or who made the decisions that delayed correcting the unlawful actions taken. But it is hard not to conclude that Campbell is now being rewarded for her loyalty in defending the Government, and that there is little likelihood these days that anyone offering frank and fearless will be respected for doing so let alone rewarded.
Frances Adamson’s departure represents a real loss for the APS. A consummate diplomat with immense experience in foreign affairs, she was also widely respected as a leader and manager. Her carefully crafted farewell speech at the National Press Club emphasised the importance of diplomacy particularly when international relations are fraught, while appropriately (as a secretary) avoiding any direct criticism of the Government’s budget cuts to DFAT. The current context may well justify increased investment in defence and security, but no less important is the need to invest in diplomacy. Widening and strengthening international engagement is critical to identifying shared interests and to containing differences while holding to our own national interests and values. Such engagement requires skills in listening and being highly conscious of nuances.
I fear Campbell’s military orientation as a Major General in the Army Reserve is not well suited to these core diplomatic skill sets however useful they may be in other contexts. Moreover, we desperately need some voices of moderation within government to temper those seemingly eager to beat the drums of war.
The appointments raise once again the question of how best to ensure a merit-based, apolitical and impartial public service. The Thodey recommendations were rejected. They need to be considered again; or, better still, the New Zealand approach adopted. That involves the Public Service Commissioner being the head of the service, appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister but only after consultation with other parliamentary party leaders, required to act independently, and taking the lead in top appointments using formal selection advisory panels; it is possible to reject the Commissioner’s recommended appointment, but doing so is heavily constrained.
Andrew Stuart Podger, AO is a retired Australian senior public servant. He is currently Professor of Public Policy at the Australian National University.