Unaccountable leaders set the tone for all in public service

Feb 10, 2021

The decline of good government has not been an accident. Those in public service are probably of much the same calibre, idealism and intellectual capacity as ever. What they are not getting is leadership – by words or by deeds.

When prime ministers and Cabinet ministers deride standards or ignore obvious breaches, why should we expect that junior ministers or junior officials would strive for the highest standards? When those who proffer advice that is unwanted seem to be punished, why should we worry about whether frank and independent advice is at a premium? When secretaries of some agencies provide political cover for ministers engaged in dubious behaviour, and will not defend good administration, who can be surprised when junior officials will not stick their necks out?

Though leadership of a moral sort has been one of the most preached attributes, the public service is seriously short of senior officials who talk the talk, let alone seen as walking the walk. The model departmental secretary is generally, these days, fairly colourless, without much in the way of a public profile. A few  counter cases exist – Mike Pezzullo in Home Affairs for example. No doubt some are of the highest rectitude. But not many people, even in their own agencies, could point to examples of where they have said or done anything likely to upset anyone above them.

I have always argued that crime or misconduct among the middle classes, including in public administration, is entirely different in nature from crime among the underclasses. Underclass crime is usually opportunistic and without much consideration of consequences. High penalties do not deter;  they merely increase the number of people in institutions.

A member of the middle class contemplating a fraud or theft or some other misconduct does think about consequences. They think about the chance of being caught. That is a good reason why there should be systems in place to catch people who do the wrong thing. The more likely these systems work, the more likely people will think it not worth the risk. That’s also why the systems should be independent. We know from experience that police will act against corrupt, dishonest or brutal colleagues only in the most egregious circumstances. Otherwise, they will cover up.

White-collar workers also think of the consequences of being caught — even of being suspected. For white-collar people, the consequence most feared is not jail or a heavy fine. It is of public exposure and public disgrace. Only rarely will the disgrace go away. Only rarely can such a person be rehabilitated.

There will always be some who are so venal, so easily tempted or so desperate that they will do something corrupt, or dishonest or wrong, usually for personal aggrandisement. In that sense, we want the integrity systems to catch the baddies — those who take bribes, those who award contracts to their friends or act for improper purposes. But the set-up will also be performing well if it deters others. The absence of a large case list does not prove there was no need for an integrity system.

The public service has codes of conduct and an operating ethos. But the style of government by ministerial discretion has strangled the system. It’s time the general principles were applied to ministers and politicians, and to ministerial staff as well. The best such code — for being short and straightforward — are the seven principles of public life described by Britain’s Nolan committee. These apply to anyone elected or appointed to public office, including public servants, police, teachers, doctors and nurses and people in the private sector or the “voluntary” sector who are delivering public services.

All public office holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources, the principles say.

  • Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of public interest.
  • Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
  • Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
  • Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
  • Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
  • Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
  • Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

It’s a good measure of the crisis in Australian government that one can readily think of a breach of every one of these principles, by ministers or by public servants, over recent years.

What I cannot think of are cases where such conduct — or plain misconduct — has been reproved by the prime minister or led to adverse consequences for ministers, minders, officials or cronies of the government. Indeed it is almost impossible to remember an occasion where the blowtorch was seriously applied to Scott Morrison, scoffer-in-chief on matters of duty, integrity or the need for accountability and transparency.

He is continually allowed to dismiss complaints with waffle, dissembling, spin or the pretence that his mind is on higher things, and the future rather than the past. The biggest fraud of this corrupted government is the idea that Morrison is some lovable bungler, just doing the best he can.

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