The Gaetjens’ valedictory

Jul 27, 2022
Phil Gaetjens
Image: AAP/Lukas Coch

I do not know the former Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens personally, but others who do and whose judgment I respect have long told me of his competence as both an economist and a manager.

Gaetjens’ valedictory address last week, however, revealed a serious lack of self-awareness and of understanding of public administration issues that go to the basic role of the public service. His words also did not square with his actions (and inactions) over the last three years.

His claim, in response to a question from the audience, that he was ‘a bit of a public service plant up in Parliament House’ rather than a ‘political plant’ in the public service, at the very least ignores the importance of perceptions widely held to the contrary, perceptions he acknowledged. Yet his resignation within days of the election of the Albanese Government showed that, when it came to the crunch, he did understand that such perceptions have serious consequences. Responsibility for coordinating the transition to power of the new government was left to a deputy secretary in PM&C until the new secretary (who had no direct experience in the Commonwealth despite his wealth of knowledge of public administration) took over a month later.

In other words, an APS leadership vacuum was left when it was most needed, and when the role of the public service across changes of government is of most importance.

Gaetjens is right that experience in Parliament House provides valuable insights for a career public servant, particularly about the pressures on ministers and how best to provide advice that is relevant, timely and useful. Being a departmental liaison officer, as I understand Gaetjens was for a time, should raise no issues of partisanship, perceived or real, as a DLO is still a public servant employed by the department and subject to the APS Values. Being a ministerial adviser, or an adviser to a shadow minister, should not raise concerns either, so long as the individual takes great care to address the risk of a perception of partisanship. This is entirely possible even though, at the time, the individual is directly responsible to the (shadow) minister and participates in political discussions.

My own firm view is that taking such care requires the individual to limit their time as a MOP(S) Act employee to no more than three years and, on return, to take a role where their non-partisanship can be well demonstrated to colleagues and any external observers. Gaetjens’ ten years as Peter Costello’s chief of staff and a further period as Scott Morrison’s chief of staff could only be perceived by Labor, and by the public service, as a demonstration of partisanship.

Gaetjens’ credibility as a professional, non-partisan public servant was also hard to accept given a number of his actions (and non-actions) as Secretary of PM&C. He has never satisfactorily explained how he rejected the Auditor-General’s findings on the Sports Rorts case. He continually delayed the investigation sought by the PM into his Office’s handling of the Brittany Higgins allegations (in my view he should have advised the PM immediately that the Secretary of PM&C should not undertake such an investigation – I am astonished that PM Albanese has continued the policy of having PM&C investigate breaches of ministerial standards). And his department’s responses to Senator Patrick’s FOI requests for National Cabinet documents, even after a firm AAT decision rejecting his department’s view, suggest strongly partisan protection of the PM rather than frank and fearless advice according to the law.

There were several other statements in Gaetjens’ address that must raise many eyebrows.

He spoke about how the Secretaries Board had moved ‘from passive stewardship to active governance’ under his leadership ‘while still respecting individual secretaries’ responsibilities and accountabilities’. There is some evidence of the Board’s effectiveness at least in the first year of the COVID pandemic. But there is also reason to believe the Board was used to contain differences and to control communications. Frances Adamson claimed last month that she ‘and her peers’ fully supported the Thodey Review recommendations; other secretaries participating in the subsequent discussion did not say anything different. But when he rejected key Thodey recommendations, the then PM Morrison stated that this was ‘on the advice of the Secretaries Board’. In response to a question from me at his valedictory event, Gaetjens stood by the PM’s statement. Maybe that is the truth, but it still demonstrates the weakness not the strength of the Board.

Gaetjens also claimed that the machinery of government changes in early 2020 ‘improved the architecture’ of government. From the public service perspective, it surely did the opposite, introducing all sorts of confused lines of responsibility between ministers and departments. That Albanese has not fully fixed the mess is not a sign, as Gaetjens suggested, of the benefits of the 2020 arrangements but of a disappointing unwillingness to remove remaining problems (probably for similar political faction reasons to those behind the Morrison moves).

He also waxed lyrical about the ‘National Cabinet’ and its support arrangements.Having more frequent meetings of what was more accurately termed the ‘Council of Australian Governments’ was always going to be essential for managing the pandemic. And a more active forum for senior officials was also vital, but there are dangers in this new terminology. It can, and has, led to misunderstanding about federal arrangements and accountability of governments to their respective legislatures. It also tends to centralise everything, reducing the importance of line ministers’ forums that are essential for managing shared responsibilities such as in health, education, environment, transport and infrastructure.

Gaetjens emphasised the partnership he developed with the APS Commissioner, Peter Woolcott. One wonders, however, what Gaetjens’ view is about the basis of that relationship and how it should work. The relationship between the Secretary of PM&C and the APS Commissioner is vitally important as Thodey highlighted, and it depends upon a clear understanding of respective roles. But Gaetjens omitted any reference to this and certainly said nothing about Thodey’s recommendation to specify the Commissioner as ‘Head of People’ and the PM&C Secretary as ‘Head of Service’ (one of the recommendations rejected ‘on the advice of the Secretaries Board’). Far better in my view would be for the Commissioner to be the ‘Professional Head of the APS’ and appointed only after consultation with the Parliament (the latter another Thodey recommendation rejected ‘on the advice of the Secretaries Board’).

That might better protect the APS from the dangers involved in partisan appointments to PM&C.

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