Tenure and its troubles

Sep 17, 2023
Canberra, Australia - June 28, 2016: View of The Commonwealth Coat of Arms, the formal symbol of the Commonwealth of Australia, in bronze outside the old Parliament House.

Discussion of the tenure of senior officials in the Australian public service continues in P&I, with some former officials recently pointing to the difficulty of giving the fabled “frank and fearless” advice when contracts may not be renewed.

Others maintain that they retained autonomy under the current regime. Chris Wallace argues that a reversion to permanent appointments is the single most important change that could be made to the operations of the public service. Some historical context explains the current situation and suggests what could be changed to realise a better system.

Wallace (P&I 8 August) rightly sees the dangers of contract employment as flowing from the neo-liberal hold on the machinery of state, which she dates to Thatcher but without suggesting a starting point in Australia. Michael Keating (P&I 23 August) supplies that by referring to three reports: the 1974-76 royal commission on government administration of the Whitlam government (“Coombs”), Fraser’s first cut of functionality with the Reid report of 1982, and then Labor’s paper on “Labor and Quality of Government” when coming into office in 1983. He does not broaden the point much beyond tenure, however. The trajectory from Whitlam through Fraser to Hawke certainly brought changes to tenure – and much else at both ministerial and official levels. “Public service reform” were words used throughout, but the content of “reform”, including the meaning of “contracts”, changed across time. Whether contract employment is undone, or whether it is made to work in a better way, arguably as originally intended, would require a wholescale reversion of the changes of the last forty years. That would indeed overturn the neo-liberal hold.

The changes to tenure that came with Labor in 1983 were justified vaguely by reference to the Coombs report, though it had not contained such a specific proposal. However, commentators were able to argue that contracts were consistent with Coombs’ emphasis on enhancing both ministerial control of policy and certain “bottom up” methods of policy development through citizen empowerment. Some saw this as a tension and a weakness, but the Labor changes of 1983 were consistent with such an approach. Labor adopted without comment Fraser’s introduction of freedom of information legislation and changes to administrative law and review and went further with policies for equal employment (EEO) and industrial democracy in the public service. Contracts in senior positions were promised to ‘enhance ministerial authority’, as was the appointment of ministerial consultants to assist ministers specifically with policy development. This was a new cadre: not the ‘minders’ already well in existence, and certainly not the departmental consultants of a later era, now so numerous. These were rather the “policy wonks” discontinued by Howard in 1996. Some like Kerry Schott and Craig Emerson remain prominent in Australian policy life.

The phase of reform of 1983-85 was overborne as the economic crisis of 1986-87 was said to demand much more, principally to the productive economy, but also, as ‘collateral damage’, to the public service. The reduction in the scope of government and the opening of new avenues for exchange and profit is well recognised but less so is the reorganisation of the governmental machinery that loosened controls that might have impeded such changes. Hawke as prime minister rightly took (dis)credit for this phase, though he depended on the advice of one of the new cadre of ministerial consultants, one unlike any other. That was David Block, a merchant banker and (Hawke said) “the toughest, leanest, meanest, most efficient bloke in the private sector”.

The contract regime, by then well in place, allowed a succession of senior officials to expedite the micro-economic reforms that followed, and the public service became responsive in a way that Whitlam, Coombs, Fraser and Reid had all espoused; but the policy lines were new.

Privatisation thus proceeded, albeit by stealth, with Block first identifying the “common services” of government that could be consolidated (such as travel bookings), then identifying those “services” as “asset sales” and only eventually as “privatisations”. The abolition of the Public Service Board and its replacement in the oversight of consultancy contracts with an augmented Department of Administrative Services allowed the employment of consultants to drive the downsizing of government at that time and presaged the ability of individual departments to award consultancies in their current volume. Then, still with Block’s advice, the ministerial restructure of 1987 created a hierarchy within portfolios that elevated the prime minister to a new supremacy to drive the changes of this period. Though that allowed a capable Hawke to make the changes for which he is variously celebrated and excoriated, some of his less able successors have not managed as well; it might even seem that a concentration of power threatens tenure at the very top.

The slow decline to the point of death, especially under Howard, of the “bottom up” changes of the earlier period – EEO, industrial democracy and freedom of information – was a melancholy, under regarded and necessary context for a colourful focus on the powerful players and their relationships. Those issues are not forgotten, however, and their revival would put tenure in its rightful place.

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