It’s officially Spring, and in Canberra that means venturing outdoors after winter hibernation, enjoying the longer days and watching your garden come to life. Except, this being an election year, there’s a special buzz of uncertainty in the air around the capital.
All across the bureaucracy, the triennial pre-election rituals are underway. Sensitive files being recalled, shadow Ministers are being briefed and urgent administrative items being dispatched for ministerial signature. And once the election is actually called, the caretaker conventions will kick in and bureaucrats will start in earnest on their election briefing.
Every election calls for three types of public service briefs – Same Minister (“stuff that happened while you were away campaigning”), New Minister (“same mob, newbie to break in”) and New Government (“holy sh-t now we have to take them seriously”).
All have to be ready by Election Night, although only one person has ever called for the briefs then. Tim “bucketloads of extinguishment” Fischer earnestly demanded his brief on the night of the 1996 election, presumably because the Trade portfolio is so dynamic you can’t miss a moment.
And throughout the pre-election period, public servants will be constantly reminded by their Department heads of their responsibility to be apolitical. That this is at odds with the constant urgings to be “responsive” to Ministers during the rest of the electoral cycle is just one of those little ironies that elections conjure.
Because elections make Secretaries very nervous, particularly when there’s a real chance the Opposition could get up. The ALP has issued bland assurances there’ll be no “Night of the Long Knives”, no repeat of 1996, when the new Howard Government dispatched half a dozen or more department heads, including at least one by accident.
No one believes them, and rightly so. Some, most particularly Peter Boxall, Jane Halton and Barbara Bennett, know that if Election Night yields a Rudd Government, they needn’t bother coming in to work the following Monday. The rest will hope that their ready cooperation with the Howard Government will be interpreted less as Coalition bias than as an enthusiastic commitment to serving the democratically-representatives of the Australian people.
Good luck there. There’s plenty of State department heads and Deputy Secretaries who will be lobbying to take their jobs under a new regime.
If the Government is returned, though, they’ll all breathe a sigh of relief and get back to making sure the Public Service is as “responsive” as possible. The next election will be a whole three years away.