When I joined the Treasury in 1954, the Commonwealth Public Service had a claim to be among the four or five best administrative machines in the world. The Treasury, the Prime Minister’s Department, the still fledgling Department of External Affairs, the Customs and Excise Department, and the then burgeoning Department of Immigration were all headed by men (in the nature of Australia at that time, they were all men) of considerable stature and unquestioned probity. The Public Service Board, a statutory body established under the Public Service Act 1922 to ensure that it brought an independent view to the preservation of an apolitical service based on broadly similar principles to those laid down in Britain’s 1854 Trevelyan report, maintained an overview of the working of the service as a whole.
Public servants, although of course entitled to their own political views (and their electoral votes to give effect to them), were not generally—and particularly not senior ones—associated with, and still less members of, political parties. In the traditions of the Westminster system, they were expected to give—and with rare exceptions (such as Dr John Burton) did give—complete loyalty to the government of the day, whatever its political complexion.
That has all changed. As I wrote in a letter to the Australian on June 3:
Dr Ken Henry’s appointment as a “special adviser” to the Prime Minister marks a clear watershed in the role and status of the Commonwealth Public Service. Dr Henry, who resigned as Secretary to the Treasury last December, is entitled to take whatever job he (properly) chooses. However, the choice he has now made means that there can no longer be any shadow of doubt as to the politicisation of his former role during his tenure of it.
There followed a paragraph which regrettably was omitted (presumably on grounds of length) from the letter as published:
For years now, Dr Henry’s behaviour as Secretary to the Treasury has come under increasing public scrutiny. Throughout, and despite my own growing doubts, I have refrained from any public criticism of him. Indeed, in a March 2008 Quadrant article I went out of my way to criticise his treatment by the Howard government over a particular incident in May 2007. (I have since come to think that the government was right, and I was in error.)
Coming to Canberra in 1956 (after two years spent in London, including six months seconded to the British Treasury), I quickly learned that a public servant’s first duty was to “protect the minister”—which, inevitably, sometimes meant seeking to dissuade him from some rash action he was contemplating. Among the more senior Treasury officers I then met was the late Jack Garrett, who had served in Ben Chifley’s ministerial office when Chifley held the Treasury portfolio as well as that of Prime Minister. Jack held “Chif” in the highest regard, and often referred to him in almost reverential tones. Yet over the next twenty years, before he left the Treasury to become Deputy Secretary of the new Department of Finance, I never saw the slightest sign of that personal affiliation influencing in any way the advice he gave to (mainly) Coalition governments. It would never have occurred to me that it might.
An important consequence of this relationship between ministers and their officials was that ministerial private offices were then almost completely staffed by the latter, Jack Garrett being one such example. Ministers got lots of advice from external sources, but so far as their own offices were concerned, they felt no need to surround themselves with political “trusties” because, with very rare exceptions (such as Dr Evatt), they trusted their officials. And since trust is a two-way relationship, the trust they gave was wholly reciprocated. As a consequence also, the private office staffs were very small in number; after all, a whole department stood ready to satisfy the minister’s demands.
The contrast with today’s situation is stark. Not only have ministers’ private offices swollen enormously in numbers, but with rare exceptions they are nowadays almost wholly staffed by “trusties”, with only a departmental liaison officer or two included to maintain some order in the flow of paper. Most of these party-affiliated trusties have had little experience of the processes of government, and are often largely ignorant of the constitutional or other proprieties involved. Is it any wonder that, in these circumstances, we have recently been seeing all the signs (pink batts, for example) of administrative breakdown?
These changes have not come to pass overnight. As I said in that letter to the Australian, they have been, “under successive governments, some thirty-five years in the making, and Australia today is a poorer nation as a consequence”.
In choosing that thirty-five-year time-frame, I had in mind the report of the Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration. Established by the Whitlam government in 1974 under the chairmanship of Dr H.C. (“Nugget”) Coombs—a Labor Party “trusty” if ever there was one—its report was delivered to the Fraser government in 1976. It inaugurated a new doctrine, that public servants should be “responsive” to the political views of the government of the day, and ever since then the asserted need for “responsiveness” has figured hugely in all the public service “reforms” that, over the years, successive governments have inaugurated.
Since public servants pre-Coombs had always been responsive to the demands of their ministers, it was at first sight difficult to see what, over and above that, Dr Coombs and his colleagues had in mind. It was not long, however, as the debate evolved, before it became clear that what was in mind was that public servants—and particularly senior ones—should actually bend their own minds, and the resources of their departments, to the active pursuit of their ministers’ political objectives.
From this change there progressively stemmed a whole series of developments, commencing with the major changes contained in the Hawke government’s Public Service Reform Act 1984. (When governments of all persuasions speak of “reform”, it is wise to be on one’s guard; in true Orwellian tradition, what is usually meant is “change, in the political interests of the government”.)
I have good reason to recall that legislation, which was introduced by the then Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Public Service Matters, the Hon. John Dawkins. In a newspaper column many years later I described Mr Dawkins as possessing an “anti-Midas touch; everything he touched turned to dross”, and his Public Service Reform Act was no exception. When Mr Dawkins’s several cabinet submissions proposing his “reforms” came forward in (from memory) December 1983, I personally penned the Treasury’s “departmental comments”, which in those days were generally required to be included with ministers’ submissions. My comments were, no doubt, unduly savage, and I was under no misapprehension as to their likely fate (and my own for giving voice to them).
Nevertheless, their savagery must have had some effect, because the cabinet refrained from taking any decisions on Mr Dawkins’s submissions at that time. It was, naturally, only a temporary reprieve, and in early 1984 the decisions were taken, the legislation was introduced and became law, and the long, legislatively programmed, downhill slide in public service integrity began.
On August 15, 1984, I gave the then Treasurer, Paul Keating, a lengthy letter advising him of my intention in the near future to resign my office as Secretary to the Treasury, and from the Commonwealth Public Service. I advised him to make my intention public immediately, and gave him a draft press statement in his name to that effect. After initially authorising the issue of that statement, Mr Keating subsequently suggested—and I agreed—that the reference in the draft to my having given him a letter stating the reasons for my decision should be deleted. Although that letter has never been published, perhaps I can say at this juncture that, although there were several reasons for my decision, the consequences that I foresaw flowing from the Public Service Reform Act were among them.
A year later there took place in Sydney a regional meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society. The public-choice theory of Professor James Buchanan, which subsequently earned him a Nobel Prize for Economics, was then very much in vogue and, perhaps for that reason, I was invited to give a paper to the society.
I thought then, and still do, that while there is much truth in the Buchanan view (essentially, that the over-riding public choice of bureaucrats is always to enlarge their own empires), it is far too sweeping, and accords far too little credit to the many public servants I have known personally who have dedicated their professional lives to the true service of the public. People such as Paul Volcker in the United States, Sir Douglas Allen (now Lord Croham) in Britain, or Sir William Cole or the late Ian Castles here in Australia, spring to mind. So in a paper entitled “Meretricious Players—and Others” I sought to set out a more balanced view of the matter.
First, I wished to place on record what I regarded as a more accurate view (than the Buchanan one would imply) of the past performance of the Commonwealth Public Service. Second, I wished to remark on the processes which had led, up to that time, to the gradual degradation of that service, and which, I predicted, would (unless reversed) lead inexorably to its further progressive degradation.
On recently re-reading that Mont Pelerin paper—which has never been published—I was struck by the extent to which, although obviously a kind of historical artefact of its time, it still speaks to the problems of today in Canberra. So, with the Editor’s indulgence, it is now reproduced below. One point to emerge from it is that, had I had it in mind when writing that letter to the Australian, I might have added the words “or even earlier” after my reference to these changes having been “some thirty-five years in the making”.
So far from reversing the changes set in train by the Dawkins “reforms”, all governments since 1984 have moved further in the same damaging direction. Although it pains me to say so, none has been more culpable than the Howard government, whose Public Service Reform (there’s that word again) Act 1999 set the capstone on the arch created by all its predecessors.
Twenty-five years ago I concluded that Mont Pelerin Society paper by saying:
It would be nice to think that all this lost ground could be recovered, the proprieties refurbished, and what used to be a fine Public Service restored to something akin to what it was. That ought, no doubt, to be the objective—if only because the alternative is so depressing—but I am by no means sure that that objective is any longer capable of attainment. Probably, it is worth a try, because in the working out of these grubby little Machiavellian processes Australia—and Australians—have suffered a most grievous loss, and one which it would be worth trying to recover. Only time, however, will tell whether that can be done.
As they say, that was then, and this is now. Time has told, and the tide of degradation has not been reversed. On the contrary, it has swollen, and the recent development in the case of Dr Henry is only the culmination of the processes involved. The result is that “the careers of the place-men (and place-women) will flourish, with long-term effects on the behaviour patterns of the society”. When even the Treasury can be seen to be intellectually “bent” (as witness all its ludicrous modelling on the climate change issue), why should we be surprised to see the behaviour of a formerly respected professional economist, Professor Ross Garnaut, conforming to the same behaviour pattern?
Let me conclude with some of the same words with which I concluded that earlier paper: “in the end, advice is part of the process of free trade in ideas; ministers who set up ‘protectionist’ barriers to that free trade damage, first and foremost, themselves”.
Could there be any more accurate pointer to the records of the Rudd, and now Gillard, governments?
* * *
Meretricious Players—and Others
(A paper delivered to the Pacific Regional Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, Sydney, August 21, 1985)
Let me say at the outset—particularly having in mind the title of my paper—what I am not here to talk about.
I am not here to talk about “private advisers I have known” or some other such version of “what the housemaid saw”. Nor am I here to provide any blow-by-blow accounts of famous bureaucratic battles of Australia’s recent past. I am not even here, like the diarising Dr Crossman, to propagate a particular—and in that case particularly self-serving—view of the way in which the advisory machinery works.
Apart from the fact of having been honoured by being asked to be, I am here, rather, because it seems to me that the Australian machinery of government, as it now operates, is suffering from a number of problems. Most of those problems appear to stem from developments based on faulty analyses of the system and inadequate knowledge, on the part of the analysts, of how it operates (or rather, operated). We need now to stand back a little, to see where things have gone wrong, and to ask ourselves whether there is any real hope now of rectifying those problems.
I should perhaps make the obvious point that until recently it would not have been possible for me to deliver a paper on this topic—or at any rate, not one which would have been worth delivering. There is a myth, beloved of the journalists, that senior public servants receive an enormous psychic income from their positions of advisory privilege (sometimes called “power”) within the system. Indeed, it is often said that it is those titillations of “power” which compensate such people for the poor monetary rewards which they receive from the governments they serve compared with their private sector managerial counterparts. Speaking for myself, I can only say that that is nonsense, and that the real psychic income I enjoy nowadays—it must be worth at least $100,000 a year—is the freedom to speak one’s mind without reference to a minister or the government more generally.
Having dispelled one myth, let me deal with another. There is nothing really new about the phenomenon of ministers seeking, and receiving, advice from quarters other than their permanent public service advisers. They have always done so. Indeed, the better the minister, the more external advisers he (or she) usually has. So far as I am aware, no umbrage was ever taken over that by public servants. On the contrary, it was part of the natural order of things. What then has changed?
To my mind, what has changed is the relationship of trust between ministers and their senior public service advisers, which lies at the heart of the Westminster system. That system depends for its continuing viability upon a particular allocation of rights and obligations. The minister has a right to the complete loyalty of his officials and to their unreserved advice. He does not have a right to be told what he wants to hear, a process which only too many ministers only too often confuse with loyalty. The truth is that the most valuable adviser (whether official or non-official) a minister can have is one who is prepared to tell the minister precisely what he or she does not want to hear.
Just as a minister has a right to exact loyalty—as well as hard work, but not slavish agreement—so the minister is obliged to give loyalty in return. A minister who publicly seeks to off-load his (or even their) errors on his departmental advisers will be seen not merely as mean-spirited but also as personally inadequate.
We saw last month the unedifying spectacle of ministers of the present government crying all over the characteristically receptive shoulders of our journalists about how they had all been “bullied” by the Treasurer into going along with his preferred option (Option C) for the tax package to be included in the government’s draft White Paper on Taxation Reform. What those stories actually revealed was that the ministers giving rise to them were either wimps at the time—that is, were beaten in argument by a better man—or whingers since, or both.
The process whereby weak—or scoundrelly—ministers “bag” public servants to excuse their own inadequacies is not a new one. Perhaps its most notable exponent was Mr (now Sir William) McMahon, perhaps the most unlikely—as well as the most unworthy—man ever to have become Prime Minister of Australia. “Billy the Flea”, as he was so accurately nicknamed by the late Sir Arthur Fadden, was in his day “Australia’s greatest Treasurer”—a title the lustre of which may however have been dimmed a little by having been self-awarded. Mr McMahon was incapable of giving loyalty to his public servants. Indeed, he was incapable of giving loyalty to anyone, and perhaps least of all his own ministerial colleagues. The result was, naturally, to strain their loyalty to him.
In a sense, however, Mr McMahon’s egregious behaviour was no more than a ballooning of the trend first set in train by his predecessor, Mr (now Sir John) Gorton. Unlike Mr McMahon, Mr Gorton was—and is—a man, and I have no desire to speak harshly of him even though he does, I believe, carry a heavy responsibility for setting Australia adrift on its present sea of messy advisory processes.
Mr Gorton’s major contribution to changing the advisory processes in Australia was his decision in 1968 to hive off the Cabinet Secretariat into a new Department of the Cabinet Office (headed by the then Secretary to Cabinet, Sir John Bunting) and to set up a new Prime Minister’s Department headed by Sir Lenox Hewitt.
Although this move created many bitter feelings in Canberra at the time, there was nothing in the move itself that was terribly wrong. Indeed, there is much to be said for the view that the Cabinet Secretariat should be divorced from the more day-to-day pressures of the policy advisory process. What was different—and what really underlay the bitterness of feeling which emerged—was the manner in which the new Prime Minister’s Department operated, both vis-à-vis the Prime Minister and vis-à-vis the rest of the Canberra departmental structure.
In its relationship with the Prime Minister, the new department diverged from previous behaviour patterns. Under its departmental head it took on more the appearance of a personal prime ministerial secretariat. It was deeply involved in the politics of the day, and its senior officers were expected to display a personal loyalty, not only to the Prime Minister but also to their departmental head, going far beyond the normal canons of proper public service duty.
It was in its relationships with other departments, however, that the new Prime Minister’s Department diverged most clearly from its predecessor. Whereas the latter had operated chiefly in the role of co-ordinator, conciliator and generally emollient inter-departmental influence, “holding the ring” between various bureaucratic (and ministerial) forces contending for the ear of the Prime Minister of the day, the new department set out from the beginning to bestride, like some new Colossus, the entire world of government policy. It was a fateful development and in my view an entirely harmful one.
While all this was going on I was most fortunately removed from it all in Washington, DC, where I was serving as the Executive Director for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on the Executive Boards of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Nevertheless, the Treasury still kept me in touch with the developments in Canberra, and from those papers and other sources I was able to follow the bureaucratic battles swaying back and forth there.
I have spent a little time on this episode of the late 1960s for two reasons. First, because in my view “meretricious players” on the ministerial advisory stage are by no means to be found only in ministers’ private offices. Second, because I am deeply convinced of the unwisdom of the growth in the role of the Prime Minister’s Department (or, as it now is, the re-combined Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet). Again, I note that that is a comment that I am now free to make. Had I advanced such a view in my previous capacity it would undoubtedly have been written off, in the ad hominem way we have in Australia, as merely deriving from sour grapes on the part of the Treasury.
There are several reasons why I think our advisory system in Australia would be healthier if the Prime Minister’s Department were to be abolished.
The first point is that no single department can hope to cover the entire policy waterfront, in the process “second-guessing” all the functional departments whose responsibility it is to do so. No matter how competent its officers may be—and there is no evidence that they are particularly so—that task is simply beyond them.
Second, it is entirely improper, simply as a method of procedure, that a particular department should be in a position to comment—including adversely—upon the submissions of all other departments but that none of those is ever able to reciprocate (or indeed, even see the advice being tendered to the Prime Minister about their own, and their minister’s, policy proposals).
Third, and most importantly, however, the present system represents a classic example of the divorce between power and responsibility. A minister, and his or her departmental officials, put a proposal to cabinet. What emerges may be a decision differing markedly from the minister’s recommendation—a decision arrived at on the basis of a short briefing note (and perhaps some associated oral briefing) given to the Prime Minister by his own departmental officials. It then falls to the lot of the minister—and his department—to give effect to this decision.
If all goes well—and it may—nothing more will be heard of the matter. But what if the decision turns out to have been a bad one—inadequately researched, inadequately discussed, containing too many administrative problems? Who will take the rap? It will not be the Prime Minister, and still less will it be his department. It will be the functional minister who will have to live with the outcome—including the possible backwash upon his or her own political future—and it will be the functional department that will have to set about doing its best to clean up the mess. Those truly responsible will—apart from the general effect on the standing of the government—escape scot-free.
The more arrogant members of the Prime Minister’s Department will, if confronted with such criticisms, argue that while in theory it is all very well to ally power and responsibility, in practice any such policy in Canberra would lead to even more disastrous outcomes than the one I have hypothetically sketched. That will occur because, it will be said, most of the functional departments in Canberra are poorly staffed and poorly led, so that if the policy advising processes in their areas of functional responsibility were simply left to them, without the interposition of more mature minds in the Prime Minister’s Department, the outcomes would be worse.
This is not merely an arrogant view but also one which, if accepted, could only lead logically to the centralisation of all policy advice in the Prime Minister’s Department. It is, in short, a classic example of a vicious circle. While it is true that the quality of personnel in many of the functional departments in Canberra leaves much to be desired, one of the reasons for that is the effect on morale in those departments deriving from the constant knowledge that allegedly superior beings, having an inside track to the Prime Minister, are constantly looking over their shoulders. In short, so long as the Prime Minister’s Department continues in its present role, so long will it be difficult to persuade talented people to enter departments operating under that harrow.
The next notable development on the Canberra advisory scene accompanied the coming to office of the Whitlam government in late 1972. It was very soon obvious that, whether or not those who became ministers in that government had prepared themselves for office, there was gathered about them a numerous cadre of young men (and to some extent, women) who had very definitely done so. Almost without exception these were people who had in one way or another been prominent, and come to know each other, in left-wing student politics throughout Australia during (roughly) the preceding decade. Not to put too fine a point on it, they were young people on the make.
Some, though not all, of this new breed of political carpet-baggers had had bureaucratic experience. A number of them, for example, including perhaps the most notable of them all, Dr Peter Wilenski (now the Chairman of the Commonwealth Public Service Board) had served in the Department of Foreign Affairs, where they had rapidly formed the view that their considerable talents had been greatly under-remarked (and naturally, under-remunerated). During 1972 a number of them, together with other invited public servants who were judged to be suitably disaffected with the then Liberal-Country Party regime, were wont to meet in the suitably clandestine surroundings of the Shepherd’s Hut restaurant near Queanbeyan to plot their bureaucratic strategy when, as they confidently—and correctly—expected, the Australian Labor Party came to power later that year.
Thus, when that political transition duly took place, ordinary public servants in Canberra were fascinated to observe the establishment, literally overnight, of a new “private advisers’ network” ranging throughout ministerial offices in Parliament House. For a time, indeed, with the exception of a few strong ministers (such as Mr Whitlam himself), the casual observer would have been pardoned for thinking that the people making up this new “network” actually were the ministers. They certainly behaved as though they were, in many cases barely even attempting to veil the contempt in which they largely held the men and women to whom they actually owed their jobs. These were the apparatchiks of the future. It was they who, working in harmony, and secure in their deep sense of ideological commitment, would shape (through their ministerial ventriloquists’ dummies) the policies of the first Australian Labor government for twenty-three years.
Of course, it did not quite work out like that. Increasingly, ministers proved to have minds of their own. Increasingly, the government took decisions which did not correspond with the “agenda” of the private advisers’ network, or refused to agree to proposals put up to them which did. Individual jealousies also began to play their part, as did the continuing propensity of most of those concerned to unburden themselves to assorted members of the parliamentary press gallery.
Indeed, one of the most unappealing features of this new private advisory wave was that some of its members had actually been, before the 1972 election, working journalists who, immediately the election was over, popped up wearing political hats. For the most part, these individuals proved not to be “stayers”. Although much better paid than previously, and with access now not merely to the big white cars but also to much of the internal confidences of government, they tended to find the hours too long, the going too hard and ministers, perhaps, much less grateful than they had been while still members of the Opposition receiving an unduly favourable press from the scribes concerned. So that this, while an interesting vignette, generally proved to be not a very long-lived one.
After the Whitlam government had been swept away on a rising tide of incompetence-cum-disgrace, the Fraser government continued to employ, albeit with mixed success, private advisers in the offices of many of its ministers. As one would expect, a few of these (such as Dr—now Professor—David Kemp, who served in Mr Fraser’s office) were excellent; a few (including one or two also in the Prime Minister’s office) were utterly dreadful; the majority were simply run-of-the-mill people who had nothing particularly to commend them other than some record of more or less faithful service to the Liberal Party. Generally speaking—although there may have been some exceptions—the Country Party ministers failed to swing along with this new fashion, which may have been one of the factors which, in the broad, rendered them more effective than their Coalition counterparts.
By this progression then we come to the present government, whose Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Public Service Matters was, in its first term in office, the then Minister for Finance, the Hon. John Dawkins. It was under the aegis of Mr Dawkins that we have seen the so-called “reforms” of the Commonwealth Public Service—changes which are proceeding, slowly but steadily, to transform the upper echelons of the service—nowadays known as the Senior Executive Service—into a cadre of political appointees.
The two keys to these developments—which as I say, are proceeding steadily but so far as possible stealthily and with as little fuss as possible—have been the undermining of the statutory roles of departmental heads and the politicisation of the Public Service Board.
As to the latter, the facts are plain for all to see. The previous Chairman of the Board, Sir William Cole, one of Australia’s most distinguished public servants—and an utterly apolitical one at that—who had begun to bring a new sense of purpose and direction to a body somewhat sadly run down, was brutally ejected from his position when his initial five-year term of appointment expired in November 1983. He thus holds the dubious distinction of having been the only Chairman of the Commonwealth Public Service Board since the board’s inception nearly seventy years ago to fail to have been re-appointed despite being eligible.
Let me be quite clear about this event. Sir William, it is true, eventually found another post of almost equivalent standing—namely, that of Secretary of the Department of Defence where, I am glad to say, he is still employed and where his talents will have been, and are being, put to good use. This exercise in face-saving (for the government) emerged only very late in the day. It derived not from any spirit of understanding on the government’s part of the enormity of the manner in which it was (originally) proposing to deal with a man who had devoted his entire adult life to serving his country, and with distinction. At no time, moreover, was Sir William ever consulted about his position, or any suggestions made to him (which he might then have asked for a chance to answer) that his performance had been unsatisfactory. He was simply called in and told to go.
The fact was that the government wanted Sir William’s job in order to bestow it upon one of (at that time) its favourite sons. This largesse flowed not so much from the deep delight displayed by Mr Dawkins and others in Dr Wilenski’s beautiful eyes (as the French would say), but from the over-riding political objective of transforming the Public Service Board (a body the independence of which from the government of the day is intended to be guaranteed by statute under the Public Service Act) into a political creature of this government.
In due course, and with further turnover among the other two previously existing Public Service Board Commissioners, that aim has now been fully achieved. One of the new Commissioners, Mr Roger Beale, was previously a division head in the Department of Finance and the key official, under Mr Dawkins, in the drafting of the notably dishonest White Paper issued by the government in late 1983 on its proposals for public service “reform”. I cannot recall any previous examples of mere division heads, even from very senior departments such as the Treasury or Prime Minister and Cabinet, ever before having been elevated overnight to the standing of Public Service Commissioner (which ranks equivalent to the lesser departmental heads in the Canberra hierarchical pecking order).
As for the remaining Commissioner, he is what might be called a “regular” public servant, albeit not a very forceful one and not one, I would judge, likely to provide his two Board colleagues with much in the way of inconvenient disagreement over matters political.
The real importance of this political coup d’état at the Public Service Board, however, lies not in the mere over-promotion of a couple of ambitious people who have found it easier to climb the bureaucratic tree via the route of political influence than through reliance upon merit and ability alone (of which Mr Beale, at least, possesses some). The real importance is, rather, in the newly enhanced role which, following the passage of Mr Dawkins’s Public Service Act “reform” legislation in June 1984, the Public Service Board now has in the whole process of appointments throughout the Public Service—and, consequently, the reduced role which departmental heads now have in selecting their own staff and hence running their own departments.
Incidentally, and quite apart from any constitutional aspects, the naive view—also toyed with on some earlier occasions by one or two Coalition government ministers—that perhaps it should be the minister, rather than the departmental head, who is charged with the administration of the department, is just that—a naive view. The truth is that, as painful experience has shown, most ministers are incapable of administering their own private offices, let alone one of the great departments of state. They have, as a rule, neither training in administration nor experience in management. Above all, they lack any continuity of knowledge of the people who, in the end, comprise the basic resource to be managed in any department.
I bother to make this point not merely because it is of some significance in itself, but also because it has, as a matter of fact, decided relevance also to the newly enhanced role of the Public Service Board in departmental management. Even if we set aside—for the moment—any question of political intervention by the Board itself and its increasingly politicised staff, the fact remains that the Board knows relatively little about the calibre of individual officers of the service, even quite senior ones. It can set up—as it is doing, at great expense to the taxpayer—some sort of vast personnel data bank, on which it can then hope to draw when deciding on the competing claims of individuals, but none of this will substitute for the knowledge and “feel” for individuals which good departmental managers acquire as, in the course of their everyday work, they are thrown together with people in their own and other related departments. The plain truth is that the Board is, and will remain, incompetent to undertake the task which Mr Dawkins has now conferred upon it.
However, the real motivation for this change is not to be found in any view that the Board can make better judgments than the departments who will, after all, have to work with the individuals they would otherwise choose for themselves. The real motivation lies in the new capacity which the Board now has to insert at key points into the bureaucratic structure public servants, or applicants from outside the public service, whose chief recommendation is that they are the government’s political well-wishers.
The capacity of the Board to push down that path—given its clear need to be reasonably circumspect in doing so—will obviously vary inversely with the calibre of the departmental secretaries with whom it is dealing. A strong departmental head will still be able to win a high proportion of his or her battles, although much will depend, in the crunch, upon whether the support of the minister can be relied upon. Weak departmental heads, however, or even relatively strong ones whose ministers are prepared to lend sympathetic ears to any complaints from the Board about the “obstructionism” of their departmental heads, will lose a much higher proportion of the battles—to the point where some of them at least will take the view that there is little to be said for battling at all.
The processes of selection of departmental heads have themselves undergone some change. Thus, when late last year the question arose of a replacement for the then retiring Secretary of Foreign Affairs, we found a “selection committee” comprising the Chairman of the Public Service Board, the Secretary of the Department of Trade (Mr Menadue) and the then recently appointed Secretary of the Department of Special Minister of State (Mr Darcy McGuarr, himself previously a private adviser to Mr Lance Barnard when the latter was Minister for Defence in the Whitlam government). I suppose it would have been hard to find a body less equipped for its task, yet my understanding is that at no time did that body—or for that matter the Minister for Foreign Affairs himself—consult the outgoing departmental secretary regarding the quality of the applicants.
Of course, as indeed the outcome in this case has already testified, ministers who lend themselves to processes leading to poor appointments will thereby make beds upon which they, in the end—and the governments of which they comprise a part—will have to lie. Nor indeed can it be argued that the departmental head appointments processes under the Coalition government led always to outstandingly successful outcomes. What I think can be claimed about those processes is that they were less open to overtly political intervention than those that have replaced them.
Today therefore the “meretricious players” are to be found not merely in the private offices, but (in some cases) at the departmental head level and, increasingly, filtering into the ranks of the Senior Executive Service. The process is not a dramatic one but rather one of “softly, softly”. Nevertheless, by the time the present government leaves office it will have gone a very long way indeed, and it will leave behind it a large covey of appointees who, though wearing the guise of public servants, will in truth be nothing of the kind but merely politically appointed “plants” owing allegiance not to the government of the day but to a party which no longer holds office. That is something to which the Coalition parties should already be giving a great deal of attention; they may be sure that the people concerned—including the present Public Service Board—are already doing so.
It would be nice to think that all this lost ground could be recovered, the proprieties refurbished, and what used to be a fine public service restored to something akin to what it was. That ought, no doubt, to be the objective—if only because the alternative is so depressing—but I am by no means sure that that objective is any longer capable of attainment. Probably, it is worth a try, because in the working out of these grubby little Machiavellian processes Australia—and Australians—have suffered a most grievous loss, and one which it would be worth trying to recover. Only time, however, will tell whether that can be done.
The note on which to end, perhaps, is this. When we set aside the ugly scramble for place on the part of the “meretricious players”, whether public servants or outsiders choosing the political route to personal preferment; when we set aside the feelings of personal insecurity displayed by so many ministers and which often lie at the heart of their propensity to turn inward to advisers with whom they feel more “comfortable”; when we set aside the more deliberately destructive processes set in train by the present government under the aegis of Mr Dawkins and the present Chairman of the Commonwealth Public Service Board, the “bottom line” is that all governments stand or fall in large part on the quality of the advice they receive from those to whom they grant the access necessary to give it. If straightforward men and women, seeking to do a job in the best traditions of the Westminster system, are to be “frozen out” or set aside by ministers whose own horizons are too circumscribed to comprehend the notion of disinterestedness, then of course the careers of those men and women will languish and the careers of the place-men (and place-women) will flourish, with long-term effects upon the behaviour patterns of the society.
Serious though those consequences will be, however, they will be no more serious than the consequences for the careers of the ministers concerned, and for the longevity of the governments of which they comprise an element. For in the end, advice is part of the process of free trade in ideas; ministers who set up “protectionist” barriers to that free trade damage, first and foremost, themselves.