A measure of how far the Opposition handling of the OzCar affair has gone off the rails was a statement late last week by Public Service Commissioner Lynelle Briggs that in effect rebuts elements of the Opposition’s defence of its conduct.

The statement is highly unusual in its strength and directness:

It is extraordinary and quite wrong that comments are being made claiming that it is reasonable for public servants to give Government information to Opposition parties. This isn’t normal practice, nor is it usual practice, and it is not whistleblowing.

It is not commonplace for public servants to meet with Opposition parties to brief them before Senate Committee hearings, and it should never happen without the knowledge and consent of their agency head or Minister.

It is not part of our role as APS employees to serve the Opposition.

This is not a good sign for the Opposition. The Westminster system as practiced in Australia assumes that the opposition is a government in waiting. If the opposition has to be corrected on basics of public sector practice, that assumption is doubtful.

Godwin Grech continues to attract letters to the editor from people proffering excuses for his actions. That would be wrong.

Although he deserves sympathy for his health and support for his personal wellbeing, providing information to the Opposition is not something any senior public servant should do. Compassion for him does not require excusing his conduct.

It does though suggest a huge blind spot on the part of the Opposition.

How could they have thought his behaviour was normal? Why did they protest that this was just standard for a public servant?

The answer is that for much of the coalition period in government, political behaviour by senior public servants was normal.

We saw it in Max Moore-Wilton’s attendance at a Howard victory celebration on election night, famously captured on camera berating one of the Chaser boys.

It was not uncommon for senior public servants to be asked to join Ministers in discussions about marginal seat tactics, or how to win votes with grants. Some backed off and avoided those discussions, but others participated willingly, sometimes enthusiastically.

Howard was said to have a network of people who reported directly back to the PMO (Canberra-speak for the Prime Minister’s Office).

Some were staff in other Ministers’ offices, some were senior people in key departments. It was part of the currency of information.

In that climate, the Coalition expected that many senior public servants would behave like politicians, albeit with more job security and lower profile.

Under Howard, many public servants prospered by expressly aligning themselves with the Coalition in thought and deed.

Kevin Rudd has been criticised for leaving such people in place. In retrospect, it seems to have served him well.

Moreover, the Coalition is now facing a public service it no longer understands as well as it thought it did. It has a lot of catching up to do in its understanding of the new public sector governance.

Former Ministers or Ministerial staffers from the Howard time will have to accept that political behaviour by public servants is not normal any more. The rules have changed.

It is not exactly a return to pre-Howard days, you can’t step into the same river twice. Other aspects of the public sector have changed since. But we have seen a reaffirmation of the principle that overt political affiliation is not appropriate for the public service.