James Button has responded to criticism from the Public Service Commissioner, insisting his book on life in the Prime Minister’s Office was “written with ethical considerations in mind”.
James Button has responded to criticism of him by Prime Minister and Cabinet head Ian Watt and Public Service Commissioner Steve Sedgwick, insisting his book on his stint as a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd and within the public service “was written with ethical considerations in mind”.
Watt and Sedgwick took the unusual step yesterday of releasing a statement criticising Button’s new book, Speechless — A Year in my Father’s Business, claiming it was “corrosive to the relationship of trust that must exist between ministers and the APS” and it was “a matter of regret and disappointment” that Button had revealed details of his conversations with then-PM Kevin Rudd.
“There are no significant government secrets in the book,” Button told Crikey this morning. “It’s a personal story, encompassing a range of themes — speechwriting for Kevin Rudd is just one. It covers the public service, my father [John Button], my family, the state of the Labor Party, a range of things.
“I described two conversations with the prime minister, and focused on our discussions about speechwriting. I was a public servant for a brief time, and an accidental one, as I’d gone to Canberra to write speeches, but the book is written with a sympathetic eye on the public service.”
“the book is written with a sympathetic eye on the public service”
There’s a clash of perspectives, indeed of world views, here. Unsurprisingly, Watt and Sedgwick, who as the Public Service Commissioner has the role of guardian of APS integrity, regard confidentiality and trust as critical to the ability of the APS to perform its roles effectively. Anything that undermines that trust, particularly at the most senior level, is therefore seen as dangerous.
Button believes it’s important that Australians have a better understanding of how one of Australia’s most important institutions functions; the book — which is devoid of tell-all revelations about prime ministerial foibles in favour of discussion of the ostensibly peculiar ways the public service prepares policy advice — is aimed at facilitating that understanding.
Button also wants to shed light on the process of speechwriting (a subject that is often discussed in somewhat mystical terms). “We need to understand the process of speechwriting,” he said, given how important it is in effective communication about key national issues, and given how much Labor has struggled to gets its messages across to voters.
Both perspectives have validity: ministers need to be able to trust their public servants, and APS colleagues need to be able to trust each other, to operate effectively. But the communications problems of the government don’t extend merely to Labor ministers; the APS remains the iceberg of the Australian polity, the bulk of its functions hidden from sight, mysterious, such that even well-informed public figures outside government have little grasp of how such a central component of Australian public policy works.
Addressing that is something that is within the control of Watt and Sedgwick.