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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Australian Public Service; working with us...?

To-day is Day One of the brand, spanking, shiny new Rudd Labor Government. From here the work begins. Now we know who the ministers and parliamentary secretaries are as well as those with any form of leadership responsibility. We know who are the political drivers, movers and shakers that we, Australian voters, elected.

But there is a layer of decision-making and moving and shaking below them whom we do not elect. These are the senior executives of the Australian Public Service.

The motto of the Australian Public Service Commission is working with you - but do they? Do they always? They are responsible to their political masters - but not to us. They know nothing of having to go out into the electorate and face the music. They are insulated from that.

By the time a senior executive in the Australian Public Service has reached his/her exalted position quite a few skills and defensive mechanisms have been learned. They have learned how to snow ministers, defend their positions, dodge blame, pass bucks, and cleverly word documents and legislation.

One of the reasons why the British TV comedy, Yes Minister, was such a success is because it reflects - and not necessarily with exaggeration - reality: the reality of parliaments and the public and civil service within the Westminster system of government.

In Miss Eagle's experience, governments come to power with a slateful of promises to implement. These promises, in the best of all possible worlds, have been developed by community consultation and lobbying from their own constituencies such as party branches, business or worker organisations. But, if a government has any measure of longevity, these commitments are exhausted within one three year term at least; and, if not, by half way through the second term.

One of the lessons from the Hawke period of government is that branches and party forums were sat upon. There could be no public voice let alone dissent. The solemn and hard facts were that input from party branches and forums dried up. Policy input from the bottom up virtually disappeared. This is likely to be repeated under Rudd.

What then happens is this. The reforming government gets its slateful of promises put to bed and dealt with. Government then turns around to see what is next to keep the policy ball rolling and the body politic interested and paying attention.

There is no difficulty finding what is next: there is the agenda of the non-elected senior executives of the Australian Public Service. They have a full to over-flowing slate of policy suggestions, dear Minister!

Australians learned for themselves what a difference a head of department makes when Whitlam took the reins of government in 1972 but still had a public service with a history of and symbiosis with 23 years of Liberal Party government. Adjustments then began over time in the public service which has lead to its clear (rather than obscured) politicisation.

Part of this has been the move to short term contracts which, to some of us, has meant that the senior executive service can not always pride itself on giving impartial advice to government without fear or favour.

Miss E has not the time or space to give instance after instance within the tenure of the Howard Government but Miss E suggests a detailed examination of Immigration, Defence and Attorney-General's would keep you busy for quite a long year, dear Reader.

Rudd has come out of the Australian Public Service. He held the most senior position in the Queensland Public Service under the Goss Government. He certainly has not made the mistakes of the incoming Whitlam government. He gives no public appearance of rushing to judgment on senior executive appointments although detailed scrutiny finds some ripples on the water.

Peter Shergold is still in place as Head of the Dept of Prime Minister and Cabinet. He has made it clear he wishes to leave the APS and his history makes it clear that he would not be a boon companion to the incoming government. However, Shergold is a public service professional and there is little doubt he will provide sound transitional service to the Rudd/Gillard team. Ken Henry in Treasury seems, at this stage, in little danger. He, too, is professional and has, at times, dissented from his political master, Peter Costello. It will be interesting to see how Wayne Swan manages Henry's advice.

But the departments that Miss E will watch with interest are:
  1. Gillard's superportfolio of education, industrial relations and workforce participation which she sees as, virtually, a department of productivity
  2. Immigration - can the culture really be changed?
  3. Defence - will the senior executive service throw up talent appropriate to the extraordinary political leadership now in place
  4. Attorney-General - it would be good to see true Labor traditions shining through the A-G portfolio in a manner comparable at Federal level with the manner in which Rob Hulls in Victoria has managed that state's A-G portfolio. It is necessary to counteract the stealth and development of pro-terrorism responses coming from the ghostly Philip Ruddock.

And Miss Eagle is also waiting to see the colour of the Rudd government's money on social inclusion. What will it mean in practice?

In fact, what will public service appointments within the senior executive service mean for the Rudd government and what will be measure of its service to the Australian people?