A year ago, it was considered very likely NSW opposition leader Barry O’Farrell would do just what Jeff Kennett did when he snared the Victorian premiership in 1992: a wholesale sacking of public service mandarins.

Kennett says he rolled 16 permanent department heads before lunch on his first day and another postprandial eight. Kennett went on to retrench 50,000 public servants, close 350 schools, amalgamated councils and privatised a host of government services. Almost 20 years later, Kennett has now recommended O’Farrell sack and burn in a whirlwind of change that must be undertaken if he is to return the state of NSW to its former greatness.

Around this time last year, almost 12 months out from the 2011 NSW election, when O’Farrell had reason to feel comfortable about the prospect of being the state’s next premier, he began casting around for potential successors to departmental directors-general and other state agency CEOs. All the portfolios were looked at. Heads were destined to roll in health, education and justice, and others.

O’Farrell gathered, as Kennett now recommends, a list of “a new gang of bureaucrats” to replace Labor appointees, or just men and women who were seen to be entrenched, and weary, in their positions for a long stretch of Labor’s rule. But as the months have marched on and the polls have all but secured O’Farrell’s future as premier, the mighty task he faces has loomed larger.

In the last six months O’Farrell has quietly indicated he won’t be doing that because he’d fall flat on his face if he did a wholesale removal on the people running the state’s departments. A few will go, obvious political appointments, but not immediately. Not “before lunchtime”.

And it’s a fact that the majority of the mandarins can’t wait to see the Labor government exit — politicians and their flaks and minders have been trampling all over departmental protocol for years and the strain of having to lie and obfuscate for Labor is at breaking point. The scorched earth approach Kennett has recommended for public servants has already happened to budgets and projects under Labor.

The groundwork of do-nothing-but-keep-up-appearances established by the first premier in Labor’s 16-year tenure, Bob Carr, has deteriorated into a series of expensive stunts which have raided the state’s coffers, to little effect.

All incoming governments lament the bad work of their predecessors that must be undone, but in O’Farrell’s case the cupboards may truly be close to bare. He has come to realise that he will need the expertise of experienced public servants and department heads to keep the state from falling apart.

After assembling his list, O’Farrell has let it be known that the only certain massacre looming is that of the Labor party at the polls.

Departmental heads are lining up to prove their worth to remaining in their positions, hand steady on the tiller. And a good percentage of them, once loyal Labor men and women, have privately expressed their joy at being rid of the current administration which has ridden roughshod over protocol for years.

The traditional system of the executive arm of politicians working in concert with the advice from its departmental counterparts went out the window decades ago, but NSW Labor has made an art form of crushing the will and opinion of its “agencies”, as it calls government departments. Establishment of the 12 super departments under Nathan Rees’s premiership, a series of reshuffles under successive Labor premiers — and the revolving door of Cabinet appointments under the scandal-ridden Keneally administration — has delivered a fleet of new ministers to the departments.

These ministers knew nothing of their portfolios and, inevitably, the screw-ups have multiplied along with a keenness borne of political desperation for each mistake to be buried.

One NSW government department has had six different heads in little more than 12 months, and it’s not only the change at the top.

As the election has drawn closer, policy people, media advisers have been fleeing Governor Macquarie Tower and fresh, young Labor apparatchiks have been filling advisory roles with ever diminishing ability. Getting a coherent decision out of GMT has become so near impossible, it’s laughable.

Kennett says NSW is in dire need of radical change and an incoming government faces the prospect of going back to square one, but typically the politician is blaming the public servants. The public service can’t wait to go back to square one, administration wise.

Expect a few department heads to choose to retire (Laurie Glanfield of Justice and Attorney Generals is one), but be prepared for O’Farrell to spend the next three months sorting through the talent and the dead wood.

The danger for public servants, when O’Farrell’s honeymoon with the media comes to an inevitable end, will be the Coalition’s need to blame someone for the moribund state of NSW affairs. Then, perhaps, O’Farrell will need to do some crashing and burning himself, especially with his bright young treasurer, Mike Baird, snapping at his heels.

*Candace Sutton worked for the past six years as a NSW government media adviser, and for the past three months in the office of lord mayor Clover Moore

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey