Public service chiefs need trials before executions

Jun 7, 2022
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

Anthony Albanese needs some new departmental and agency leaders. The limitations of some of the existing ones are obvious. But the prime minister need not order some summary executions, as Tony Abbott, John Howard, Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam did. Nights of the long knives often seem personal, sometimes vindictive, or in breach of the tradition of secure jobs. A patient, cautious Albanese can be moving with all deliberate speed on his primary agenda, leaving it to the new head of the service to visit the battlefield, shooting the terminally wounded, and applying balm to those of continuing value. Perhaps with a list of diplomatic vacancies in his back pocket.

Albanese nicely balanced what he said and what he did during his first meetings with his caucus, ministry and Cabinet this week. On the one hand, there was not a moment to lose, and his government was not going to waste a single day in carrying out its mandate. On the other, he showed caution in trying to do, or in authorising, everything at once. He used his economic ministers to emphasise that the government’s program is subject to the constraints of a deteriorating economy and changing world circumstances.

Everything a new government does is closely parsed and analysed for messages, meanings and signs of the government’s priorities, who’s in and out of favour, and what is in the realm of the possible. For the new armies of lobbyists, business interests, tree people and old Labor mates and cronies now descending on Canberra looking for jobs, favours, or intelligence that they can peddle to those who are currently paying their wages, the intelligence divined is money.

But there are also ranks of Labor supporters, supporters of interest groups (such as climate change action) or people with particular hobby horses looking closely to see the calibre and the character of the new government in action, and signs, one way or another, about the fate of their causes.

Some of the signals sent out have been ambiguous. Some not. Making a mega-department of climate change was a welcome sign of high government priority to action. Despite suggestions that the new minister, Tanya Plibersek was being demoted in being given this task – something that is not in the least obvious – the moves are likely to reassure the teal independents and the Greens that the government is serious.

The Public service should be giving expert advice, not drawing up glossy brochures purporting to justify ideological decisions made by ministers.

Labor will be hard to shift on policy commitments. That it might be open to new evidence does not necessarily suggest that Albanese is ready to negotiate revised upwards emission targets by 2030. But it suggests first that the government wants bureaucratic advisers running an academy on what should be done, rather than a PR and marketing consultancy justifying in advance and in arrears whatever ideological decisions politicians have cooked up with the hydrocarbon lobbies and other vested interests.

If Albanese plans to upgrade the quality and range of independent expert advice on water policy, on the environment and on climate change action, Labor may well be forced to respond to new evidence and new argument, based on evidence, about the targets it has set. Scott Morrison, like Tony Abbott before him, insulated himself from such a risk, both by downgrading the capacity of agencies and denying access to information. So far Albanese has said that the targets are not open to negotiation, just because the teals and the Greens want and claim mandates for higher targets. Even talking about being open to argument might suggest a hidden agenda, even a form of the alleged Gillard “lie,” about no carbon taxes under the government she led.

But Labor likes to pretend that its target is based on the known facts, and the known evidence, and involves a balancing of interests, including in maintaining the economy and jobs. Not, in short, a number selected for being something higher than the previous government’s aspiration, if not so high as to terrify coal workers. If the facts change, the government’s plans for labour market programs and new regional technology-based job creating schemes could see room for a well-consulted and publicly discussed shift. Plibersek might be just the person who can sell the idea, first of holding the fort around the present circumstances, but moving if those circumstances change.

A good many Labor-oriented people will be pleased that the Australian Federal Police was been shifted out of the Home Affairs portfolio and back to Attorney-Generals. Even the AFP Association, admits that the AFP has acquired a reputation of being politicised. It attributes that to being forced into Home Affairs rather than to the structure and leadership of an inbred organisation hostile to any independent review.

But observers will be somewhat surprised about how limited changes to Home Affairs have been, and even more puzzled that its secretary, Mike Pezzullo, remains in charge. Why, for example, was ASIO left in Home Affairs, with an output implicitly needing to be “co-ordinated” with the ridiculous private intelligence agency Pezzullo has been allowed to establish? Why was it given extra functions over natural disasters, when it has shown no capacity to manage, and when the new appendage is itself a national disaster?

Why has Border Force been left untouched? To be sure, an inquiry is presently underway, under the supervision of Pezzullo into the extra-ordinary election-day announcement of the interception of some Sri Lankan boat people, promptly rebroadcast as a Liberal Party advertisement to marginal seats.

Given the delicacies involved – involving boat people – Albanese might be reluctant to act of his own initiative over such an egregious matter. How much better, from his point of view if those whose actions, or management, or ultimate responsibility, came into question were executed by judgments of their own peers.

It is very difficult to imagine that Pezzullo was a witting party in the affair, even if his views on boat people, and the need for unremitting cruelty to them, are well known. Pezzullo, after all, is given to lecturing even his brother and sister departmental secretaries on the proprieties – sometimes implying that he is the only one left who remembers them. And, as his somewhat small list of champions are no doubt pointing out to the new regime, he was once a Labor staffer, first to Kim Beazley and later Gareth Evans. He is not to be dismissed as reflexively anti-Labor, in the manner of some of his peers.

When the Murugappan family, known as the Biloela family, had their temporary right to stay regularised, the new Opposition leader, Peter Dutton, asked sharply whether this was on departmental advice. He would have known that the formal advice would have been the same, if only because Home Affairs is an expression of the will of the secretary, rather than the government of the day. Ministers, of whatever persuasion, are but empty chalices into which Pezzullo’s independent but eccentric and often wrong advice is poured.

Any number of Labor spokesmen (and even Barnaby Joyce, erstwhile Nationals leader) had expressed their view that the continuing persecution and cruelty had lost its point, and to all intents and purposes releasing the children was almost an election promise, however much the department wanted to argue the toss. Even now, no doubt on fervent departmental face-saving advice, their residence rights remain restricted to bridging visas “while” – in the words of acting immigration minister Jim Chalmers – “they work towards the resolution of their immigration status in accordance with Australian law.”

The regularisation of the immigration status of the family does not turn on a court case, or on the family satisfying the department or the minister of any disputed fact. It turns on the exercise of a discretion – something Chalmers apparently did not have the immediate courage to issue. No doubt this was for fear of misrepresentation such as the suggestion that he had sent a gilt-edged invitation to every Sri Lankan, Afghan, and Pakistani to set off in a boat. Immigration thinks with one brain and has sometimes announced imminent wars – has long been given to issuing such warnings, often of its own initiative.

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