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Nov 8, 2012

Coalition on APS politicisation: more front than …

Liberal claims about the politicisation of Treasury are rich coming from a party that politicised the entire public service when in government. But is there anything wrong with that?

It’s a little rich for the Coalition to be complaining about the politicisation of Treasury over its “leaked” analysis of Coalition policies. In fact, to use one of the more obscure Keatingisms, they’ve got more front than Mark Foys.

I noted on Monday, when I discussed the origin of the document while, seemingly, everyone else was still digesting it, that this sort of thing was standard stuff: ministerial offices ask the public service to cost policies all the time and can then “leak” the results in whatever form they want, regardless of how misleading it is.

Joe Hockey (and even Peter Costello) both subsequently insisted that they had never done such an outrageous thing. That insistence has in turn subsequently been shown to be garbage by Phil Coorey and Stephen Spencer. Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson had also had a crack at Hockey in response to his letter.

The Coalition’s confected outrage over the politicisation of Treasury is harder to take, though, when one considers the broader politicisation of the public service under the Howard government. That process occurred less at the individual level (contrary to what was often charged) than at a systemic level. Long-time Secretary (and Public Service Commissioner) Andrew Podger has discussed this process in detail, particularly around the shift to shorter contracts (three years, instead of five) and performance pay for secretaries (one of the things Kevin Rudd moved to eliminate as soon as he became Prime Minister).

The Howard government’s emphasis on “responsiveness” and the removal or punishment (in Ken Henry’s case, after he made some accurate but politically incorrect remarks about the sidelining of Treasury from public policy) of those seen as failing to be sufficiently responsive saw a series of scandals — Children Overboard, the Solon and Rau cases in Immigration, the treatment of Dr Mohammed Haneef, the involvement of Barbara Bennett in the WorkChoices propaganda campaign, all reflecting a damaged public service culture of eagerness to fulfil, and often anticipate, the political agenda of the government.

That’s why the Coalition hasn’t got a leg to stand on when it moans about politicisation, particularly given Malcolm Turnbull and Eric Abetz were happy to exploit a Treasury public servant in Godwin Grech who saw his role as sabotaging a government he ideologically disagreed with.

Some senior public service figures dispute the claim of politicisation. Peter Shergold had a public row with Podger over the issue, but Shergold was still Howard’s head of PM&C at the time and couldn’t have brought any sort of independent perspective to the issue. But I asked Ken Henry about it in 2008 and he, too, disputed the characterisation of what had happened during the Howard years as “politicisation”.

I was never overly fussed about politicisation. In my view, the public service was there to serve the elected government, and elected politicians had a far keener and informed insight of the public interest than I ever would. In any event, regardless of whether they did or not, they were elected, and public servants weren’t, so that settled the matter, although the formal rules of the service and the Code of Conduct always needed to be obeyed.

Such a view wasn’t widely-shared within the public service, but nearly all officials took the view that they were obligated to serve the government of the day with diligence and professionalism regardless of whatever personal views they had of policy.

Into the issue today waded Judith Sloan, eager to whip along the outrage. Sloan has previously accused the Treasury of partisanship, and had another go today, claiming Treasury’s reputation had been damaged. Why its reputation would be damaged for something that happened as much under the Liberals as under this government Sloan didn’t explain.

We also got Sloan’s prescription. “What clearly emerges from this episode is the need for tighter guidelines to ensure that ministers do not make inappropriate requests of public servants … And, in turn, there need to be guidelines that public servants can use to politely decline inappropriate requests from ministers.”

It’s unclear how far Sloan’s term “inappropriate” would go, given public servants are already prohibited from undertaking work that is political in nature. But she forgets that ministers are part of an elected government. Voters have put ministers into their jobs, and ministers can use the public servants at their disposal as they wish, as long as it is not for partisan purposes. Governments have a right to ask public servants for whatever policy advice they think necessary.

It’s not for public servants to be deciding what advice is “inappropriate” and what isn’t. No one elected them. Governments should be allowed to govern as they see fit. And if voters don’t like it, they can turf them out.

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21 comments

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21 thoughts on “Coalition on APS politicisation: more front than …

  1. Holden Back

    Said it before but the Lib/Nats view on this and many other policy areas is:

    “When WE do it, it’s funny”

  2. Jimmy

    The point of all this outrage is to provide a basis from which they can argue a case against having their policies costed by the treasury (or the new body whatever it’s name is) before the next election.

  3. GeeWizz

    I’m glad Treasury did costings on Lib Policies, can we now have costings on Labor Policies like the cost of moving their Carbon Tax to a European linked Carbon Scheme(currently about $10 Bucks a Ton vs $24 Bucks a Ton) while simultaneously paying the Carbon Tax welfare compensation?

  4. Jimmy

    Geewizz – If you are worried about the govt paying the compensation off a lower carbon price why aren’t you worried about the Libs paying it off $0 revenue and $3b in extra spending on a direct action policy?

    And the European price is lower now but the fixed price stays until 2015, what will the European price be then? (please remember in 2007 it was $40-$50 and in 2009 – 2011 it was between $20 & $25)

    Also given there is a restriction on how many foreign permits can be bought how does the Euro price effect the Australian price? (I’m not denying it does just want you to explian the exact correlation).

  5. shepherdmarilyn

    Govern as they see fit? That is what dictators do.

  6. Jimmy

    Marilyn – “Govern as they see fit? That is what dictators do.” No Marilyn that’s what all forms of govt do, the difference is in how those govts are appointed and removed.

    And being a dictator doesn’t mean you are going to be acting against the best wishes of the people you rule (although it seems to end up being the case), you can have a benevolent dictator.

  7. Holden Back

    ‘More front than Myers’ down here in Mexico

  8. shepherdmarilyn

    Govern how they see fit means they do what they like. Look at Howard with his serfchoices that went through both houses of parliament with less than 6 hours debate, the two wars Howard joined without a word of approval from the parliament or the people, the hideous anti-terrorism laws that were rammed through in a few hours.

    Governments in democracies do not govern as they see fit, they govern according to the rule of law and constitution.

  9. Jimmy

    Marilyn – “Govern how they see fit means they do what they like” Exactly, once a govt is elected they can do what they like, however as most govt’s want to get re-elected they want to ensure they take the people with them. Your example of Howard is a good one, he “Governed as he saw fit”, took IR reform too far and got voted out.
    If a government in a democracy didn’t “govern as they see fit” nothing would get done as they would have to have a public vote on everything.
    So the difference isn’t in how they govern but the fact that if, in a democracy how “they see fit” isn’t how the people see fit they will get voted out, in a dictatorship that doesn’t happen until there s a revolution.

  10. The Pav

    You’re out of luck Jummy,in your last line @4

    Geewhiz won’t explain anything. He’s fired off today’s talking point so back to his little black hole.

    No chance of a constructive debate there