Sep 19, 2013

Welcome to Washminster: APS sackings send a long-term signal

Memo to public servants: if you ever serve Labor enthusiastically, you may be sacked under a Coalition government. That's the message from Tony Abbott's sacking of APS chiefs yesterday.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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. 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.

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17 thoughts on “Welcome to Washminster: APS sackings send a long-term signal

  1. Gavin Moodie

    I agree. Does the politicisation extend beyond the public service to business, ngos and quangos which should expect discretionary government support only if they support the party currently in power?

  2. klewso

    If you don’t like the message you’re getting from one source (it doesn’t matter if they’re right), get rid of them and get someone you can trust to tell you what you want to hear?
    It worked for Howard when he had those fire-walls installed for “Children Overboard”.

  3. klewso

    When are they bringing back Godwin Grech to head Treasury – “for services rended”?
    And will Kathy Jackson get a jumper for ditto?

  4. klewso

    This, too, is the side that knifed Bob Halverson for being too impartial a Speaker – and he was one of theirs.


    Get real – it’s not uncommon whenever there’s a change of CEO in large companies – new CEOs often bring people they know and trust (remember Sol Trujillo and his Three Amigos), and it’s also part of the “I’m a new broom, and you can see that I’m sweeping”. A CEO I worked for made all his Executive Team sign an undated letter of resignation, which helped him keep them compliant – and then if one upset him, he’d date the letter and “reluctantly” accept it… And that was one of his nice qualities!

  6. Gavin Moodie

    I’m happy to believe that the ceos of private companies recruit and fire on personalities, but that shouldn’t set a standard for the public sector. Do private ceos also hire and fire on ideological grounds, as seems to be the case with Abbott?

  7. Richard

    JRAPQQ: weak analogy. Are you aware of the history/role of the public service? Hint: it’s pretty different to that of private entities.

  8. CML

    Let the rAbbott government get on with their partisan, vindictive nonsense. When they have no one left to tell them the truth, it will all come crashing down around their ears.
    Can’t wait! The sooner the better, I say.
    Bernard, I don’t agree with you that the Labor Party should get down in the gutter to match these lunatics. We need a ‘grown-up’ government, and this one is NOT it!

  9. Andybob

    Unfortunately we do not have the talent pool available in America to reconstitute the upper reaches of the public service upon each change of administration. But Labor cannot afford to be the only one not doing it.

  10. klewso

    [“Shrek to tame the Monk”? Remember how “Gummy Bear” Costello stood up to Howard’s financial “money for votes” profligacy?]

    How can one side win government if they don’t do what works?
    This sort of language is all the Coal-ition seems to understand – they’ve dragged it into this gutter, to win. Only by experiencing what they put others through, will they realise that “born to rule” is not one, and what they’ve done.

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