Malcolm Turnbull

Yesterday, Bernard Keane raised some questions around Michael Brennan’s appointment to the Productivity Commission. Today, a response from former Howard minister Nick Minchin defending his former adviser. Plus ongoing questions from readers: what is the value of ongoing independent critique?

On “partisan” government appointments

Nick Minchin writes: I refer to Bernard Keane’s attack on the appointment of Michael Brennan as the new head of the Productivity Commission. As Keane notes, Brennan was an adviser to me during my six years as finance minister in the Howard government. I reject Keane’s criticism of the appointment.

Michael Brennan is an extremely capable, professional public servant who I have no doubt will ensure that the Productivity Commission continues to provide governments with frank and fearless advice. In fact I am sure he will go out of his way to do so. He is eminently qualified for this position.

I think both sides of politics should acknowledge meritorious appointments and not condemn individuals simply because they have worked for one side of politics or the other at some stage in their careers. While no doubt both sides of politics have been guilty of blatant and unjustifiable political appointments, this is certainly not one of them.

William Morgan writes: I couldn’t agree with you more, Bernard. We have seen time and again stacking of ABC boards and reviews, renewable energy target and expenditure reviews with Liberal, News Corp, oil industry  and mining hacks. Anyone such as Gillian Triggs, who offers an independent critique, is demonised both in parliament and the Murdoch press.

As someone noted of Abbott’s government earlier: it is all culture wars all the time. Not much has changed given Turnbull’s emasculation at the hands of the Nationals and Dutton et al. What Trump has done with Education and EPA for instance we have been experiencing first-hand for years now: picking executives for ideological purity over talent and integrity.

Paul Munro writes: The tragedy of the Coalition’s dereliction of merit recruitment principles is a consequential depletion of the overall capability of public services, both short-term and long-term. In the short-term, advice is tainted, rising stars in public administration are blocked for advancement and look for greener pastures. In the longer-term, the incumbent favourite gifted the departmental headship is unlikely to be trusted in the same role for an incoming government.

The Hawke administration’s retention of departmental heads should be seen as an object lesson in the public and party benefit of having transitions into governance supported by capable and independent bureaucrats. John Stone was probably hostile to most things the ALP wanted to achieve; however as departmental head of Treasury he served with Paul Keating for at least the first 12 months and must be taken to have played a significant part in mentoring Keating into what became a masterful control of that Ministry.

Hawke also benefited as PM from having a succession of career public service managers heading his PM and C department. Turnbull and his mob of corporate capital market fundamentalists are showing themselves to be as destructive of Australia’s governmental and democratic institutions as Trump, with a little more stealth but as much dishonesty.

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