Public servants as courtiers rather than stewards

Jun 2, 2021
Canberra feature
(Image: Unsplash)

Phil Gaetjens, former Treasury official, former boss of Scott Morrison’s private office and now head of the Prime Minister’s Department is an unusual public servant who seems to have accepted that he is never going to be regarded as any sort of detached public servant independent of the government of the day. 

Right now, he is again making us wait on a report about what Morrison’s minders knew about an alleged rape, but we can be sure it will leave most of the questions unanswered and only the primary customer – Morrison himself – satisfied.

He’s not the first head of PM&C to have had a background of working directly with politicians, or of being closely associated with a particular side of politics. But his relationship with his boss is as much intimate as it is professional, and he seems to lack the power to resist tasks fitter for the courtier than for the steward. Neither politics nor public administration is improved as a result.

A good example of the problem might be in his acceptance of the prime minister’s request that he investigate grants to sporting organisations made in the sports rorts affair. The Auditor-General, Grant Hehir had been very critical of the way the grants had been administered, and it appeared that they had been politically focused on coalition seats and marginal Labor seats the coalition had been hoping to win at the 2019 election.

There was considerable evidence of close supervision of the grants process by the prime minister’s office. While Gaetjens found that the minister for sport had breached ministerial standards by having a conflict of interest, he essentially rejected the auditor’s findings.

There was, he said, “no basis for the suggestion that political considerations were the primary determining factor” in the grants. Such considerations had not unduly influenced the decision-making process.

To be fair to Mr Gaetjens, outsiders were never able to read the actual report and had to accept in its place a self-serving summary from the prime minister. The report was barred from public access and said to have been prepared for cabinet – a fairly standard play of modern government (originally invented by Kevin Rudd while working for the Queensland government) for avoiding public accountability.

But under questioning in various senate committees, it was quite apparent that Gaetjens interpreted his brief (whatever that was, because it was not disclosed either) very narrowly, and that his curiosity did not extend to very much detail of the grant-giving, including the colour coding of grants by the party that held the relevant seats.

Nor did he seem to interview very many people involved in the process, or later, to show much intimate understanding of facts outlined by the auditor that were not in contest.

Gaetjens has let himself be used for crude political purposes. But his desire to please has devalued his credibility

According to Morrison, Gaetjens’ served its political purpose – of appearing to “exonerate” Morrison personally, and the government generally of credible accusations of an outrageous rort of public money for party-partisan purposes.

The Gaetjens report presented the public with no new perspective. Nor did it draw attention to facts the auditor had failed to take into account. Morrison demonstrated no keenness to use either the factual findings or the arguments Gaetjens used to come to conclusions 180 degrees opposite to the Auditor-General.

It was sufficient merely to say that there was a document – secret as it turned out – that contradicted what was on the record.

Gaetjens was used, although it hasn’t seemed to trouble him. Nor has the damage to the standing of his office seemed to affect his desire to please. But his reports have not done the government much good in the public domain.

The credibility and public standing of the Auditor-General, for example, stands well above that of Gaetjens, before and after his report. No one, other than those who directly benefit, has pretended to take the Gaetjens report seriously or to think it objective or useful. If anything, the secret report – whatever it said – diminished the standing and credibility of Gaetjens in the eye of the public at large, as well as in the public service.

The reaction of many who had previously served at his level of the public service, both in PM&C and other senior departments was scathing.

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