Sep 18, 2012

James Button and APS

James Button's account of his time working in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is set to further strain the public service's rigid insistence on complete confidentiality. He talks to Crikey.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

James Button’s account of his time working as a speechwriter in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is set to further strain the public service’s rigid insistence on complete confidentiality from its current and former employees.

Speechless — A Year In My Father’s Business is a combination autobiography, memoir of Button’s father John, and account of James’ time as departmental speechwriter for Kevin Rudd and then “writer in residence and communications adviser” within PM&C. It provides a detailed, though carefully limited, account of Button’s brief role as prime ministerial wordsmith and his exploration of the arcane world of top-level policymaking in PM&C’s Strategy and Delivery Division.

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7 thoughts on “James Button and APS

  1. bluepoppy

    The problem with s.70 of the Crimes Act is that it prevents many APS officers speaking out against wrongdoing, maladministration, misanagement and even criminal activity because of the shadow of confidentiality obligations. Whistleblower protections do not nearly stretch far enough making it almost impossible for a person to remain anonymous; ostensibly to protect their own positions (and health and wellbeing).

    More, not less public servants should be writing memoirs, and not just secretaries but from all levels of APS. There are many events which take place in the APS that are not recorded in history but speak to the very heart of the nature of the public service and the cultural mindset that persists.

    There is a logic to the confidentiality process in one aspect. That is, public servants are not elected officials and thus are beholden and in service to the democratically elected government of the day (voted by the people). In a representative democracy this idea presents well, however problems arise on occasion when that very same elected government fails to live up to their side of the democratic equation. What if there are false figures provided to substantiate a policy position, or staff are so dramatically cut without a corresponding cut in workloads to be able to deliver on policy or promises, or politicians say one thing in the public sphere but are in fact ‘lying’ and doing a completely different thing behind the scenes. Worse, what if there is gross maladministration, corruption and fraud. The latter is rare, but it does happen, often due more to incompetence than any good conspiracy theory, but the whitwash put in place breaches all sorts of other obligations to the electorate.

    I do think James Button’s expose or those of other public servants, particularly citing examples of Wilkie, Kessing and Toni Hoffman (QLD Health) should be viewed as a breach of confidentiality. Overall without the brave revelations of many whistleblowers or former employees we would all still believe that there were WMDs in Iraq. In my own experience it is sometimes the bureaucrats who withold information from Ministers for various reasons especially if they think it is something they do not wish to hear.

    This is not healthy in any democracy. But I agree, it is a complex problem with many facets to consider with respect to the role of public servants. However, overall it is better for democracies to lean towards greater transparency than less, including ideas around accuracy of historical records.

  2. bluepoppy


    Correction: That second last paragraph should have read ‘should NOT be viewed as a breach of confidentiality’ with respect to the Crimes Act. (With respect to whistleblowers and other exposes)

  3. shepherdmarilyn

    The public service are servants of the public, why should they get to keep secrets from the public?

  4. FelineCyclist

    Public servants are also citizens – why should they be completely silenced on matters that affect them in their personal lives as much as their professional lives? The problem with s 70 of the Crimes Act and similar provisions in state legislation is that they lack a human rights perspective. Public servants are not just cigs in the big public service machine – they have rights too and they should not be required to give up a citizen’s basic right to engage in public discussion.

  5. Bernard Keane

    Marilyn public servants have never been “servants of the public”. They have always served the government of the day. It’s absurd to suggest otherwise, and anti-democratic. Why does a public servant have a better understanding of the public interest than a politician who has actually been elected by that public?

  6. AR

    The perennial question of what they should do when they know of malfeasance* or even plain stupidity. Apart from deception (eg: Truth Overboard & Dogs on Docks, both the repellent Reith) and deliberate leaking of lies to complicit meeja, Kevin “Andrews” Android over Haneef.
    It will be interesting to see what response there will be to Andrew Wilkie’s Private Member’s Bill on whistleblower protection, supposedly supported by Brandis but that would bne only to discommode the government, not because the tories believed (sic!) in it
    * Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls when Chief Justice on the Privy Council in 1967 (Initial Services vs Brown) re the duty proscribed by s70, (i) & (ii) of the Crimes Act when he dismissed the “implied obligation of a servant to cover up the malfeasance of his master.
    The defence of obeying unjust orders/rules was also dealt with, harshly, during the Nuremberg Trials, notwithstanding the somewhat hysterical performance at the Press Club in 2008 by erstwhile Head of the PM&C office, Peter Shergold “when he spluttered and emphasised inter alia“… public servants DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT have the right to exercise their conscience …”.
    Not a great ethical thinker, obviously.

  7. John Collins

    Great response but a very clunky web site!

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