Getting the facts right on departmental tenure

Oct 1, 2023
The green grassy slope next to the Australian Parliament House in Canberra.

Commentary on the tenure of Secretaries of Commonwealth Government departments is becoming perilous territory as those wading into it continue to make basic errors of fact.

Geoffrey Hawker is the latest to do so (“Tenure and its Troubles”, Pearls and Irritations, 17 September 2023).

Let’s take four of Hawker’s statements.

  1. “The trajectory from Whitlam through Fraser to Hawke brought changes to tenure…”.

That is partially true although a misrepresentation. There were no changes under Whitlam who continued longstanding practice of maintaining the right of governments to move Secretaries from particular positions but then finding them other ones. No Secretaries were sacked by Whitlam and the relevant laws were not changed.

Fraser introduced a system such that if the Government appointed a person not nominated by the Chairman of the Public Service Board or a committee headed by the Chairman, that appointment was to be for a period of not more than five years and, in the event of a change of government, such an appointee could be sacked. No such appointments were made.

The Hawke government abandoned the Fraser procedures and essentially re-introduced the pre-existing laws and administrative arrangements and strengthened them.

  1. “The changes to tenure that came with Hawke in 1983 were justified by reference to the Coombs (Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration) Report, though it had not contained such a specific proposal.”

While it doesn’t matter much that the Hawke government changes were introduced in 1984, its decision to adopt a more active policy of rotation of Secretaries exactly reflected a precise recommendation of the Coombs report which said that “…we are firmly of the view that it should be the practice for departmental heads to be moved and that, unless there are special reasons, they should not remain in one department for more than seven years.” The Hawke government decided that this policy should be administered flexibly and that any Secretaries moved from one position should be found other ones. That is to say, the Hawke government abolished fixed period contracts and gave stronger guarantees of tenure.

  1. “…commentators were able to argue that contracts were consistent with Coombs” and that “the Labour changes of 1983 were consistent with such an approach.”

It’s as well that Hawker doesn’t identify any of the “commentators” to whom he refers as that would be embarrassing for them as the Coombs report argued strongly against fixed period contracts. It said, for example, that “We have come to the conclusion that any advantages accruing from a system of fixed period appointments are outweighed by the disadvantages” and that “A universal and mandatory system of fixed period appointments would introduce a degree of rigidity into the staffing of senior positions in departments which governments could find highly inconvenient and an impediment to the execution of their policies”. The Labor changes in 1984 were consistent with that view and, as indicated, they didn’t introduce or further fixed period appointments, they abolished them.

  1. By the time of the Block Scrutiny Unit in 1986 “..the contract regime was by then well in place…”.

In truth, in 1986 there was no contract appointment system for departmental Secretaries. That was not introduced until 1994 as a justification for a pay increase.

All of this, of course, is ancient history but it doesn’t deserve to be distractingly misrepresented.

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