June 25

Fearless and independent advice

“So here’s another free kick for Kevin,” wrote columnist Christian Kerr in Crikey.com on 15 June, 2007, demonstrating both that republicans have long memories and that some commentators prefer trivia to the real issues.
“Mr Rudd,” continued Mr. Kerr,” Could you please remind us just who footed the bill for the victory drinks the Prime Minister hosted for his monarchist mates after the republic referendum on 18 November 1999?”  Mr. Kerr’s memory did not extend to the very clear indication at the time that the Prime Minister paid for those drinks. The curious thing is that no one paid any attention to the financial resources used for entertainment by previous tenants at Kirribilli House or the Lodge.
In the meantime Mike Steketee, The Australian’s national affairs editor, has written on a much more important matter. This was in his column  on 14 June 2007, “Telling them what they don’t want to know. The public service is no place to play politics but that is exactly what has been happening.”
It has long been a feature of our Westminster system that the loyalty of the civil or public service is to the Crown and not to the politicians. The great constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot argued that a non-partisan civil or public service was only possible under the British constitutional model and not under what he believed to be the only democratic alternative,the American one. (This is a point which is developed in the ACM’s monograph recently launched in Melbourne by the Hon. Tony Abbott.)
The non-partisan feature of the public service, especially at the top, was long assured by giving the public service a tenure which is beyond the day- to- day control of the politicians.
This notion was first impaired by the so called reforms of the Hawke government, which were followed by Mr Keating. But rather than reversing this, the Howard government has adopted and developed this approach.  The top echelon of public servants are now on short term contracts, and believe it or not, are eligible, on the assessment of the government, to receive bonuses of 20 per cent – “which can be worth $60,000 – 10 per cent or nothing.”  We would, I hope, be outraged if judges were put on short term contracts.  They were before the Glorious Revolution, which began the process of turning England into a constitutional monarchy, and at least until recently, in the Republic of Singapore Now David Podger is a former senior public servant. His article on this question in latest issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration was the trigger for Mr Steketee’s piece.  In his article, Mr. Podger quotes a departmental head as saying: "How will someone be rewarded for rightly doing something a minister doesn’t like (or rightly not doing something a minister wants)? The question now,” writes Mr. Podger,”.. is whether the balance has shifted too far towards responsiveness and away from apolitical professionalism and its focus on the long-term public interest."
Pointing to problems with performance pay and contracts for secretaries of departments, he says: "All secretaries are affected and they are being dishonest or fooling themselves if they deny it. They will hedge their bets on occasion, limit the number of issues on which to take a strong stand, be less strident, constrain public comments, limit or craft more carefully public documents and accept a muddying of their role and that of political advisers."
Mr.Steketee, as befits a passionate republican, does not look back to the classical system of an independent public service through rose coloured spectacles. “Before the 1970s,” he says,”the public service used to go to the other extreme, with powerful, almost invariably knighted and permanent heads of departments often behaving as though they were the real government and the politicians were mere blow-ins.”
Actually, if serving the public interest is the measure  by which we are to assess the worth of the public service, having “almost invariably knighted and permanent heads of departments “had proved vastly superior to any other.
When the 1975 Treasury papers were released in 2005, it became clear how the senior public servants had valiantly sought to dissuade the Whitlam government from its greatest folly, the Kemlahni loans affair. By giving the fearless and independent advice they believed they were bound to do give they acted in the public interest as servants of the Crown, and not of the politicians of the day. That advice was rejected by what proved to be an unbelievably naïve and foolish government. (David Wroe, “How the loans scandal became an affair to remember” The Age I January,2005; Tony Stephens,” Labor’s tangle with Scotland Yard” The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 January, 2005. The leader of that government was to figured in yet another loans affair after his defeat in 1975, when  he tried to obtain a loan from  Iraq’s Baath Socialist government to fund his re-election campaign.)
Mr. Podger calls for reforms which would tilt the balance back to where it was. He argues for the  British and New Zealand model having  independent public service bodies select or recommend the appointment of departmental heads. In my view this should be accompanied by the absolute proscription of bribes –I am sorry, I meant bonuses.  Contracts should be longer than a likely government term, say seven or ten years, with the appointee retaining status as a public servant available for other appointments.  Steketee points out that the Leader of HM’s Australian Opposition, Mr. Kevin Rudd has promised Labor would restore the Westminister principles of an independent public service.
This should be a matter of bi partisan agreement, should involve institutional change,and not just as a statement of good intentions.



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