A senior bureaucrat in Canberra has blown the whistle on John Howard’s continued politicisation of the bureaucracy and the Australia Day gongs.

Readers who enjoyed Wendy Wedge’s article a few weeks ago about the appointment of Jane Halton as Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aging may be interested in the Australia Day honours list, which included the award of the Public Service Medal (PSM) to one Sarah Jane Halton, of Barton ACT for “outstanding public service in the development of the government’s social reform agenda.”

This is extremely interesting to anyone who is a student of the culture of the Australian Public Service (APS). I should point out here that the PSM awards are recommended by an independent committee of senior bureaucrats, but this is really just a rubber stamp and Departmental Secretaries usually get what they want out of it. Traditionally, the PSM decoration has been very much a second prize, usually awarded to some hardworking plodder who has taken on some tedious but necessary task. Frequently it’s management’s way of saying, in effect, “we appreciate the job you’ve done but this award discharges our debt to you. It absolves us from taking any further interest in you and your career”. In fact it’s often given to people at the end of their working lives, followed by or even concurrent with, a golden handshake.

In short, it’s not traditionally a high flier’s award. To the best of my knowledge, No Departmental Secretary has ever sported a PSM until now. They get AOs and the like, but only after they’ve been in the job for a bit.

So what are we to make of Ms Halton receiving both the first prize – a Secretary ship – and the consolation prize. A crude explanation is that Mr Moore Wilton is absolutely besotted with Ms Halton, although not, let me hasten to add, in a sexual sense, so far as we know. A more interesting notion is that the nature of the PSM has changed, particularly under the coalition. I haven’t made a detailed study, but it’s my strong impression that the medal is now increasingly going to younger career officers who have been involved in some of the Governments more ideogically driven and, some would argue, more hastily and shoddily implemented programs. Last year there were no less than two PSM’s given to officers involved with developing the new Public Service Act, despite the fact that cracks were already appearing in that legislation due to poor conceptualizing and drafting under pressure. And I notice that among this year’s PSMs was an award for immigration policy. What we seem to be seeing here is a sort of bureaucratic equivalent of voodoo, the “reasoning” being: if, when a program is successful, people get awards then, if people get awards, the program must have been successful.

People no doubt have their views on the success or other wise of the Government’s social reform agenda, but the Government can at least now point out that its administration must have been faultless, since a committee of experts gave Ms Halton the PSM.

I’m happy for you to use any of this – indeed, I would be flattered – but please don’t use my name, as it could lead to career and possibly personal suicide. Call me Des Deskperson.

Keep up the good work

Peter Fray

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