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Henry Thornton - Politics: A discussion of economic, social and political issues A Politicised Public Service? Date 05/04/2007
Member rating 4.2/5
Quadrant editorial for April 2007 (No 93)
By PP McGuinness Email / Print


There has been a good deal of comment in recent years about the politicisation of the public service, especially at its upper levels. This applies in varying forms to both the Commonwealth and State public services. There is no doubt that there is some truth in this. There is an increasing number of political appointments and promotions in the career public service such that the career employees are more and more suborned to the wishes of the government of the day. Unlike the classic separation of powers doctrine derived by Montesquieu from his erroneous understanding of the British system following the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which he thought set up the counterbalance between Parliament, the monarchy (ie, the executive), and the judiciary, the actual separation in modern democracies is theoretically quite different. When Jo Bjelke-Petersen was ridiculed by the media for professing not to understand the separation of powers, in fact the media was reflecting its own ignorance. There was no such doctrine at that time in any of the Australian states. But what had grown up was a realisation of the necessity of separating the processes of government and administration by a professional bureaucracy from day to day arbitrary interference by the government of the day. (In Montesquieu’s notion civil service and executive were one and the same thing.) If anything the doctrine of independence of the civil service from the political government (and, likewise, of the police from politics) was about the rule of law, the difference between day to day administration according to the law from the making of law and policy by the government. An independent civil service is one in which rules are applied, not arbitrary decisionmaking.


But interpenetration of civil service and politics is about increasing arbitrariness, which takes many forms. As well as the appointment of public servants who will be politically inclined at the top of the service, there is these days a growing army of ministerial staffers who interfere in the day to day administration of government departments, and sometimes are appointed into the career structure as a reward for obedient service, regardless of qualifications or experience. There is a related element due to the increasing proportion of women in active politics or public service, such that political appointees are sometimes married (or the equivalent) to elected parliamentarians and even ministers.


It would be mistaken to think that this does not have a fairly long history. The interpenetration of politics and public service can be identified in various forms throughout our history, both before and after federation. It can be observed in various ways in the Commonwealth, sometimes with remarkable features. From the beginning there seems to have been a differentiation of Commonwealth departments in various ways – for example, it has often been argued that there was a clear sectarian division, such that some departments, like Treasury, were always Protestant dominated, while others, like Trade and Customs (which were more numerous and with a high proportion of base grade clerks) were Catholic dominated. This was very marked in the post-WWII period, and there was a clear policy struggle between departments; Trade and Customs were heavily protectionist and fought their corner against a free-trade Treasury. But quite often such struggles were conducted without close connection with the parliamentary politics of the day.


The real change in the direction of the present politicisation began with the Whitlam government. For some time before Whitlam was elected there had been a considerable amount of underground intercourse between the Labor Party and many career public servants, with planning meetings being conducted in preparation for a change in government. Prominent amongst the career public servants involved was the late Peter Wilenski, who became Prime Minister Whitlam’s Private Secretary immediately after the 1972 election victory. Wilenski and some others had even drafted an Administrative Arrangements Order, allocating ministries in the event of the victory. In addition there were numerous public servants who, separately, established close relationships with particular shadow ministers to whom they gave advice and from whom they expected preferment.


When the narrow election victory of 1972 was declared there followed the bizarre episode of the duumvirate ministry of Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard, which lasted until the full caucus could meet and elect a ministry. Most of the shadow ministers in the meantime were also very active in selecting personal ministerial staff, who required no vetting (leading to the appointment of several well-known Communists). More importantly several of the new ministers insisted on the immediate removal of the head of whichever department they had obtained, and the appointment of some favourite son. Often this was the result either of personal dislike or of pre-electoral contact. This was in sharp contrast to the view of the departmental head as in effect enjoying permanent tenure (reflected in the term “permanent head”), and was nicely encapsulated in the alleged first interchange between Sir Frederick Wheeler, Secretary of the Treasury, who after formally congratulating Gough Whitlam on his election, than said, “Now, Mr Prime Minister, about all these instant coffee promises…. ”  The resulting explosion began the relationship between the politicians and the bureaucrats for the life of that government, and indeed for years ahead. The tradition of the permanent head speaking “without fear or favour” to his political master was fatally wounded then and there.


Not that the pre-Whitlam bureaucracy was simon-pure in its separation of politics and civil service. There was the usual range of opinion, and of course after 23 years working with the Coalition there were unconscious assumptions about what was proper to do in any circumstances. However, as the better Labor ministers found after initial awkwardness there was a general adherence to the proper relationship between the two sides on the part of the bureaucrats, and many of them were indeed extremely conscientious and responsive – and quite willing to give advice frankly and directly. But there were many Labor ministers who never accepted the appropriate division (one or two of these ended up amongst the most spectacular failures) and recruited staff who would tell them what they wanted to believe from outside the established structure, as well as continuing to trust those who had, to resort to permissible hyperbole, acted as a kind of fifth columnists all along. Such people still exist and often account for the leaks which plague government still – genuine whistle blowing is rare. Then there were (and are) the political staffers who are quite prepared to usurp the proper decision making of the department and the minister, and frequently poison relations between them. (Quite extraordinarily, there were cases of political staffers leaking to the media not just in support of their own minister but against the interests of another, thus interfering in internal Cabinet debates.)


The evolution of the bureaucracy ever since has been strongly influenced by the legacy of the Whitlam government. One element has been a move away from the tradition of departmental heads being drawn from the career service alone – outsiders began to be appointed. The notion of tenured permanent heads was abandoned, ceasing to be the rule under the Fraser government and being eroded still further under the Hawke government. As well as outside appointments, it increasingly became the practice for governments to move heads around between departments, and the concept of fixed term contracts was applied not just to outsiders but also to career public servants moved from the headship of one department to that of another. While there were some merits in this development it also led to departmental specialisation to be abandoned in favour of managerialism. Thus originally it was common for a career in the public service to be spent virtually wholly in a single department – not only was the Secretary of Treasury likely to be an economist, but agriculture, transport, aviation, health, etc., to be headed by life-time specialists. (Though not all of them formally trained from undergraduate degree up as is now the norm.) The growth of managerialism means that administration becomes “lawyerised” and non-specialist, with specialist knowledge being discounted and the achievement of supposed “objectives” and “outcomes” being placed above competent performance by conventional standards.


Clearly the old model had its merits and its demerits. But it is now for all practical purposes obsolete. While there is still a career public service there is a greater degree of mobility in and out, especially at the top and by means of consultancies. The public service no longer offers quite the same promise of lifetime security. The media use of the term “politicisation” in respect of the public service does not mean a great deal, since it is accompanied by little analysis and is mainly another of the modes of abuse of the Howard government. It is pretended that the Howard government uses its employees, and punishes and rewards them, in an unprecedented fashion to suppress criticism and falsify information. There has always been an element of this in government, but while it is true that it happens nowadays more than in the 50s and 60s, this has been the result of a development clearly traceable through the Whitlam government onwards. There has become common in the media and amongst the Howard-haters generally a technique similar to that of the Big Lie. An assertion is made regarding some sin involving the government in which it conscripts the bureaucracy, which does not dare deny it. The Big Lie is repeated endlessly and is treated as a proven truth which requires no further evidence. One example is the Children Overboard incident. The detail of this confused affair is complicated, but there is simply no evidence that it was a deliberate fabrication of the Howard government for political or electoral purposes. If anybody was lying deliberately it may have been
Peter Reith and perhaps some of his staff. But there is no evidence of the government having suborned any member of the bureaucracy or of the armed forces into corroborating a falsehood. There are a number of similar cases – whenever you see a list of the lies and deceptions of the Howard government it turns out to coincide with the Big Lies. Thus the notion that there is something new and especially pernicious in the politicisation of the public service under the Howard government is nonsensical – it is merely a continuation of a well-established phenomenon. If anything, in the case of both the Fraser and the Howard governments there has rather been a reaction to the orgy of politicisation which has preceded them. The same applies to the stacking of the courts with political appointees – the Hawke-Keating government attempted to turn the Federal Court into a political instrument of the Labor Party,  with some success.


From time to time attempts have been made to reverse the seemingly inevitable politicisation of the bureaucracy, with the oldest of these historically being the Auditor-General. To this office has been added the Ombudsman. However governments have inevitably tried to bring such offices under control. One of the most interesting experiments has been that initiated under the Greiner government in NSW. Thanks to the hung parliament in the early 90s, John Hatton, one of the independent members (for the South Coast), was able to persuade the otherwise scatter-brained independents into forcing the government to accept that certain posts, like that of Auditor General and Director of Public Prosecutions, should be put on a statutory basis alone, reporting direct to Parliament without being subject to the government of the day. Since then a series of clashes between politicians and the holder of the latter post in particular have brought out clearly the government’s unhappiness with any genuine public service independence from government instruction. It is clear that governments are never going to concede easily the principle of a non-political public service – or judiciary for that matter.


And where, in all this, are the unions? The unions have, largely because of their central role in the structure of the Labor Party, penetrated government and as a result of the tendencies described, the public service also. Not so much of this has been by way of the career public service, but rather by way of the various instrumentalities appointed by government. In earlier days in NSW there were a number of instrumentalities created to give the appearance of independence of political government. The system was that they had a degree of apparent independence, and the departmental heads at some point in their careers would be appointed to head and administer them, whereupon they would be set at a distance, with their salaries and other rewards no longer controlled by the Public Service Board or whatever it was called at the time. A circle of petty princes was thus created. In more recent years such instrumentalities have had unionists of similar seniority appointed to them who see themselves as serving not just the government direct but also the interests of trade unions. In a sense, however, this is a reflection of the declining power of the union movement which is ceasing to be an independent power structure and depending more and more on its remaining influence in the Labor Party for access to power. The unions have in fact become one of the factions in the Labor Party struggling with the others to share the spoils of office. Their prime avenue to power has become their ability to influence preselections for parliamentary seats, whether in the upper or lower houses, and to command political appointment into the public service or its instrumentalities.


To this point the word “corruption” has not been used. That there is a good deal of this permeating government in general (and especially the unions) hardly needs to be said. But although it has shown its head in the career public service from time to time, it does not as yet appear to be gross. Perhaps in the letting of some government contracts, but even then one has to be careful to distinguish between corruption and just plain incompetence. Perhaps the essence of the corruption involved in the increasing politicisation of the bureaucracy is in its use of the system as a way of delivering mass access to jobs, preference, and personal advancement, to the supporters, and in particular the elites, of the governing party.

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