Sep 21, 2012

Button to APS: ‘I’ve revealed no government secrets’

James Button has responded to criticism from the Public Service Commissioner, insisting his book on life in the Prime Minister's Office was "written with ethical considerations in mind".

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

James Button has responded to criticism of him by Prime Minister and Cabinet head Ian Watt and Public Service Commissioner Steve Sedgwick, insisting his book on his stint as a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd and within the public service "was written with ethical considerations in mind". Watt and Sedgwick took the unusual step yesterday of releasing a statement criticising Button's new book, Speechless -- A Year in my Father's Business, claiming it was "corrosive to the relationship of trust that must exist between ministers and the APS" and it was "a matter of regret and disappointment" that Button had revealed details of his conversations with then-PM Kevin Rudd. "There are no significant government secrets in the book," Button told Crikey this morning. "It's a personal story, encompassing a range of themes -- speechwriting for Kevin Rudd is just one. It covers the public service, my father [John Button], my family, the state of the Labor Party, a range of things. "I described two conversations with the prime minister, and focused on our discussions about speechwriting. I was a public servant for a brief time, and an accidental one, as I'd gone to Canberra to write speeches, but the book is written with a sympathetic eye on the public service."
"the book is written with a sympathetic eye on the public service”
There's a clash of perspectives, indeed of world views, here. Unsurprisingly, Watt and Sedgwick, who as the Public Service Commissioner has the role of guardian of APS integrity, regard confidentiality and trust as critical to the ability of the APS to perform its roles effectively. Anything that undermines that trust, particularly at the most senior level, is therefore seen as dangerous. Button believes it's important that Australians have a better understanding of how one of Australia's most important institutions functions; the book -- which is devoid of tell-all revelations about prime ministerial foibles in favour of discussion of the ostensibly peculiar ways the public service prepares policy advice -- is aimed at facilitating that understanding. Button also wants to shed light on the process of speechwriting (a subject that is often discussed in somewhat mystical terms). "We need to understand the process of speechwriting," he said, given how important it is in effective communication about key national issues, and given how much Labor has struggled to gets its messages across to voters. Both perspectives have validity: ministers need to be able to trust their public servants, and APS colleagues need to be able to trust each other, to operate effectively. But the communications problems of the government don't extend merely to Labor ministers; the APS remains the iceberg of the Australian polity, the bulk of its functions hidden from sight, mysterious, such that even well-informed public figures outside government have little grasp of how such a central component of Australian public policy works. Addressing that is something that is within the control of Watt and Sedgwick.

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6 thoughts on “Button to APS: ‘I’ve revealed no government secrets’

  1. Malcolm Harrison

    I fully support Button’s argument, although I can understand that allowing it does threaten confidentiality in principle. However, Button is right to the extent that the APS operates as an almost secret organisation and while a main player in public affairs, its functions are not always understood by the public it presumably serves.

    The down side to this is that citizens can easily get the impression that the various political parties that assume government are actually running the country, and are therefore directly responsible for everything the Public Service does. In reality elected governments are merely managers who, while they have power to introduce new legislation and also modify existing practices, mostly oversee government functions without interfering too much in the running of things that are already in place.

    Public servants are not supposed to become public figures. They are supposed to operate anonymously in the background. This is also a tactic to preserve their neutrality. But of course it does run the risk of being too closed to public scrutiny and curiosity

    Throughout my life, and with few exceptions, the APS has had a well deserved reputation of giving those who actually form government ‘frank and fearless’ advice. Security of job tenure had the effect of preserving a public servant’s neutrality in this regard, and one of the complaints against John Howard was that he interfered in this process for his own political advantage. So these days it is impossible to know how dispassionate that advice any longer is.

  2. Paddy Forsayeth

    Malcolm, I agree with what you say, particularly when comments are bandied about allowing the Gov. more arbitrary action than the Gov. actually takes. For good or ill I have always believed that, apart from ideological decisions and direction taking, Govs. of either pursuasion follow the advice given to them by the APS. However in relation to your ‘frank and fearless advice’ I suspect that neutrality of opinion is being severely tested in Qld. where the premier has arbitrarily dismissed Director Generals and, in at least one instance, has appointed a DG while bypassing the usual norm of advertising and vetting applicants. We can assume that the current crop of DGs know which side their bread is buttered on, so to speak.

  3. Serenatopia

    C’mon Sedgwick—you’ve left yourself wide open again!

    The Public Service Commissioner is not the guardian of APS integrity. And he is most certainly not the authority on trust or confidentiality issues.

    He is the man who is responsible for finishing off whistleblowers who are seen as troublemakers by their agencies!

    Watch out Button…the Public Service Commissioner can come after you following the proposed amendments to the Public Service Act—apparently, Sedgwick is vying for more powers to pursue former APS employees…

    Secret investigations and star chambers…indeed…the new amendments are a wicked wick of the Sedgwick!

  4. Mark out West

    As someone who investigated public sector integrity, the one thing I learnt was that there needs to be an understanding of the separation of between the APS and Government.

    Too often where a culture of malfeasance is entrenched it is because politician don’t like bad news about their respective departments and this behavior is sheeted home to the poor sole in office at the time it is uncovered. The Politician doesn’t know how address the issue and relies on the head of department; who rose through the ranks knowing about the culture and doing nothing about it save protecting his a#rse and his bosses. (That’s how you get ahead in the APS)

    The APS are usually the sole service deliverer so there no real yard stick to ascertain whether you are getting value for money, so any insight always worthy.

  5. Tom Jones

    It is about time that the relationship between the public service and politicians was examined in a meaningful way. I am sure the top bureaucrats would love to shut this down as they are the ones who set up the current system. DEEWR SA – the perfect example.

  6. AR

    The draconian nature of s70 (i) & (ii)of the Crimes Act means that “… unauthorised disclosure of information acquired as a result of service..” is, in & off itself a crime.
    It doesn’t have to be secret information or deleterious to the public interest which was how they prosecuted the Customs officer, Allan Kessing, despite the the information resulting in $200M of security upgrades at Australian airports.
    It is thus an offence to reveal that Tim Tams rather than Iced VoVos were available for morning tea.

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