Politicalisation is a bipartisan problem: Victoria’s Labor Government joins the club

Dec 14, 2023
Parliament House in Melbourne, Australia Image: iStock

The most disappointing part of the Victorian Ombudsman’s report on alleged politicisation of the public sector is the ‘nothing to see here’ response by the Secretary of the Premier’s Department, Jeremi Moule. Perhaps this is not surprising given Victoria, like so many other jurisdictions in recent years, has appointed someone closely associated with the First Minister and the current Government to head the First Minister’s Department and take on the formal role of head of the public service.

That alone gives weight to the Ombudsman’s first recommendation for a much more independent head of the public service.

While the Ombudsman, Deborah Glass, found no evidence of specific partisan appointments, she presented evidence of failures to adhere to proper ‘merit-based’ processes (and overuse of direct appointments without advertisement), the termination of current executives without cause (allowed by Victoria’s ‘at will’ employment contracts), the marginalisation of public service expertise and corporate knowledge and experience, excessive use of consultants, a culture of secrecy and failure to keep proper records, and the increasing growth and influence of the Premier’s Private Office (the Premier has almost as many political staff as the Prime Minister and NSW Premier combined). These provide good cause for the concerns and fears expressed by many witnesses (and the number of people who were afraid to speak to the Ombudsman), and the widespread perception of politicisation.

Politicisation ‘is not just the hiring of people with political affiliations. It is also the closing down of apolitical independent voices’, the report rightly argues.

‘Creeping politicisation is a reality in Victoria, and requires urgent attention’, she says. ‘A culture of fear in the upper echelons of the public sector does not support frank and fearless advice’.

The report’s findings and recommendations resonate with those of recent reviews and inquiries in other Australian jurisdictions relating to both Coalition and Labor governments. These include the Thodey review and the Robodebt Royal Commission at the Commonwealth level, the Coaldrake review in Queensland, the Head investigation of the Barilaro appointment in NSW and the earlier IBAC ‘Operation Daintree’ report in Victoria. The Ombudsman usefully provides quotes from each of these in her report, highlighting the common issues and concerns. All point to the need for a degree of independence (around political neutrality and impartiality) and the importance of merit-based appointments, most also referring to excessive pressure on the public service to please ministers and to associated failures to uphold public service values.

A major theme in the report is the many instances of non-compliance with public sector standards intended to ensure merit selection. These contributed significantly to perceptions of politicised hiring. Coupled with the active application of Victoria’s ‘at will’ contract system for executives, they provided an environment not conducive to frank and fearless advice.

One case examined in great detail demonstrates these concerns. After the 2018 election, a new Secretary (a former deputy in the Premier’s Department) was appointed by the Premier (this is the Premier’s prerogative in Victoria with no formal merit-based constraints) to the newly named Department of Justice and Community Safety. Within two weeks, the new Secretary conducted a ‘spill’ of all deputy positions and commenced a bulk recruitment process.

Less than two weeks after applications were invited, the new appointments were announced. Six were from the Premier’s Department (five having worked in the Secretary’s former Social Policy Group); only three existing deputies were reappointed (one current DJCS executive was promoted), the remainder had their contracts terminated. The Ombudsman identified shortcomings in the level of rigour in the recruitment process including departures from conventionally accepted practices, poor management of possible conflicts of interest and poor documentation. Generic selection criteria were used with no specification of the different positions and their widely varying responsibilities.

Following these appointments, the Secretary initiated a review of the department’s executive structure, following which there was a second ‘spill’ of over 50 executive positions. The subsequent bulk recruitment exercise led to many more longstanding DJCS executives departing, and more Premier’s Department executives recruited. The Ombudsman again found similar shortcomings in the recruitment process, but no evidence of partisan appointments (though her investigation was hampered by record gaps and Cabinet confidentiality).

Such shortcomings certainly do raise the risk of politicisation, as does Victoria’s approach to Secretary appointments and ‘at will’ employment contracts for executives. The Ombudsman’s reference to ‘perceptions’ of politicisation seems to me an understatement.

A point I made in my report to the Robodebt Royal Commission concerned the number of external appointments to top DHS positions and the failure to draw upon the skills and knowledge of career DHS staff. It seemed that too many of the external appointees, including the Secretary, did not place enough effort on learning about their new responsibilities. Their focus, instead, was almost entirely on delivering to the Government what they thought it wanted.

In my own experience, ‘spills’ are rarely good management practice anyway, accentuating fears amongst both good performers and poorer ones. Even when there is a strong case for new blood and cultural change, there are better ways to ‘move on’ those unwilling to support change or not performing as well as they should. ‘Spills’ run the real risk of delaying, or even losing entirely, the acceptance by the bulk of existing staff of the changes being sought.

The Ombudsman’s report contains highly detailed studies of other cases where public sector expertise was clearly marginalised, merit not accorded priority, and external consultancies used in questionable circumstances and with unjustified secrecy. These include the Suburban Rail Loop project, the Commonwealth Games and appointments to V/Line.

Her recommendations focus on four key areas:

• Greater political independence in the appointment of departmental secretaries and other agency heads;
• Enhancements to better promote merit selection at senior levels;
• Improved job security for senior public servants; and
• The need to review the sanctity of Cabinet confidentiality.

In the first three areas, the Ombudsman recommends a new approach akin to the New Zealand model of a public service head who is the employer of departmental secretaries and other agency heads (including being responsible for appointments after consultation with the Premier and relevant Ministers), the appointment of this head being with the approval of a Parliamentary committee chaired by a non-government member. Thodey did not go this far, but did recommend a strengthening of the role of the APS Commissioner in advising the Prime Minister on secretary appointments based on merit, a firmer performance management regime under the Commissioner and PM&C Secretary, and for the Commissioner’s own appointment to be subject to consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. The Albanese Government seems committed now to these changes, though more still needs to be done to address secretaries’ tenure and merit appointment processes.

The APS Commissioner already has a quality assurance role in SES appointments, something the Victorian Ombudsman also advocates for the proposed independent head of the public service. The Ombudsman also recommends that executives not be subject to ‘at will’ contracts, essentially applying the longstanding arrangement for the SES in the APS where terminations require specific grounds.

The Ombudsman also recommends strengthening of the standards for applying the merit principle, including limiting appointments without an open and advertised selection process, again consistent with existing practice in the Commonwealth.

The basic thrust of these recommendations, therefore. is in line with current or proposed APS practice. One can only hope that cooler heads than the current Secretary of the Premier’s Department will acknowledge the concerns identified by the Ombudsman and take up the thrust of her recommendations. The only recommendations I am unsure about concern Cabinet confidentiality, but even here it seems current Victorian practice takes confidentiality too far.


Original article published in The Mandarin on 11 December 2023

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