Where are the true, small-l liberal conservatives?

Dec 4, 2020

Australian conservatives seem to have lost some of their traditional commitment to institutions and the liberalism they protect.

The US Republican Party struggles to regain its foundational values based not only on personal freedoms but also on the rule of law and institutions that support those freedoms, fostering community stability with appropriate checks and balances on excessive public and private power.

A particular paradox of President Trump’s determination to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington has been his strengthening of the worst aspects of the ‘swamp’ – the excessive influence of business and other special interests, the power of professional political operators, the lack of concern about conflicts of interest and other unethical behaviour – and his attacks on the very institutions that protect the public including the expertise of the civil service and the non-partisanship of the courts.

Indeed, one of his final decisions, Executive Order 13957 to come into effect on 19 January 2021, his last day in office, involves the power to transfer any civil servant providing policy advice in to a new ‘Category F’ with no protection at all from political hire and fire. This threat to the US merit-based civil service would be in addition to the 4,000 political appointments that are now allowed.

Another paradox has been Trump’s rejection of liberal economics, particularly through attacks on free trade and undermining the international institutions pioneered by the US after World War Two, core elements of Republicanism in the past. And of course it was Republican Abraham Lincoln who led the fight against slavery and the renewal of faith in the US Constitution, ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’.

The retreat from traditional conservative values and liberalism in Australia is nowhere near the extent we can see in the US but sadly there are troubling signs.

Prime Minister Morrison has made clear his wish for the public service to focus on implementation of the Government’s policies, not the provision of advice. He has rejected the Thodey Review recommendations to strengthen merit-based appointments and to introduce some constraints on ministerial adviser arrangements. The ‘congestion-busting’ changes to the machinery of government that took effect in January involved no improvements to Cabinet processes, and no clear long-term policy agenda, but removed another four secretaries confirming once again that secretaries’ tenure is the gift of Government. The message is clear: the public service must concentrate on doing the Government’s (the Prime Minister’s) bidding. Morrison has also rejected the recommendation to remove the staffing cap despite evidence that it gets in the way of value-for-money and undermines capability within the APS.

During COVID 19 we have seen more appreciation of the important role the public service can play, drawing on its specialist expertise, but no sign that this should become the ‘new normal’. The evidence of former senior bureaucrats such as Renee Leon, Paul Tilley and Peter Varghese confirm the underlying shift away from welcoming long-term strategic advice from the public service towards emphasising short-term tactical policy based on politics and marketing.

The focus on partisan politics is also seen in the growth of political appointments, even to quasi-judicial positions such as the AAT. These can only undermine public confidence in the impartiality of such institutions. The Government’s proposed anti-corruption agency also seems designed to focus mainly on the public service and to limit public scrutiny of the political side.

The serious failures to follow due process in the Sports rorts case (including to check legality), and the requirements of the law in the Robodebt program, raise serious questions about the impact of politics on the public service and whether incentives to please ministers, fostered by appointment and termination processes and other political pressures, may have contributed to failures to provide legal advice, to keep proper records and to exhibit the ‘commitment to service’ required by the APS Values.

This is not to deny the legitimacy of a conservative government to look to contain welfare spending and, indeed, to contain expenditure on public administration. But one might expect a conservative government to be particularly concerned about due process and the law, and to value a high quality if low-cost civil service.

Then there is the continuing distrust of universities.

The contrast with Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, who passed away a fortnight ago, could not be more telling. She was a conservative with a heart and a minister with great respect for the public service. It was a privilege to work in her department, a privilege I had in both Social Security and Finance. She clearly enjoyed working with us, keen to receive our advice. She encouraged our interactions with academics and social welfare organisations, and imposed no pressure whatsoever on our extensive policy research publications and comprehensive annual reports.

She and Malcolm Fraser took our advice not to means test child endowment as had been suggested to meet budget pressures but to replace tax rebates for dependent children with substantial increases in universal child endowment, renamed family allowances. This increased assistance for families on incomes below the tax threshold and transferred support ‘from wallet to purse’ in other families, a move widely welcomed by women. She continued to resist pressures to means test the allowances recognising their role in ensuring horizontal equity in the tax and transfers system and that means testing would impose high effective marginal tax rates on mothers in particular, discouraging workforce participation. She was instrumental in the establishment of the sole parents’ pension, for men and women bringing up children on their own, regardless of the reason for their sole parenthood. That pension was at the same level as the age pension. She supported government assistance for child care and firmly resisted constant pressures for welfare cuts.

She was also a gracious politician, always respectful of the parliament and opposition.

Looking back, it was her respect for the public service that stands out to me, and I believe for my colleagues. It was a partnership that recognised both our duty to serve the elected government and the degree of independence that comes with being non-partisan, impartial and merit-based.

Dame Margaret’s respect for the public service continued after she left parliament including when, as chair of the Australian Institute of Family Studies’ board, she helped the CEO, David Stanton (who, like me, had worked in DSS when she was the minister), build its standing as a non-partisan research institution contributing to policy deliberations within and beyond government. I was pleased when, after her retirement, she readily agreed to write the foreword for my 2009 book, The Role of a Departmental Secretary.

She had her own challenges of course, including regarding attempts to reduce overpayments and fraud in the social security system. The Greek conspiracy case did damage her reputation even though it was clear that the fault lay with an over-enthusiastic departmental secretary and poor execution by officials and police. What was also clear was that Dame Margaret did not have the disdain for social security clients revealed by some of today’s conservative leaders.

Fred Chaney replaced Dame Margaret as Minister for Social Security when she moved to Finance. Mr Chaney was different, being a Western Australian ‘dry’ (though ‘wetter’ than most) rather than a Victorian conservative. His concern for the most disadvantaged was genuine as demonstrated in his time as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. He also believed very strongly in the role of the public service. After he left parliament we have from time to time discussed our shared concerns both about the standing of the APS and about its failures particularly in delivering effective services to Indigenous Australians.

These two, and others from that era (including Malcolm Fraser himself), held views that seem not to get much attention on the conservative side of politics today. More’s the pity.

Conservatives need to renew their commitment to protect institutions, due process, human rights and respect for science and education, and to pursue greater bipartisanship on these matters of principle. That might help frame more constructive and legitimate partisan debates over the size of government, the scale of redistribution and priorities with respect to economic, social and environmental policies.

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