MIKE WALLER.What Westminster system, Prime Minister

Sep 20, 2019

“These core elements of the Westminster tradition are as important as they have ever been…” Scott Morrison Speech to IPAA

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said…, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean…’ ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.” Alice through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)

We have recently seen starkly different takes on the consequential issue of the way we are governed, in speeches addressing the performance of both the Australian Public Service (APS) and the “Westminster” system of Australian government: the Prime Minister, in his speech to the Institute of Public Affairs Australia (IPAA); Andrew Podger, former Public Service Commissioner, in a speech to the Parliamentary Library; and, Ken Henry, former Secretary of the Treasury, in his reported remarks to a select Parliamentary gathering.

The first two contributions focus on the performance and future role of the APS, related to the final report of the Independent Review of the APS (the Thodey Review). The third is more wide ranging, addressing major failures in government policy making over the past decade. All speak to the critical issue of how policies vital to Australians’ long term interests are developed and implemented. All subscribe to the “Westminster” model. But the diagnosis arising from the current PM’s world view is, worryingly, poles apart from those of Andrew and Ken.

Why this is so reflects the reductionist (and seemingly simplistic) conception of the Westminster model evident in the PM’s speech. An effective, apolitical public service and ultimate accountability at the ballot box are, of course, necessary attributes of the model, but far from sufficient to deliver the accountability, transparency and effectiveness of policy development and delivery processes that would serve Australia’s long term public interests.

Unfortunately, successive governments and parliaments have undermined key attributes of an effective democratic governance system that would properly reflect a Westminster system, e.g.: fundamentally weakened FOI; systematic use of security concerns to overclassify/withhold information, and intimidate whistle-blowers and legitimate journalistic inquiry; poorly regulated political donations and lobbying; largely unregulated revolving doors between ministers/senior bureaucrats and lobbyists/client industries; favouring populist policies/decisions over evidence-based approaches (“tough love” social policies, profligate spending on major defence or infrastructure projects with the terms obscured in the name of commercial confidentiality); failure to resolve major Federal/State issues (the Murray-Darling, energy/climate change policy, primary health care, vocational education); and, the absence of ministerial accountability for gross portfolio failings (with resignations effectively restricted to personal misbehaviour).

Interestingly, the public (the customers who, in the PM’s parlance, are “always right”) are on to the basic problems. A survey by the Centre for Policy Development in 2017 revealed 65 per cent of Australians thought lobbyists had too much influence, and 73 per cent thought politics was fixated on short-term gains.

On the APS, despite the odd nod from our political leaders in favour of a high performing/apolitical Service, their actions have undermined the independence and capabilities of the APS. The entrenched, dominant role of large staffs of ministerial advisers is a pivotal issue. This has established incentives that are inimical to the provision of frank advice, let alone generating creative data/evidence in a way that would publicly inform the basis of policy-making. Other dysfunctional drivers are combined efficiency dividends/staffing caps, senior officials pay determination arrangements that grant far too much attention to vastly inflated private sector comparators, and top appointments drawn from career ministerial staffers. The resulting conditions are ripe for the “promiscuous partisanship” referenced in Andrew Podger’s speech.

In total, the reality of our current governance practices is arguably now so far divorced from a respectable facsimile of the Westminster model as to demand a serious examination of the counter-factual. What might an alternative governance accountability and capability framework look like in the face of actual (rather than espoused) political beliefs and roles/behaviours embraced by both major parties? Some knotty questions arise.

If the critical roles of policy advising and coordinator essentially now rests with Ministerial staff, why should this not be recognised legally, e.g. via the Chief of Staff and relevant policy advisors appearing before Senate Estimates and other Parliamentary Committees to explain the basis of policy decisions? (And, to the extent that consultants and/or lobbyists play a crucial role in directing/influencing policy development, should this not be reflected within the accountability framework?)

What are the implications of the role of the Secretary and departments in terms of policy and implementation? If the reality is that they are but one, optional/contingent source of policy views, with critical information and policy decisions directed by Ministerial staff, then should not this position be formalised? Should a much clearer distinction be drawn between the domains of policy design (Ministerial staffs) and program delivery/implementation (the APS or other bodies)? If so, should these apply equally to all portfolios?

What would be the most effective structures and capabilities required for improved program implementation/delivery? Could much greater use of independent/arms-length agencies offer potentially attractive alternatives to departmental arrangements (which have a poor record of performance, e.g. in Defence, Home Affairs, Human Services)? Where and how does the Commonwealth need to establish and maintain high performance teams to ensure effective implementation? How should we define high performance and what are the implications for the recruitment, management/retention and remuneration of people in the APS?

What sort of people, systems and incentives would best drive innovative and rigorous detailed design and delivery? What are the implications for the selection of Secretaries/senior officials who predominantly have been selected for their intellectual/policy advising capabilities, rather than management/project and program delivery?

Finally, the way the Thodey review has been structured, and the PM’s comments to IPAA, raise questions about whether, and how, these and other difficult issues will be addressed in the final report and the degree to which any radical recommendations might survive consideration by the Secretaries Board and/or Cabinet. One wonders whether the forensic approach adopted by the Hayne inquiry into financial services would have provided more rigorous, public challenge to a set of Ministerial and bureaucratic relationships and behaviours that are increasingly prejudicial to the public interest. But that opportunity has been lost. Let us, therefore, hope that the final report pushes well beyond the generalities of the draft report into recommendations that confront the current dysfunctional interpretation of the Westminster model.

Mike Waller has served in senior economic roles in the UK Treasury and with federal and state governments in Australia. He was Chief Economist for BHP Ltd and a founding partner in a consultancy firm providing strategic advice to global resource and energy companies. He has also served variously as board member or chair of a number of not for profit and commercial bodies.

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