Australia’s constitution makes no mention of a prime minister. Yet John Howard is no legal fiction. He selects Liberal Party ministers, appoints the head of his own department, and approves the choices for all the others. Those arrangements leave Departmental Secretaries doubly dependent on his favour.

Anne Tiernan’s recent book, Responsibility without power, tracks the rise of the ministerial staffers, while a retired Departmental Secretary, Andrew Podger, has exposed how Howard has crafted the once lofitly impartial ranks of Departmental Secretaries into a set of political staffers.

As a senior public servant before 2005, Podger did nothing to write himself into the history books, but now he has turned himself a footnote by publishing a memoir in the June issue of Australian Journal of Public Administration. His theme is the appointing of Departmental Secretaries, their contracts and performance pay.

Podger’s experience at the Public Service Board (2002-05) revealed how close an interest Howard takes in the appointments and performance pay of senior bureaucrats.

The law does not oblige a government to appoint and reward departmental heads only on merit. Howard has taken the added precaution of redefining merit as serving the interests of his government.

As a result, Podger alleges, the departmental heads “are being dishonest or fooling themselves” if they deny their politicisation. “They will hedge their bets on occasions, limit the number of issues on which to take a strong stand, be less strident, constrain public comments, limit or craft more carefully public documents and accept a muddying of their role and that of political advisers.”

The incumbents between 1996 and 1999 acquiesced in the subversion of their high office for their own gain. Twice, they took the money and ran. The first time, they accepted five (and then three) year contracts as a pay-off for signing on. Those who did not agree were terminated.

Podger explains that these contracts are like the majority of AWAs: “The term ‘contract’ is a misnomer. There is no negotiation involved or tailored provisions.” So even the head of the Department administering WorkChoices either takes it or leaves it.

Performance pay reached the ranks of Departmental Secretary from 1999. The incumbents saw that none of them was going to get that extra 15% for standing up to Howard’s “whole of government”. Howard told Podger that performance pay was a waste of time and money if it did not send messages. That message has seeped through the ranks of those aspiring to be promoted.

Peter Fray

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