June 29

An independent public service? Not under a politicians’ republic

An independent public service is best attainable under a constitutional monarchy, a crowned republic, argued Walter Bagehot. He warned that in the typical politicians’ republic, such as the USA, an independent public service just does not exist. There the winners take all.  (Utegate and the constitution  23 June,2009) 

Having an independent public service is another important check and balance in helping to ensure that government is in the public interest and not in the interests of the politicians.

Australians have to be made aware of the fact that this is one of the several things they will lose in a politicians’ republic and that this will make the political class even more powerful.

…Ted Mack warns…

I remember being at Corowa in 1999 for a debate organized by The Australian.  During a break I  asked Ted Mack, a very decent man and an independent republican, whether the proponents of the Turnbull –Keating 1999 republic realized how vastly it would increase the powers of the  politicians.

( Ted Mack resigned from the NSW Parliament and later the Federal Parliament just before he became eligible for that river of taxpayers’ gold, politicians’ superannuation)Delivered in his dour style, his answer was chilling:  “Not only do they realize it, that is precisely what they want.”

…the politicians target the independence of the public service….

Just as they seek to remove the symbols of the Crown while we are still a crowned republic, so the politicians have been gradually attacking the independence of the public service. In the meantime, a former public service commissioner, Andrew Podger thinks John Stone overreacted to the way ministers’ apparatchiks directly told public servants what to do in arranging loans for car dealers.

According to Mike Steketee, in The Weekend Australian, (27-28/6) Podger sees nothing improper in a minister asking the department to look at the case of an organization or person, though it may not always be wise.   It is one thing for a minister to raise a case with the departmental head; it is another for ministerial apparatchiks claiming to act in the name of the minister imposing their will on public servants.

I think John Stone was right. Governments declare policy, but public servants determine its application.  In any event Andrew Podger is concerned with the whittling away of the independence of the public service by our politicians.He points out that in better times a government could remove a head of department. This was replaced by a system of appointment on contracts.

"The Howard government was increasingly shortening the contracts from five to three years," Podger says. "Those on three years were the ones they wanted to keep close control over, because they weren't sure they trusted them completely." He commends the reforms introduced by Labor’s Senator John Faulkner as Special Minister of State. This included the abolition of shorter-term contracts and performance bonuses for departmental heads. He also introduced the merit-based selection of most agency heads.

He warns however that the Prime Minister has kept for himself the power to choose the heads of departments and some senior agencies, with no independent process of recommendation or review.

…the proliferation of the ministerial apparatchik…


Politicians did not always have vast staffs. They even wrote their own speeches.

Neil Brown QC, a minister in the Fraser government recalls that the youngest Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, only had two or three staff, the same number President Woodrow Wilson took to Versailles in 1999.(Neil Brown refers to William Hague’s superb 2003 book, William Pitt the Younger. Hague is a former Tory leader and still shadow minister.)

Today he laments that  “mere” backbenchers have a staff of five or six, ministers a dozen and prime ministers or presidents seem to have hundreds.

“Not that it does them any good,” he warns.

“In fact, I have a theory that the more staff a politician has, the greater their propensity to get into trouble.”

“Staff are now ludicrously called advisers and spend their time drinking, conspiring and promoting their bosses’ so-called ‘initiatives’, all of which cost money and reduce our liberties.”

…Tony Abbott sets an example…

I was reminded of the time I was asked to join a delegation of mainly judges to see Tony Abbott in the offices which ministers use in Sydney.

Unusually for a minister he received us without a protective array of advisers. The same day a friend had seen him on a 389 bus. And there was no prearranged photographer to catch him there. So I don’t think a ministerial car followed the bus.



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