Some urgent tasks for a new government

Mar 30, 2022
Australian flag parliament house Canberra
Image: Wikimedia Commons

New governments should hit the ground running, even as they are exhausted by the election campaign, and nearly three dreary years of disaster and pandemic.

Party suits, who include Anthony Albanese, generally consider it bad luck to do too much early detailed planning of program, ministry and of machinery of government matters, for fear of counting the chickens before they hatch. This was said to be a sin of the Bill Shorten campaign, down to detailed leaking of the fate of department secretaries.

Talking aloud about an action program can also create fresh campaign issues, including the “discovery” of evidence of likely Labor-Green cooperation in forcing legislation through the senate.

But a big pause at the beginning makes for trouble. Labor should look busy immediately. It should begin detailed work on its integrity commission – starting by throwing out the accumulated wisdom (or “learnings”) on the subject in the Attorney-General’s department, whose fundamental opposition to it was not merely in obedience to government whim but of its own instinct and dislike of being open to account.

A task force containing a retired judge or two, some state experience, and maybe some backbenchers, including independents, should be polishing the drafting. A second should be working on the actual agency and on galvanising the ancillary agencies most likely to slow its progress, and, ultimately to drag it down. This includes the DPP and the AFP, and agencies behind the intelligence and security screen seeking special exemptions.

The new government must also show that it means business in restoring confidence in the integrity of public administration and the management of public funds. The Financial Management Act must be restored to pride of place as a fundamental piece of constitutional government. It should contain new attention to specifying, in appropriation legislation, just what is intended and expected in outputs and outcomes. Vague and meaningless phrases – authorising and allowing virtually anything – should go. A program for a dam, or a fast train should have transparent accounting mechanisms showing where and how money was spent.

Australia does not necessarily need a boost in public service numbers, least of all in central departments. But it does need to rebuild expertise in policy formation, development and evaluation, so that it is the primary disinterested and independent adviser to government on policy and programs. This should be funded by a wholesale shift away from the employment of outside consultants – whose advice is rarely disinterested and often not even very expert.

Retired politicians and senior officials should not be able to prostitute their access and influence to outsiders wanting something from government

The aim might be assisted by prohibiting the use, inside consultancies, of former public servants, defence or ministerial officers, for at least three years after departure from the public service, with similar rules for former ministers. Ex-politicians who were not ministers, particularly those retired by the electorate, should be on the grass. They should be unable to peddle or prostitute their access, their influence or their inside knowledge of the system for at least two years. A former career in politics does not create a human right, after retirement, for government work.

Various agencies of government need comprehensive reform, including of management, because they have become compromised by deeply politicised processes instituted by previous governments. Urgent work is needed on the NDIS, but also in the funding of aged care and childcare, and the supervision and regulation of such systems.

Even more work is needed in social security and human services. A highly ideological approach by ministers to reducing access to welfare has seemed to be accompanied by a suspicious attitude among higher public servants that most beneficiaries are scroungers, that their payments are discretions not rights, and that obedience to the actual law is almost irrelevant. The surest – I would say the most essential – evidence of a new system focused on actually helping citizens in need would be the dismantling of its hopeless and incompetent call centres and eternal telephone waits.

A new government should remove the AFP and ASIO from Home Affairs. They should stand alone in neutral agencies. It should dismantle and disband the empire-building intelligence agency inside Home Affairs. The pretence for this amalgamation was “co-ordination” of advice to government; in practice it has caused reduced independence of action, much increased bureaucracy and cost, unnecessarily using up extra appropriations for counter-terrorism work. Both the AFP and ASIO need reduced co-ordination by outsiders and more internal independent focus on their core work. It could be at the expense of no longer being independent broadcasters on matters well outside of their remit, such as where complaints about state crimes committed by government MPs ought to go, or which academies are imagined to be enemies of the state.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd made Senator John Faulkner a minister for integrity as well as wise-voice-at-large inside Cabinet telling ministers whose ideas were balmy or dangerous and possibly illegal. Faulkner had the brave idea that the appointment of independent officials and membership of boards and other advisory bodies ought to go on merit, by advertisement and interview with officials, rather than as discretions by ministers wanting to reward old factional colleagues, MPs who had lost seats and friends and relations. A short list of exceptions (for example High Court appointments) was promulgated, but the working rule was that if you were not exempt, it went by merit.

Naturally, even succeeding Labor ministers weakened this rule — which should have been legislated. From Tony Abbott on, the old patronage system was restored to the point where the appointment of Incitatus to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, at $400,000 a year, and similar appointments occasioned no surprise. We need some Faulkner spirit back.

 Jack Waterford is a regular commentator and former editor of The Canberra Times

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