Kevin Rudd and the gulag came up in the Government party room yesterday. Gulag, you ask? Isn’t Rudd a friend of Chinese despots? Shouldn’t it be laogai?

A different type of gulag was being discussed. It was the nickname given to a “research unit” set up under Wayne Goss’s government in Queensland and housed in a building that had once been a leprosarium, where senior public servants thought to be too close to the Nationals were sent on full pay but with little to do but sharpen their pencils.

The ‘unit’ had been established to try and force the inmates to resign so the then government could avoid sacking them and handing over big redundancy payments. 

“Kevin Rudd was the mastermind of the gulag,” one of them told The Age earlier this year. “It was a really sh-tty thing. They treated people in the most inhumane way. It spread a climate of fear … We were fodder for a political message they wanted to send out to the public service.”

Earlier this month, shadow treasurer Wayne Swan told the National Press Club that Rudd would work professionally with the senior public servants already in place. “Anyone who knows Kevin will know that he has a life-long commitment to public service and to professional advice that is fearless,” Swan said.

“Running into a fierce bureaucrat who is prepared to stand up and argue about good policy is the most important thing you could have in the public service.”

Swan guaranteed that Treasury head Dr Ken Henry would remain in place. “Ken Henry would be a certainty in a Rudd Labor government,” he said. “I have the highest regard for Ken Henry, I have never agreed with him on absolutely everything, but some of his recent speeches have been particularly good.”

Particularly, no doubt, the speech leaked last month where Henry was strongly critical of the way in which the Government formulated its $10 billion water plan.

Swan’s comments on the about retention of public service heads was familiar stuff. John Faulkner said Commonwealth public servants and departmental secretaries could feel safe and secure in their jobs in the lead-up to the election back in 2001.

“I’ve made absolutely clear that we do not have a ‘hit list’ of departmental secretaries,” he said. “There will be no ‘night of the long knives’ in relation to department secretaries or agency heads. Labor will not be coming into government and axing public service heads in the way the Howard Government did in 1996.”

But the boys and girls at the top of the Commonwealth Public Service are not feeling relaxed and comfortable when they read the polls. Quite a few are preparing their spades and forks for a bit of gardening leave should Labor win or wondering just what the “special projects” they may end up working on will entail.

Indeed, who were Swan’s commitments supposed to mollify? The senior public servants who have acted in a partisan way under this Government well know who they are and most would not wish to work under Labor even if given the opportunity. Most would already be packing their parachute.

There are many capable alternatives inside the APS or state bureaucracies, so talent or commitment will not be an issue.

The hope has to be that Labor sticks to its platform, a platform that describes an impartial public service “without fear or favour”, but that will require a significant weeding of the upper levels of agencies to counter the “policy cleansing” that has occurred under the Coalition and a resolve to not simply do a Howard.

Just as in the political arena where dissenters within the Government itself have been removed, silenced or forced to compromise, the federal bureaucracy has come down heavily on dissent and difference. This is fully understood by public servants at all levels — and those who have an alternative position cannot move interstate or take other options are forced into compliance.

Swan mentioned Ken Henry, but he has always been an archetypal career public servant — as are the great majority.

But why would any Labor government retain those who clearly stepped over the line, such as Jane “Children Overboard” Halton at health & ageing, or were blatant political appointees such as Mark Patterson at DITR, Peter Shergold at PM&C, Peter Boxall at DEWR … each of whom might be seen as having been just a bit too loyal to the Howard Government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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