What should retired public servants do?
Rafe Champion alerted me to this piece by John Stone on the politicisation of the public service, and the role of retired public servants. Stone makes some valid points, but since he refers to his own dealings with government, I think it’s reasonable to point out that Stone himself is responsible for the first big breach in one of the most important conventions that used to prevail in Australia; namely that retired public servants and politicians should retire fully, or at least not take jobs that involve a potential conflict of interest with their previous positions. Stone had barely retired as Secretary of the Treasury when he started attacking the government vigorously in newspaper columns, and not long after that he was elected to the Senate for the National Party (as I recall, double-dipping his public service pension in the process). Since then, we’ve seen a steady erosion of the notion of the public service as a lifetime career, and of political office as the final stage in a career, preferably one marked by achievements outside politics.
A stint in politics or the public service is now seen as a routine stepping-stone to a more lucrative career in business, particularly highly-regulated businesses or lobbying and PR firms, where the contacts and inside knowledge acquired in the public sector represent a valuable asset. Given that people are starting with that expectation, it’s bound to affect their dealings with the business sector. Everyone they meet there is a potential future employer. And, of course, as the transition approaches, the temptation to do some more explicit mutual backscratching becomes stronger. The disgraceful behavior of former Health Minister Michael Wooldridge before his departure for the private sector is one of the more egregious examples.
fn1. As noted here, Wooldridge approved a $5 million grant to the Royal College of GPs for a building to help co-locate several doctors’ groups. That same organisation subsequently employed him as a consultant.