If you do the numbers, technically, the Coalition has grown more spiteful toward the public service since 1996. Then, they sacked six secretaries after 13 years of Labor government. This time around, after six years of Labor, they sacked three, and another two have been told to start packing their stuff or — in the case of AusAID’s Peter Baxter — take a really long holiday.
In the government’s defence, however, Innovation Secretary Don Russell couldn’t have stayed, no matter his talent, independence and diligence: he was Paul Keating’s principal advisor, and left his role as ambassador to the United States early to return and help Keating in the lead-up to the 1996 election. Abbott was entirely justified in telling him he couldn’t remain in the most senior councils of his government.
The sacking of Resources Secretary Blair Comley and Agriculture Secretary Andrew Metcalfe (who was once Philip Ruddock’s chief-of-staff), however, are a display of vindictiveness and spite intended as a clear signal to the public service: the Rudd-Gillard years were an aberration, and those who are judged to have too enthusiastically served Labor during the interregnum will lose their jobs, even if they were loyal servants of the Coalition in the Howard years.
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It’s a signal meant to be heard long after this moment. If and when Labor ever returns to government, the public service is on notice: the Coalition is watching you, and if you serve the government of the day too well, you’ll be out.
Think I’m exaggerating? This is the side of politics that dramatically accelerated the politicisation of the public service that the Hawke government began to the point where “responsive” became a code for never questioning instructions from a minister or, more to the point, their ever-proliferating advisers; where then-Treasury chief Ken Henry was docked his performance pay because he dared to point out privately to staff that the Howard government had begun freeforming policy without Treasury’s input; where some of the key perpetrators of the Children Overboard scandal were promoted rather than sacked. And the side of politics that encouraged Godwin Grech to breach the basic rules of public service conduct to serve its political interests.
A politicised public service isn’t automatically a bad thing; as everyone knows, the Americans work that way. But we’ve moved more and more in the direction of what Canberra insiders call a “Washminster” system without any sort of public debate. When former secretary Andrew Podger tried to initiate such a debate, he was attacked by then-PM&C head Peter Shergold, who dismissed any suggestion the public service had been politicised under the Howard government.
You would have most recently seen Shergold as one of the three hand-picked figures signing off on the Coalition’s pre-election mechanism for dodging the Charter of Budget Honesty, which spoke volumes for Shergold’s credibility on matters of partisanship.
In line with the defection-cooperation game theory argument, the best response from Labor at this point would not be to bleat about public service independence or emphasise that it didn’t sack anyone when it arrived in 2007, but issue its own, similar warning: public servants who enthusiastically serve the new government will be removed when Labor returns to power. Intimidating public servants is a poor short-term outcome for the national interest, but it’s better than the slow but relentless politicisation that’s going on anyway. There’s no point in sticking to the rules if the other side refuses to.
Treasury’s Martin Parkinson hasn’t been sacked, but it’s as good as: he’s been given a few months to oversee MYEFO and the 2014-15 budget process, with the vague promise of another appointment after that (if he’s well-behaved?). The Coalition adopted this habit after Paul Barratt embarrassed the Howard government by contesting his sacking. Thereafter, top public servants were given another gig to ease the pain of departure — Barratt’s successor at Defence, Allan Hawke, was given the High Commissionership in Wellington, for example, after Children Overboard and his perceived failure to drive reform.
The treatment of Parkinson goes beyond the spiteful and vindictive into the downright stupid. Perhaps the Coalition, egged on by a coterie of right-wing commentators in the national dailies and dial-a-quote economic consultants, really does believe Treasury is useless and politicised. Maybe they think the only economic advice they need is from Judith Sloan, David Murray and Henry Ergas.
But sound, and even frank and fearless, advice from some of the best minds in the country at Treasury is all that lies between the government and a range of serious economic challenges as unemployment rises, the Reserve Bank contemplates the impact of record low interest rates on house prices, the dollar lifts and the mining investment boom tapers off. Moreover, many of us are counting on Joe Hockey and Treasury to be the grown-up counterweight to Abbott’s economic obscurantism.
And who will replace Parkinson? Someone from within Treasury, like David Gruen, would provide some institutional continuity. But Gruen has been shoulder-to-shoulder with both Ken Henry and Martin Parkinson for the last six years at estimates and other hearings, patiently enduring the partisan jibes of Coalition senators and explaining the government’s policies, often to the visible frustration of the then-opposition.
Who knows whether that’s enough to put him on some Coalition shit-list? That’s the problem with vindictive people. Rationality and predictability aren’t their strong suit.