January 18

The Prime Minister and the public service

The Prime Minister, Mr. Kevin Rudd, continues to resist the temptation to politicise the higher echelons of the public service. The latest evidence of this is in the reappointment of Michael L'Estrange  for a further three years as secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In announcing this, Mr. Rudd said: "I appreciate Mr L'Estrange's continuing contribution in this important role."  

The Australian on 17 January reported, uncharacteristically coyly, that there had been speculation Mr L'Estrange would step down because of his close association with former prime minister John Howard. If there had been a “stepping down”, many expected that this would have been imposed by the fact that a reappointment was not on the cards.   

In any event, Mr. L’Estrange is an excellent choice, and Mr. Rudd recognizes that. To the Prime Minister’s credit he is not letting political considerations enter into the matter. That great constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot would have approved.  But he would not have approve dof what some say is an excessive use of consultants.

The point is that our constitutional monarchy or crowned republic is not just a pretty and traditional ornament. It serves vital constitutional purposes, one of which relates to the public service.

The fact may not be much appreciated in the academy, but the Australian Crown is the employer of the public or civil service, and not the ruling political party.

The loyalty of the public servant must therefore be to the non political Crown and not to the politicians. This enforces the obligation of the public servant to act within and according to law, and to provide advice not influenced by and indifferent to political considerations. 

The emergence of a non-partisan public or civil service coincided with the withdrawal of the Crown from political activity and the emergence of the constitutional monarchy as we know it.

In advice which was equally applicable to Australia, the great Walter Bagehot argued  in 1867, that to assure popular rule, there were only two constitutional models available to Canada: the British or the American constitutional model.  

Not only did he think a non- partisan public service did not prevail in the US, he believed it was impossible.   The contrast between the public services of the Commonwealth Realms and those of the US remains, even if in Australia in recent years there has been some regrettable blurring in the higher echelons. 

Few would doubt that the ideal should remain of an independent public service. A constitutional monarchy is  a fertile field for this because it is designed to allow an easy transfer of political power, the prime minister being untenured and at all times dependent on the confidence of the lower house.

Now that Mr. Rudd has once again demonstrated that he is avoiding the temptation which seduced his predecessors, he should grasp the nettle.  For decades governments of both persuasions have undermined the neutrality of the public service.

If it is too much to restore the permanence of the departmental heads, the ludicrously short term of three years should be significantly extended. And measures should be in place to ensure that party political considerations do not enter into their selection or appointment.

…one cloud….

There is one cloud over Mr. Rudd’s treatment of the public service. A private consultancy firm snared $20million in contracts from the Rudd Government last year, as 3000 jobs were slashed from the federal bureaucracy, reports Kerry-Anne Walsh in the Herald Sun on 18 January, 2009 .

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) won contracts to develop policy in the departments of environment, education, defence, finance, treasury, immigration, tax and resources. 

Ms Walsh reports one senior public servant accusing the Government of "forcing dedicated public servants with a lot of corporate memory out the door" while spending up big on "pet private outfits".

Among other policies,  she reports that BCG was responsible for “quickly whipping up a blueprint for an international carbon capture-and-storage institute and is working on early childhood and clean coal policies.”

The report says that the fees paid to BCG include the departments of finance ($11million), resources ($1.5million); defence ($1.17million) and employment ($1.3million).

At the same time, she says this is taking place  while senior public servants “have been pushed out the door or are leaving because of overwork, stress, stretched resources and low morale.”





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