Some regard the Westminster tradition of a politically neutral public service as a self-serving fiction. Others see it as an ideal to which governments and their civil services should aspire, though may never quite attain.
There are few hard and fast conventions involved in cultivating an independent government administrative system. Yet there are traditions or principles that many see as fundamental to good governance, or even to an effective democracy.
Straying from these leads to accusations that the government is politicising the public service. But what that means isn’t exactly clear. It might suggest the appointment of party-political representatives to public positions; the appointment of known government sympathisers to public positions; or some other way of preventing professional civil servants from providing “frank and fearless” advice to ministers.
Despite the lack of agreement about what politicisation means – and its significance – there’s almost universal criticism of governments that stray from the principles that underpin neutrality.
In practice, the accusation of “politicisation” often accompanies appointments made by an incoming government. These may be to departments; to government agencies, such as the ABC; to integrity agencies, such as the ombudsman; and, more often, the appointment of former politicians to diplomatic postings.
Obedience and integrity
The Australian Public Service operates near to the model of a professional public service where it serves successive governments without fear or favour. Changes of government typically mean that experienced, professional secretaries have remained to pilot their new ministers through.
There have been aberrations, such as the 1996 “night of the long knives” that dispatched six departmental heads. But most governments in past decades have relied on a cadre of professional civil servants to head departments and agencies even after power changes hands.
It is this cadre that enables the public service to remain as neutral as possible, especially when incoming governments are determined to implement their “mandates”. This reflects a fundamental principle that governments need to be “responsive” to their electors.
But problems can arise when appointees pay little attention to “frank and fearless” and see their role largely as doing the minister’s bidding. That’s stretching the notion of responsiveness too far.
The civil service is traditionally required to act in an impartial manner – that is, not to privilege particular interests over others and to behave in a politically neutral way. This is especially significant in relation to government agencies that investigate and adjudicate on complaints about and mistakes made by government.
Integrity agencies, such as the Office of the Information Commissioner or the Human Rights Commission, are required to investigate citizen complaints about government behaviour. They need to be seen to be at arm’s length from government.
Other agencies, such as the Electoral Commission, the Auditor-General or research bodies such as CSIRO or the Productivity Commission, also need to be at arm’s length so they can operate credibly in providing balanced advice.
Much more can be done to promote the independence of these agencies. A fundamental problem is that they rely on funding through the budget process. Some governments, at both Commonwealth and state levels, have used this as a lever to constrain agencies from following their remit when governments are unhappy with their activities. The Human Rights Commission is a recent example.
Making these agencies responsible to parliament, rather than to the government of the day, would mean that funding, and accountability, would be delivered through bipartisan bodies, such as the Public Accounts Committee. This would protect integrity agencies from direct government interference.
Governments are expected to represent a diversity of interests. That becomes less likely with a politicised public service.
Public agencies with responsibilities to consider the impact of policy on broad community groups, for instance, or to manage grants programs, need to have appointments that reflect community diversity. These appointments need to be treated with care to ensure they remain free of accusations of favouritism, cronyism, nepotism or vote-buying.
Cynical observers may be concerned about the politicisation of policy advice, especially that provided by public inquiries. When chaired by appointees with known views on the subject they rightly engender public cynicism about the likely outcomes of these ostensibly independent inquiries.
This was the case when noted climate sceptic Dick Warburton handed down a report on the Renewable Energy Target, and when education conservative Kevin Donnelly reviewed Australia’s national curriculum. These reports usually find their way to the rubbish bin once governments of a different hue assume office.
In contrast, more broad-based and less politicised inquiries – such as the Gonski review of school funding – may well retain their currency for longer.
There are arrangements in place that may dull the excesses of political appointments – such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Senate estimates process, codes of ministerial conduct and independent audits.
But unlike the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, Australia hasn’t appointed an independent commissioner for public appointments. An independent appointments body may help ensure that the government of the day cannot directly influence appointments to agencies and programs that specifically require diversity of interests and arm’s length from government.
The public service has gradually become more politicised in recent years. But this is a bigger problem for agencies broadly described as integrity agencies and for bodies where public perception of neutrality are important to their operations, such as the ABC or the Electoral Commission.
Institutional change, along the lines of what’s already operating in other democratic systems, might produce independent appointments and reduce the public angst each time a “political” appointment is made to such boards or commissions. In these cases, governments might finally accept that arm’s-length governance is preferable to public cynicism and diminution of the standing of important agencies that serve to uphold democratic standards.
This article is part of a series on breaking political conventions. Look out for more articles exploring various political conventions in the coming days.