It seems former bureaucrats can’t win when they critique their old workplaces: critics cry hypocrisy while former colleagues feel slighted.

Australia’s former top statistician risked both yesterday, hitting out at the “intrusiveness” of plans by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to retain the names and addresses collected in this year’s census survey. Bill McLennan, the ABS head between 1995 and 2000, told The Australian Financial Review he believes the census could be a disaster when citizens wake up to the data retention decision and refuse to trust the survey:

“What happens when a future government suddenly decides it wants information about terrorism in Australia and passes legislation with one line that gives them that information. That can happen in half a day.”

It’s an unhelpful intervention for ABS executives now defending the plan. Duncan Young, head of the 2016 census program, told the paper there was public support for the move and it was “the kind of thing they expect of us”.

Sandi Logan, too, has probably lost friends in his former workplace, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. The former departmental communications manager has been a regular critic of asylum seeker detention policy and current management at the agency, including yesterday when he attacked secretary Michael Pezzullo for his “foot in mouth” statement trying to rebut “suggestions that detention involves a ‘public numbing and indifference’ similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany”.

Some Mandarin readers were quick to attack Logan as having once been part of the problem (he left the agency in 2013). Now a communications consultant, he’s aware of the fine line he treads in speaking out. In a post on LinkedIn, Logan — who used Twitter aggressively in defending the department while in the job — insisted his comments “should in no way be interpreted as a criticism of some very good colleagues still doing their level best in the mis-trusting comms environment in which they now operate”:

“My expertise is in strategic communications, not policy, but after being immersed in a topic/issue for as long as I was, and with access to the leading lights’ insights and thoughts during that period, I am not backwards in coming forward (sometimes) to offer policy advice!”

Some mandarins retire never to be seen or heard again. Many move into the consultancy work to share their expertise for a price. John Menadue, a Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet boss in the 1970s, is a regular blogger. Paul Barratt, a former secretary at both Defence and Primary Industries, is prolific on Twitter.

As Barratt has said before on the social media platform, he espouses views now he would never dream of saying while in government.

*This article was originally published at The Mandarin.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey