A striking moment

In Parliament today, Howard solemnly announced that five government departments had looked at Labor’s proposed amendments to the FTA, and all had agreed they would be completely impossible to draft. Latham just laughed at him – he might as well have announced that his advice had come from the Liberal Party secretariat.

We’ve reached the point where anything coming out of the Public Service can be assumed to be propaganda on behalf of the government. This assumption isn’t always correct, but when it matters, it’s usually right. Labor has contributed to this trend, but things are far worse now than when Howard came to office. If Latham wins, I hope he sticks to Labor’s promise to reverse this process.

24 thoughts on “A striking moment

  1. It’ll only happen if serious forms of public accountability (apart from the current system of hefty rewards and draconian punishments at government behest) are introduced for departmental secretaries.

  2. As long as the rewards are there for Departmental Heads to carry the government can then we won’t expect frank and fearless advice although there are no doubt departmental heads who advise the government that they are “brave” to have particular policies.

    Look at the rewards that accrued to those who were to blame for the misinformation about Children Overboard. Look at how whistle blowers such as Andrew Wilkie have had their integrity attacked.

    The politicisation of the Public Service will be one of the worst legacies of this government which decided to introduce a brand over the whole of the public service. Where once a department had its own identity or was referred to as belonging to the Commonwealth of Australia every department and instrumentality now has the same label of Australian Government.

    Will it change if Labor is elected? What are the odds on that?

  3. The interesting paralell to my mind is the security warnings in the U.S. this weekend. Look at how a lot of prominent democrats (Dean comes to mind) have basically replied in public “Why should we believe you?”

    While I think being cynical aboput governments is generally a good thing It’s nonetheless worrying that people have got so openly despondent.

    I would be interested to hear from some of the right of centre commenters (or lefties) here about whether they feel thsi problem has gotten worse. I can’t really compare as Howard was elected when I was barely a teenager.

  4. John, I think Howard asked them the wrong question, intentionally. I think the question was put on the basis that Latham was going to penalise all unsuccessful patent applicants, of which there are about 11,000 pa, or so it was said. This allowed them to characterise Latham as a wrecker of innovation generally in Australia.

  5. Okay, here’s my idea for what someone in Parliament should propose.

    As you’ve guessed, I find the whole pro-PBS thing a bit hard to swallow. It’s the old “we’ll all be better off if we screw business” argument. Unimaginative socialism at its finest.

    So how about this instead?

    Big pharma is very upset about the PBS, not only becuase of the Australian market, but because of the example it sets others.

    Meanwhile, we have a lot of smart innovative people in Australia, but few innovative industries thanks to the type of thinking that comes up with the PBS.

    Why doesn’t the government do a deal with big pharma? We’ll phase out the PBS, in return for investment and infrastructure towards establishing Australia as a player in the pharmaceutical industry.

    Research, test, develop and manufacture here.

    In return, we agree to pay market rates for product. Perhaps with the stipulation that we can import drugs from other non-protective countries. We’ll also stop selling other countries our model for paying low-rates for drugs.

    Politics would probably require some kind of phase-in, but this could be worked out.

  6. The problem of public service accountability certainly got worse under JOhn Howard whern he (I think) appointed nearly all the heads of departments after the 96 election. The rot had set in before then of course. Back in the 70’s ‘free and fearless’ advice was dispensed by Sir Humphrey with an Aussie accent. The problem is that it was always a gentleman’s agreement.

    There’s no systematic separation of powers between the government and the public service, because of our Colonial history. In the US, for instance, appointments to high office are examined by the Parliament and constrained by terms and conditions. For instance, there are restraints against future employment etc.

    It will probably take a constitutional crisis, resulting from a SNAFU that no one wants to take responsibility for, and that goes seriously bad before we get our act together.

    If Latham gets elected he may decide to be proactive – shock! horror! In the meantime it would be an interesting topic of discussion to set out what the options are for reforming the public service.

  7. I have a rather different take on public service-executive relations. I think the executive should have significant control over who gets senior public service jobs, as these appointments are critical to governments being able to implement their agendas. It is not sensible to demand ‘accountability’ from politicians while denying them a power necessary to do their job.

    For the most part, I doubt bureaucrats just tell politicians what they want to hear. Politicians want to hear about anything that could lead to political trouble later.

    This does leave doubts about the kind of advice Howard offered in Parliament this week, but this is a lesser problem than a public service that thinks it can do whatever it wants.

    To my mind (as a Liberal) the bigger problem in the later Howard years is not the politicisation of the public service but the bureaucratisation of the executive. Ministerial offices are full of on-leave or ex-public servants, who are risk averse and insufficiently inclined to challenge the Department’s advice.

  8. I’m probably in a minority here, but I don’t care that Howard has politicised the public service.

    The problem is that it is only half politicised. Right now we have a neither fish nor fowl system, with a public service that is still supposed to be independent, like it was in the old days, but also supposed to do the political bidding of the government (like regularly obfuscating, or indeed ouright lieing, at Senate Estimates Committee.) The approach of the public servants ranges from complete obsequiousness to their political masters to still some independence, depending on the strength of their characters and how badly they need to hang on to their current jobs.

    We should move completely to the American system, whereby each new Administration as a matter of course replaces all senior, and not so senior, public servants with their own people. These people know they are there for the life of that Administration, maybe less, certainly no more.

    Latham should clean out the senior public service completely if and when he wins government. He may or may not choose to keep some of the existing people.

  9. Dave Ricardo you must have several screws loose to think that adopting the US system of administrative cleanout is superior to the Westminster idea of a fair and impartial PS. One of the constant themes in Richard Clarke’s book was the damage done to the US and the perception of US foreign policy direction by the infiltration and distortion carried out by Rumsfeld,Cheney and Wolfowitz and their underlings.

  10. I tend to prefer Westminster, but I agree with Dave that our present compromise has the worst of both worlds.

    I’d probably settle for an explicit mix with an apolitical SES (permanent career employees, removable only for cause) and politically-appointed departmental secretaries facing an automatic spill with each change of government.

  11. Mark, first, what Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz wasn’t representative of the way the US system works. These people are extremists. Any system can be exploited by extremists.

    Second, we don’t have a fair and impartial Westminster system. We have a half Westminster, half American system that is the worst of both worlds.

    I don’t want to go back to the old system where unaccountable departmental secretaries ran the government over lunch at the Commonwealth Club (just like Yes, Minister, only for real). The way to go is to move to an explicit and complete politicisation of the public service, where nobody is under any illusions about where their loyalties lie.

  12. I might add, that if you are going to use the war as a case study, that the policy process in the UK, which still supposedly has a pure Westminster system , was hardly any better.

  13. what about bob Hawke and John Stone.
    I know Cozzie tried to get rid of Bernie Fraser, thebest RBA head we have had, but found out from Bernie in a lengendary telphone call inthe RBA that he couldn’t.

    Also howard sacked the wrong head becasue he thought he was resposible for the whiteboard affair.

  14. Politicisation of the public service is not connected to the Westminster System. History shows that the professional public service displaced the placeman approach about the time that British politics started to be driven by parties and constrain the parliamentarians’ independence, i.e. when the system started capturing them (maybe professionalising publsic servants did that to them too?). Anyhow, the Westminster System worked best, considered as a machine to work with rather than for governments, in the earlier 18th century/early 19th century era, culminating with the rise of Disraeli. It is not a coincidence that this coincides with the rise of democracy, since that had to be implemented as indirect democracy – i.e., promoting party over member.

    On the particular point at issue here, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Latham’s suggestions really were unworkable. Most politicians stuff really is unworkable, judging not only by the results on the ground but also by the amount of tangle that is generated (see tax acts et al). As Sir Humphrey said, activity is the politician’s substitute for achievement, and the system has always rewarded them as much for rubbish as for results. And why would the public service departments lie when the truth would do? The only selectiveness here is that of the people commissioning the statements, in not asking for that judgment on earlier occasions.

    I don’t believe the blame can be sheeted home to John Howard at all, though. Rather than saying that most of the harm was done under him and acknowledging as an aside that it started before, the point at issue is that we can never tell how much or how little harm we are doing if we are ever tempted this way. That means that what counts is when and how that particular virginity was lost, not how much happened when. The blame sheets home to Hawke/Keating, and to ask Howard to stop it is to ask him to go cold turkey on an addiction he got from his evil siamese twin. (That also means that reprofessionalising the public service is not necessarily the right answer – and after all, a professional public service has its own flaws like groupthink and arrogance, which is what gave rise to the temptation to undercut it in the first place.)

  15. Apart from the issue of Senior Public Servants providing governments with what they want (which has increased as a phenomena), I think that there are some other issues that need to be considered. Many people in the job market, in recent years, have simply become more sophisticated or slimy in getting ahead. One aspect of this is that throughout the Public Sector people who struggle to be helpful or even say good morning can be often seen being extremely friendly to those higher up the pecking order and never disagreeing with them etc. Furthermore, public servants from all sides of the political spectrum all too easily espouse the current economic and social jargon and rhetoric– with the result that certain contentious notions simply get accepted as fact.

    More broadly, people are generally extremely conformist (at least, within their own social groups). Academia, for example, is supposed to be about the free exchange of ideas, yet all too often, academic success is based on ones willingness to attach oneself to a relatively rigid set of ideological beliefs. The publication of Alan Sokal’s spoof paper ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ illustrated just how dum and gullible many so-called smart and leading edge academics are. Other public institutions such as the BBC and ABC have also suffered a serious intellectual decline in recent decades. Examples of this include their all too obvious bias when reporting on either the Iraw war or on Israel.

  16. Michael, if John started a thread on whether Grant Hackett has a chance of beating Ian Thorpe in the 400 metres freestyle, I reckon you could effortlessly find a way of bringing “all too obvious bias when reporting on either the Iraw [sic] war or on Israel” into the discussion.

    Whaddya reckon?

  17. I take your point Dave, I did say the Westminster “idea”, of course it doesn’t exist in reality, perhaps John’s idea is the most workable compromise.

    If the US system is so vulnerable to takeover by extremists, its time the US constitution underwent a major overhaul, won’t happen of course, it suits too many interests to keep it like it is.

    What happened in the UK is certainly more applicable to Australia, and emphasises the presidential-style power of the PM and his inner circle (especially the spin merchants like Campbell and their media friends), and the increasing irrelevancy of parliamentary processes and accountability.

  18. As far as I’m concerned, the public service is there to further the interests of the government of the day. That certainly includes private frank and fearless advice, simply because if the advice is made public it cannot be frank and fearless.

    Asking for advice which is intended to be made public puts honest secretaries in an impossible position – and it would be impossible even in the absence of the Minister having the power to hire and fire them. I think Nugget Coombes would have deeply disapproved of the request by the government rather than the answer by the Depts.

  19. David Ricardo,
    Well these are critical issues which highlight the intellectual and moral failure of many who regard themselves as progressive or intellectuals. There are certainly shades of the 1930s when so many people on the left thought the Soviet Union was a wonderful place to live and generally played down the evils of Communism tends of millions of deaths later.

    Apart from being consistent in my hatred ofdictators who murder, rape, and torture their own people or of terrorists and mafia like figures who murder and maim innocent Israeli’s and ruin the lives of their own people in the process (by transferring aid money to their own bank accounts, etc), I not sure what my so-called own bias are. Furthermore, I do not think you can view the decline of the public service in isolation from the general decline in intellectual debate (which has never been great). So my comments were quite appropriate.

  20. Michael, I didn’t say you had a bias. You said others had a bias and I quoted you. This was why I put quotation marks around the passage that included the word bias.

    As for the seamless link between the Howard government’s politicisation of the public service, and the apparent failings of the Left vis a vis dictators and terrorists, well, I just don’t see it, and I doubt whether too many others will either.

    Michael, stop obsessing about the Middle East. Sure, it’s important, but there are other things going on the world too.

  21. Homer, if you could just move to the left a little. Yeah, on that part of the floor marked “X”. That’s it, underneath the net full of 500lbs of fish. Right.

    *presses button*

    Let that be a lesson to all who make terrible puns.

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