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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 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

  11. David Hand

    It’s all very well doing the pot/kettle/black thing and I absolutely agree with your sentiment. Coalition outrage is just political theatre. But surely the real problem is that such a half baked piece of analysis provokes derisive laughter rather than serious concern. The question of more interest is by how many billions of dollars actual government revenue and expenditure will be – you know – the number that will tangibly affect us rather than some theoretical discussion about whether or not Hockey can add up.

    Treasury costings have been a joke for years. Swan gets up and solomnly dishes up flattering and upbeat numbers, he knows they’re bullshit, we know they’re bullshit, he knows that we know they’re bullshit but says it anyway trusting they will be forgotten in the ever grinding churn of the 24 hour news cycle. Problem for Swan is, they are never lost, thanks to the internet.

  12. dazza

    Jimmy – Does that mean Howard was in his rights to declare war and invade other countries?.

  13. GeeWizz


    we’ve covered this. If you scrap the Carbon Tax you can scrap the Carbon Tax compensation.

    Abbott has said this many times. Gillard has refused to explain how she is going to pay for her compensation for the Carbon Tax when she moves it to a much cheaper European pricing scheme.

    Labor have a massive black-hole

  14. GeeWizz

    Jimmy, so with the wild variations in the Carbon Tax will pensioners and taxpayers be recieving variations in the cost on a month to month basis?

    Or is Gillard going to let pensioners bare the costs?

  15. Gerry Hatrick, OAP

    [Sloan has previously accused the Treasury of partisanship]

    And what was her appointment to the ABC board then? Just cause she’s such a lovely person?

  16. john2066

    Poor Judith. She must be really worried now the Australian’s on its last legs- who will run her snivelling columns after it finishes?

  17. CML

    @ dazza – In fact, John Howard’s Coalition government DID have the power to send our troops into two wars. As far as I’m aware, it does not require a vote in the parliament.
    However, that didn’t make it the right thing to do. Consequently, we saw some of the largest protest marches ever seen in this country, which included myself! Howard just ignored all those and carried on regardless. But finally he was voted out for this and other reasons.

  18. Jimmy

    Dazza – Whether Howard was “right” is a personal decision and as a voter you have/had the power to vote Howard out if you didn’t like it. As CML says Howard had the authority to do what he did.

    Geewizz – “we’ve covered this. If you scrap the Carbon Tax you can scrap the Carbon Tax compensation.Abbott has said this many times” Yes we have covered this and you don’t want to see reality again this is what was on insiders in July –
    “BARRIE CASSIDY: Now you’ve got a problem repealing it of course, but the other issue is compensation. Your approach seems too good to be true. There will be no carbon tax, so therefore there will be no price rises, and yet people will get tax cuts anyway, and presumably the pension increases will stay?

    TONY ABBOTT: We will pay for tax cuts without a carbon tax, and for pension increases without a carbon tax through sensible savings in unnecessary and wasteful government expenditure.

    So the tax cuts & pension increases stay (ie the compensation” and Abbott spends another $3b on his direct action policy but doesn’t have the carbon tax revenue – what services are you willing to do without for that deal?

    “Jimmy, so with the wild variations in the Carbon Tax will pensioners and taxpayers be recieving variations in the cost on a month to month basis?” NOw you are just being stupid – name a tax that doesn’t vary! Look at the difference in compnay tax receipts between 2007 and now.

  19. klewso

    Speaking of “permanent press”, if Whitmont (blouses/shirts) ever makes a come-back, Sloan can get a job modelling there (with her one, Right, eye) – as “Mrs Whitmont”.
    As to her “economic expert/credentials” that make her so quotable – where was the GFC when she first saw it?
    Or is she given such a profile because she reflects “Murdonomics”?

  20. Dogs breakfast

    A lot of truth in this Bernard. Public Service used to be non-political, in theory, and sometimes useless or obstructionist on that basis. John Stone as Treasury Head was a hopeless conservative who actively undermined the Labor govt, and eventually he went away, but he held up much while doing little.

    I don’t look for a return to those days.

    But neither do I want the public service to become lickspittle servants. When the government comes up with hare-brained schemes I want the PS to give them the advice that ‘this is hare-brained and this is why’, and not be sacked for it.

    JWH changed that balance too far and the PS became a lesser institution for it. Partiality is now expected in many of the departments and perhaps Treasury has been largely immune up to now because both sides of politics have basically agreed around the fundamentals of economic management.

    The Barbara Bennett workchoices ads was another dimension of low point.

    The coalition has no right to make this argument, none at all.

    And GeeWizz, get your hand off it. I’ts enough to be wrong, but don’t go making up policies that suit your argument. TA has repeatedly said he won’t ‘roll-back’ the tax cuts and pension increases that were a carbon tax trade off.

    Repeatedly, clearly, distinctly.

    Althouhg I’m not sure if he has personally written it down. (sigh)

  21. Venise Alstergren

    HOLDEN BACK: Way down here in the little old South of the Murray River, we do indeed say “More Front than Myers.” Also, it comes off the tongue a lot more easily than Mark Foy’s. Hmmph.


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