Troubling tenure again: Would ministers appoint ‘permanent mates’?

Nov 7, 2023
The Australian parliament house in Canberra.

The system of fixed term contracts for department heads is not in itself the cause of the recent debacles of Robodebt and Home Affairs. Restoring permanent appointments for departmental heads is unthinkable, not least because the former system rested upon powerful public service boards, now abolished everywhere. We could not restore such bodies even if we wanted to. Would some ministers then appoint ‘permanent mates’?

I’m sorry to have nettled Paddy Gourley so with my comments on the tenure of departmental heads in the Australian public service. He points to what he sees as my factual errors, on which more below, but avoids the substance of my argument: that focusing heavily on tenure misses other elements needed for an accountable public service to be restored.

Included, just to start, are issues around citizen access to administrative remedies, including strong freedom of information, and industrial democracy inside the public service itself. I know that Gourley is a knowledgeable commentator on such themes, but he avoided any mention of substantive matters on this occasion. Perhaps former senior officials and other commentators become myopic when they survey something less than the whole of their lost empires.

To what he regards as factual points I turn. We don’t disagree about the course of reform from Whitlam through Fraser. I didn’t say that Whitlam “sacked” any departmental secretary (so that is a refutation of nothing), though, as he seems to allude to, George Warwick Smith and Halford Cook went to diplomatic jobs, the former restored by Fraser to head Construction. But there is a deeper point that I am sure Gourley is aware of. In caucus and in ministerial offices at the time of Labor’s entry to government was a view that the permanent status of departmental heads should be critically examined. The Coombs Commission was in part of result of that, and its report disappointed some of those expectations. A ‘fact’ can be something desired but not achieved.

Next, I claimed that the Coombs Commission contained no “specific proposal” about tenure and Gourley says that it made a “precise” recommendation. In fact the recommendation was to adopt a “practice” of limiting a headship within one department to a maximum of seven years (leaving open the possibility of exceptions); and, more important, not to limit the permanency of department secretaries, a point made clear in the recommendation following about rotation between government agencies (not just departments). The recommendation was well short of the specific limitation on tenure hoped for by the early proponents of the inquiry – and clearly and deliberately so, as shown in the words Gourley quotes.

Perhaps we both risk boring readers with this detail – but after all, these were the issues around tenure that were much debated by the Labor politicians of the time who cared. (The Liberals and Nationals didn’t, apart perhaps from the rectitudinous Fraser.) It would be good to hear from them, not just former officials and retired academics. They would include those members of Labor’s Task Force on Government Administration of 1982 still with us – Gareth Evans, Ros Kelly, Neal Blewett and John Coates.

They were the politicians, most soon to become ministers, who argued that the Labor changes of the early Hawke years were consistent with Coombs – as appeared in the pre-election document Labor and Quality of Government. It’s a subtle connection to be sure. The only explicit mention of Coombs was the criticism of the Public Service Board for “not effectively implementing previous reports…(e.g. the Coombs Royal Commission)”. But we should interpret the words as typical of the approaching Hawke era, in which identification with the Whitlam government was to be subdued. The message of continuity was there for those who listened.

The strong espousal of industrial democracy in the Quality of Government document – an “Industrial Democracy Unit [ will] be established in the Public Service Board” – drew on the Coombs report too. Coombs used the term “collegiate management” rather than “industrial democracy”, but it must be remembered that the Commission, though appointed under Whitlam, reported to Fraser. “Industrial democracy” is a subject conspicuously absent from current debate. I can’t, sadly, call the late Peter Wilenski in my defence on these matters, in all of which he had some role, but below I draw some thoughts about public service reform from his career.

I don’t have any trouble identifying these people, as Gourley claims, though a proper modesty precluded me from adding a polemical publication of mine at the time that advocated fixed term contracts (and other matters mentioned above). In the current piece to which he objects, I said only that we variously “were able to argue” consistency with the spirit of Coombs, which seems to me an average example of political argument, not to be refuted by scripture. But on that, it is curious for Gourley to claim that the Hawke government “abolished” fixed term appointments, when he apparently is referring to the Fraser government scheme for appointing “political “heads for fixed terms, a scheme that he points out rightly (but inconsistently) was never implemented. Or maybe he is referring to the scheme in the Quality document, that he has excoriated elsewhere and that was not implemented by Labor in government, for appointments to be made to a “Special Division”, “mostly from within the Public Service … for a term of up to 5 years”.

I was also guilty of loose language in referring to the “contract regime” being in place at the time of Block’s Scrutiny Unit in 1986. I was referring in context to the ministerial consultants of whom Block was one, all appointed for fixed terms, and to the contracts for private sector consultancies then starting to cascade through the Department of Administrative Services – one of the on-going problems that all writers to P&I seem to agree about. (Based on Gourley’s other writing in P&I, we seem also to agree that the ministerial consultancies could usefully be revived.)

Getting our facts right is essential, but the task then is to decide how to form a democratised public service, and not just in the federal sphere. The system of fixed term contracts is not in itself the cause of the recent debacles of, for example, Robodebt and Home Affairs. Restoring permanent appointments for departmental heads is unthinkable (would some ministers appoint ‘permanent mates’?), not least because the former system rested upon powerful public service boards (some of us thought ‘too powerful’), now abolished everywhere. We could not restore such bodies even if we wanted to. The boards were created in Australia’s nation building period a century and more ago and they were despatched as we entered the neo-liberal period.

It is no accident that Wilenski was both an architect of the Labor proposals of 1982-83 and then chair of the Public Service Board when its report of 1985/86 explicitly linked the “administrative reform program” of the government to “the national effort to address the economic crisis”; that was the last report of the Board before it was abolished. The Hawke government had a tendency to put reformers in places that required them to undo earlier reforms, shadowing the ideology of the government as a whole. (Brian Howe with asset sales and Stewart West in Administrative Services were other examples.) The public service is now more a manager of contracts than a creative and direct force of production. Only a revitalised state will change that, and the political reforms needed go beyond a change of party in government. Former officials are not barred from contributing to the identification of those political reforms.

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