Creativity, pragmatically based and responsive to compromise, is what the country’s chief public servant Dr Peter Shergold believes is central to the attributes sought of those in those who prepare policy advice for government. On Tuesday night, on the 7.30 Report, we had a rare view of what that actually means in practice.

On the program, former Health Department secretary and public service commissioner Andrew Podger, who has served both Labor and Liberal governments in a 37-year career, gave a rare insight into what Kerry O’Brien described as “a combination of salary bonuses and relatively short-term contracts for senior public servants has served to reduce the independence of the bureaucracy”. It was a fascinating interview that gave new meaning to what Dr Shergold described in his departmental report of 2004-05 as “the trouble with ‘frank and fearless’ [advice] is that it has become a cliché.”

According to Mr Podger, it is interesting that in so many scandals or major issues over the last few years, the failure to have proper record-keeping keeps on being mentioned, whether it be by the Auditor-General, or by the Palmer report, or whoever. “My fear,” he said “is that the problem with record-keeping will continue while there is this concern within the place of not giving access and not keeping the records for fear that this might be politically difficult.”

Mr Podger is the second senior public servant to raise serious questions about the way the Howard Government runs the country. Last year, the former secretary of defence and current chancellor of the Australian National University, Dr Allan Hawke, gave an insight into the difficulties of working with ministerial staff. Speaking at a book launch, Dr Hawke outlined how the National Security Committee of Cabinet developed a defence white paper well before the events of 9/11 that predicted that “over the next 10 years the ADF will continue to undertake a range of operations other than conventional war, both in our own region and beyond. Preparing the ADF for such operations will therefore take a more prominent place in our defence planning than it has in the past”.

Dr Hawke continued with a cutting attack on how a new defence minister thought otherwise:

The White Paper’s policy framework remains sound — we did not and we do not need a new White Paper on the back of 9/11. … So Defence was getting on implementing the White Paper and Capability Plan within the financial envelope and addressing the long-standing systemic issues when along came Senator Robert Hill. From Day One, it was clear that he had a different paradigm in mind— a peculiar notion that globalisation and its manifestations could be used as an alternative organising idea for strategic policy. Senator Hill knew what he didn’t want, but was incapable of expressing what he did, or getting acceptance for it, in his annual attempts to overthrow the White Paper.

Geography and money remain the essential determinants of our force structure, which is capability not threat-based—no matter how much others might try to finesse those facts. Senator Hill and his band of acolytes were unwilling or unable to bring a sense of reality to their arguments by articulating the associated capability plan and force structure within the required financial envelope. The ridiculous decision on Abrams tanks that he fostered has had disastrous repercussive effects.

Senator Hill’s period at the helm led to increased oversight of Defence by the Prime Minister, Senior Cabinet Ministers and the NSC — Hill’s frustration manifested itself in references to his role being Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Defence.

At least the speech explains why Senator Hill was eventually shunted off to the United Nations as ambassador. It also explains what Mr Podger meant when he said: “I think there is a role for professionalising the ministerial advisers and having better training for them and a code of conduct for ministerial advisers and their relationship with the public service.”

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.