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Abbott and the public service: where now on department heads?

Prime minister Tony Abbott’s decision to sack three departmental secretaries within hours of his swearing-in earlier this week has not attracted the same shock John Howard’s decision to sack six secretaries…

In one of his first acts in office, prime minister Tony Abbott axed three department heads, while treasury secretary Martin Parkinson (pictured) will depart next year. AAP/Saeed Khan

Prime minister Tony Abbott’s decision to sack three departmental secretaries within hours of his swearing-in earlier this week has not attracted the same shock John Howard’s decision to sack six secretaries caused in 1996.

At that time, Paul Keating’s removal of secretaries’ tenure in 1994 was yet to be exercised. However, 17 years later, secretaries are painfully aware that tenure has gone and, while dismissals are not common, failure to re-appoint is certainly a frequent occurrence.

Perhaps Abbott’s move was not a “night of the long knives”, then, but sadly it was a failure to respond positively to Kevin Rudd’s attempt in 2007 to restore the concept of a public service with a significant degree of independence from political pressures. It has also (again, sadly) clarified that the Public Service Amendment Act (2013) does not provide any serious constraint on prime ministerial discretion over secretary appointments and terminations, despite the rhetoric of the Second Reading Speech and the unanimous support in parliament for the legislation.

Rudd’s decision to retain all the secretaries he inherited - including several with histories of close association with the conservative side of politics or records that gave reason for Labor to query their non-partisanship - gave hope to the Australian Public Service (APS) leadership that a corner had been turned which future governments of either persuasion would follow. That is, that new governments would not act unexpectedly on suspicion of partisanship or lack of professional integrity, but would allow a period to test the loyalty and competence of the secretaries they inherit.

Rudd followed up his approach by other measures pressed by Senator John Faulkner to strengthen the professional non-partisanship of the APS. These included: involving the Public Service Commissioner in appointments and terminations, removing performance pay, setting five years as the standard contract period (rather than the increasing use of three year contracts) and the introduction of a code of conduct for ministerial staff.

Several of these are now reflected in the Public Service Act after amendments agreed unanimously earlier this year. The amended act also now requires appointments and terminations by the governor-general, a presentational change but one I and others had hoped conveyed an important principle about the status of the APS as an institution.

It is true nonetheless that Rudd and Julia Gillard and their ministers did not always demonstrate Faulkner’s appreciation of the proper role of the public service. The manner in which Rudd and Wayne Swan used Treasury to shield their own accountability for economic and budgetary policy was hardly consistent with the distinctions between politics and administration, or with the lines of accountability that Faulkner had been trying to clarify.

This was also true in other policy areas, including immigration and climate change, exposing and using public service advice – selectively of course – for political ends. Perhaps some officials allowed themselves to be used too much, but most fault surely lies with ministers and the then-government. To the extent that fault lies with officials, I personally had hoped Abbott would show the same magnanimity Rudd demonstrated in 2007 and allow the relevant secretaries to prove (or otherwise) their ability to serve his government before acting to terminate appointments.

Most commentators have not been critical of the decision to terminate the contract of industry department head Don Russell. Certainly, he demonstrated partisanship when on prime minister Keating’s staff and Abbott has good reason to be uncertain of his capacity to serve the conservative government loyally. But Rudd might equally have had doubts about some secretaries he inherited, such as Michael l’Estrange, who had played a prominent role on John Howard’s staff as Cabinet secretary.

In my view, l’Estrange was a highly competent and professional secretary who never - in that role - showed partisanship, serving Rudd and Gillard well. Could Russell have done so for Abbott? My guess is that he could have had he wished to stay on, given his long APS experience and his sharp intelligence.

The other two (agriculture department head Andrew Metcalfe and Resources, Energy and Tourism’s Blair Comley) should definitely have been kept on. Both are proven career public servants who were asked to take on jobs in amongst the most politically sensitive fields imaginable.

Perhaps they allowed themselves to be used to promote the then-government’s policies. But arguably that was true of some secretaries Rudd inherited, such as Peter Boxall and Jane Halton. Halton, for example, attracted concern on the Labor side because of the manner of her defence of the Children Overboard case.

The issue is whether these apparent, excessively responsive behaviours justify dismissals by a new government despite the overall competence of the individuals concerned. In Metcalfe’s case, the new government had first-hand knowledge, after he criticised their asylum seeker policies while in his former role as head of the immigration department in 2011.

Recent legislative changes did not spare the axe falling on three department heads earlier this week. AAP/Alan Porritt

The case of treasury secretary Martin Parkinson is not yet clear after it was announced that he would leave his post midway through next year. I do not know the extent to which he is being pushed out rather than willingly contemplating another role, but if he too is being pressured to go without Abbott having yet tested his competence and loyalty, that is most unfortunate.

The one good element of the Abbott announcement was the appointment of two career public servants to fill the vacancies. That at least does show some respect for the APS.

What messages is Abbott giving secretaries and the APS? It is just possible there is one positive message: to be very careful about the fine line between explaining and marketing government policies. As the late Canadian academic Peter Aucoin opined, we have seen too much “promiscuous non-partisanship” in recent years: public servants willing to serve whichever side of politics is in power, but to do so with excessive responsiveness giving the public reason to doubt the impartial professionalism of their advice and administration.

In my view, this was becoming a major problem under the Howard government, and did not diminish appreciably under the Rudd and Gillard governments.

My fear, however, is that that is not the main message intended, nor the main one received. More likely is the message that public servants must indeed be even more careful in their advice - whether in public or private - and not do anything that might provoke retribution. They should also be wary of taking on politically sensitive tasks.

If the message was for a genuine return to professionalism, impartiality and non-partisanship, then that would have best been imparted by retaining the secretaries Abbott inherited and advising them all clearly what the Government expects in terms of loyalty. The APS leadership - particularly the APS Commissioner and the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet (both of whom are thankfully strong traditionalists) - would then have responsibility to clarify that this does not permit “promiscuous non-partisanship” and that it does require “frank and fearless” advice.

Given the decisions taken, however, the APS Commissioner and PM&C secretary just have to do their best to encourage the APS not to be even more risk averse and to meet their responsibilities for frank and fearless advice.

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27 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Sheehan

    Geographer at Analyst

    "Prime minister Tony Abbott’s decision to sack three departmental secretaries within hours of his swearing-in earlier this week has not attracted the same shock John Howard’s decision to sack six secretaries caused in 1996."
    Well Abbott has spent the past few years telling us this is what he would do if elected, including placing them at the centre of his election campaign. So, perhaps you should be congratulating him?

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    1. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Tony Abbott employee of the Australian people and administrator of the Australian Government (screw that leader BS, the electorate should always be the leaders of Australian Politics), should not just sack Public servants, he should under law be required to explain why they are being dismissed and exactly who the replacement is and why they are being appointed (if political motivations or even worse corporate influence are behind it, criminal charges should be considered).
      Sorry but not Australian elected official should ever have free rule but should be bound a whole range of sensible rules and regulations to in every way, shape and form obstruct corruption.
      So blind acceptance of this is terrible and the public should be demanding a please explain and validate you decision as being of benefit to the Australian electorate.

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  2. John Q Citizen, Aussie

    Administrator

    If you disagree with abbott philosphies ie refugees then as in the Head of DIAC, you loose your job.

    Oddly, staff at the coal face have had to put up with the same philosophical approach within the APS for a long time now. That Senior mgt now have to tow that line is an interesting concept.

    Am not congratulating abbott for anything, ever. He will change things like his hero JWH and whilst change in some measure is required 'the abbott method' isn't the way.

    The APS has been the leader…

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    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      I can think of ten government departments/commissions, I would delete before breakfast.

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    2. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      "The APS has been the leader is change mgt, sadly it has seen a lot of talented people leave and continue leaving."
      Surely, this also is excellent, as Abbott's policy to trim the APS is built on attrition.

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    3. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      "The APS has been the leader is change mgt, sadly it has seen a lot of talented people leave and continue leaving"

      Good for them. Talented people are always in demand. They'll find work in the private sector.

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    4. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      With such an incisive wit and zero knowledge, or allegedly being smart Michael you will of course be familiar with the failures within the JWH reign of terror relating to departments being unable to discharge their responsibilities under either their Charter or Regulations. Which in turn generates a high degree of negativity and silly observations from person such as yourself.

      I have worked in both public and private sectors. As its moniker assumes public ensures the public get to know and hear about mistakes. The private sector which for whatever reason seems to pride itself on its purity is in reality still making mistakes but is able to hide them a lot better.

      As your comment is no more than yet another glib comment from another gloating liberal we will adjorn for your own sanity's sake and for me to interact with real members of the human race, sans their silver spoon in their mouths,

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    5. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      "As its moniker assumes public ensures the public get to know and hear about mistakes"
      Yes, mistakes made by YOU!

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    6. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      Maybe Leigh, I was head hunted and found the private sector interesting, yet rather boring.

      A lot of people running round telling me how lucky I was to be working with them....Them being rather stupid and ill-equipped (see poorly trained) to do the jobs they claimed to be doing.

      Still I was paid twice as much to half the work, so I suppose in your world that's nirvana.

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    7. john davies
      john davies is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired engineer

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Agree John Q.
      The problem is many people don't have a clue what the public service does, the extent to which they (everyone!) rely upon it and the impact it's progressive politicisation will have on their lives.

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    8. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Now now sonny, getting personal when you know nothing about me, and am telling you now highly unlikely you will.

      If you care to make that comment in the my prescence whilst I am at work I will see you I court for slander, libel and then I'll have to go public,

      Now my good man, take that last statement back or I will see you in Court, via this website as evidence and yes it will stick.

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    9. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Yes, I do know something about you. You said you were a public servant, who therefore, "ensures the public get to know and hear about mistakes." Just WHOSE mistakes do you 'to know about' if not those of the public service?

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    10. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      John Q, oh, and here's some advice for free. Buy yourself a collection of "Law For Dummies".

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    11. john davies
      john davies is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired engineer

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Michael and his ilk are best ignored John Q. Puerile. Probably a 12 year old having a bit of fun. Nothing to say really, apart from being deliberately offensive to stir things up.

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    12. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to john davies

      John, I am being "offensive". I am telling the truth. There are many government departments that need closing down.

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  3. Anna Ross

    Healthcare professional

    Well done Tony. Get a firehose and really clean out all the lefties from the public service. I seem to remember Wayne Goss doing the same thing in Qld when he took over from Joh and the lefties weren't squealing then. How about then starting on all the ALP appointments to the judiciary, the most shameful blot on all states and territories by ALP governments.

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    1. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Anna Ross

      Actually Anna a large swathe was carved out by your love child JW Howard and the APS is actually fiiled with some most unpleasant types all professing very loudly to be keeping the blue tie brigade in power and in fact promoting staff based on their political afflliations.

      So perhaps you should re think your comment and we should hose out a great deal of the blue tie brigade who recruit and promote using those tried and true methods called nepotism and favouritism. I do hope you as healthcare professional is not consulting to the APS? Now now biting the hand that feeds you :)

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    2. Ken Swanson

      Geologist

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Is JW Howard really Anna Ross's love child.

      Gee John that had better be true or Anna might sue you for slander/ libel etc etc...

      And that accusation really will stick!

      Another poor lost lefty flailing around in the dark trying to make sense of the election result

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    3. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Not flailing, but not so silly as to believe everything that was pumped out by the right was factual. That it actually lacked closer scrutiny which was accorded the alp.
      I see many people post here who do not agree with your leanings as is your want and mine.
      Another poor righty. How is the rights' plan to turn the boats around... failing badly. First back flip old chap!

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  4. Pat Moore

    gardener

    "Where now on department heads"?...onto platters? Not even an option for a 'yes minister'/'how high minister' but just a goodbye minister. Politicising the "public" service? Fact is under this new puppet regime the 'public' servants are the Murodoch/IPA/corporations' servants, publically-funded by the tax payer. Get in line or get out with any heads infected by previous government policy, unable to delete the script, excised/decapitated.

    When will Labor learn that its high minded noblesse…

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  5. John C Smith

    Auditor

    Public "servant' should be a process worker what ever his or her status in the system. This was case until 1986 under the laws and until Whitlam's era in politics. Anything else should not be accepted in a liberal capitalist world.

    Policy makers the politicians as the agents of the voters should not be constrained in choosing the servants..

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    1. Ian seddon

      Retired

      In reply to John C Smith

      John, "Public servants should be process workers" would possibly be appropriate if Ministers had the breadth and depth of knowledge of the issues pertaining to the functions / operational areas of their Depts. They don't; they have OPINIONS of how things "should be". They rely on external advice as to what "is" and the informed probable consequences ( unintended and all ) of implementing their opinion. An independent APS should be the primary source of that advice.

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  6. Mark Skinner

    logged in via Facebook

    I was troubled by the dismissals but not decided and thought I might get a better sense of this from yesterday’s (22 September) Radio National ‘Sunday Extra’ interview on subject with Peter Shergold and Terry Moran - both high profile ex heads of department. I certainly didn’t get any feeling of significant concern from either of them. They were almost sanguine. Certainly they raised the possibility of leaving the heads in place to prove their worth but both thought it not too dramatic. Worth a listen on the RN site at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/905-segment/4973346.

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  7. Geoff Taylor

    Consultant

    One can only hope that the replacements are selected by open competition on merit.

    As to the sacking of the New York consul general, the only person with the legal power to ask DFAT's Peter Varghese to write to Mr Bracks was Senator Carr at that time. But unless he complied with a request from the foreign minister elect, the question then becomes "did someone take legal power unto themselves before the Governor General had commissioned them."

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