Politicisation in Australia – A problem that crosses jurisdictions and parties

Aug 5, 2022
Parliament House, Canberra
Image: iStock

The striking evidence of politicisation of public services in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, after the evidence about the Commonwealth, demonstrates that the problem is pervasive across Australian jurisdictions and is not restricted to one side of politics.

Incidences of politicisation have occurred since federation, but the extent today suggests a widespread culture fostered by the professionalisation of politics and an associated disrespect for institutions.

The public service must have a degree of independence based on its values of impartiality, non-partisanship, professionalism and merit-based employment. The balance between responsiveness to the elected government and professional independence is a perennial challenge. But in recent decades a number of forces and actions have been severely disrupting the balance leading to both directly partisan behaviour and to what Peter Aucoin termed ‘promiscuous partisanship’ – stepping over the line to please whoever the current ministers may be.

Such politicisation can be effected in various ways:

  • Most directly through appointments and terminations on political rather than merit grounds;
  • Indirectly through the system of rewards and penalties for public officials involved in tenure arrangements and performance management;
  • Inappropriate behaviour by ministerial staff, constraining public service advice to ministers, pressing politically attractive decisions by public service delegates, and limiting public reporting and engagement;
  • Excessive use of consultants and contractors, downgrading the role and capability of the public sector.

David Thodey’s 2019 APS Review recommended action to curb each of these forms of politicisation, finding that current arrangements are not only compromising the integrity of the public service but also hurting its capability. The relevant recommendations were rejected by the Morrison Government but pursued again by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee’s 2021 inquiry into APS capability; the Albanese Government has promised to revisit the recommendations.

Peter Coaldrake’s Review of culture and accountability in the Queensland public sector released a month ago highlighted the importance of the ‘tone’ set by leaders at all levels from the Premier to senior executives, finding many areas where ‘that tone has not reached the required pitch’. He recommended inter alia changes to appointment arrangements for chief executives, a strengthening of the Public Service Commission and enhancement of the independence of integrity bodies. Like Thodey, he also recommended a more robust test of the benefits derived from engaging consultants and contractors.

The current extraordinary revelations about senior appointments in Investment NSW provide an extreme case of alleged politicisation. NSW had a terrible reputation under Labor before the O’Farrell Liberal Government re-established a Public Service Commission under a new Public Sector Employment Act 2013. The Commissioner and the Advisory Board provided more independent leadership of the public service and curbed the worst of the previous politicisation. But evidently those reforms have not been sufficient.

In Victoria, the Legislative Council has referred to the Ombudsman a series of matters concerning allegations of politicisation of the public service made in The Age last August. The Ombudsman’s investigation is separate from the recent damning review by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission and Ombudsman which highlighted widespread misuse of public resources for political purposes. The allegations now being investigated relate to appointments to executive positions allegedly on political grounds and to appointments of people with a political affiliation which may adversely affect the public service or government administration. The Ombudsman is also examining possible reforms to the way senior executives in Victoria are appointed.

These four sets of examinations of politicisation raise common issues not only about political appointments but about other ways by which the relationship between politics and administration within the executive is being distorted by excessive political control. The common issues suggest room for common responses.

First on senior executive appointments. The Commonwealth’s process requires the PM to get a report from the Secretary of PM&C after consultation with the APS Commissioner before making a recommendation for a secretary appointment to the Governor-General. Thodey recommended strengthening the processes for advising the PM through published selection criteria and rigorous consideration of potential candidates. NSW has no statutory constraints on chief executive appointments which are made by the relevant minister, nor does Victoria where the Premier makes the appointments. In all jurisdictions, chief executives are on term appointments, usually five years, but terminations can be made for any reason. Thodey recommended legislated reasons for terminating an appointment and that the APS Commissioner and PM&C Secretary report to the PM before any termination. Coaldrake recommended strict five year appointments.

My own view is that the Public Service Commissioner should take the lead on advising chief executive appointments and, if that advice is not agreed, the First Minister should be required to explain their decision to the Parliament (the New Zealand approach would be even better, the Commissioner being the employer of the chief executives).

Relevant here of course is the standing and independence of the Commissioner. In the Commonwealth, the PM recommends the appointment with no constraints but termination requires Parliamentary agreement. In NSW, the Premier is bound to accept the recommendation of the Advisory Board. There is no statutory constraint in Victoria.

Thodey’s view (which I support) is that the appointment of the Commissioner should be subject to consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.

As the Grattan Institute recently highlighted, political appointments are also occurring at Commonwealth and State levels to other top positions including statutory offices and boards. Thodey recommended that the Commonwealth Merit and Transparency Guidelines (which have a long list of exemptions) be tightened and ministers required to explain to Parliament if they were not adhered to. There needs to be much firmer constraints in all jurisdictions, the Institute’s proposal of a dedicated public appointments commissioner being eminently sensible.

The risk of politicisation at other senior executive levels is lower in the Commonwealth than in the States because the vast majority of the SES are ongoing employees and their appointments are subject to ‘certification’ by the APS Commissioner (terminations also require due process). In Victoria, however, all such executives are on term appointments and in NSW that is the usual approach; in neither case is the Commissioner involved to ensure merit is applied, and terminations can be for any or no reason. No evidence has ever been provided to demonstrate genuine benefits in organisational performance from having the SES on term appointments and so easily dismissed.

The other area that needs serious action in all jurisdictions is to reduce substantially the number of ministerial staff and to clarify their role and accountability. In total, we probably have two thousand or more public sector employees today who are not neutral (The Age article claimed the Victorian Premier alone had 87 ministerial staff, many more than the Prime Minister). Their legitimate role in assisting ministers and good government has become blurred with party political roles and/or pressuring the public service rather than complementing them. A firmer statutory framework is required including clear and enforceable codes of conduct.

A related issue now, as highlighted in the Victorian case, concerns the management of those public servants who spend time as ministerial advisers. Experience in a minister’s office can be valuable for a public servant helping them to appreciate how to provide advice that is relevant, timely and useful. But there is also the risk of being perceived by both peers and MPs on return as partisan, compromising the neutral reputation of the public service. Management of this risk requires formal processes such as a limit on the period as a staffer and/or placement on return with limited contact with the minister and the Parliament.

Perhaps it is also time to prohibit public service executives from being members of political parties: that might send a message of how important a non-partisan public service is.

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