Without fear or favour

The Abbott Government’s recent sacking – without proper reasons being given – of three departmental secretaries, with others to follow, doesn’t just send a message to the Australian Public Service. It should also serve as a reminder to the general public that the public service is not operating as independently of government as it should.

Over a decade ago, Richard Mulgan, former professor at the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the ANU, wrote:

‘Politicisation of the APS, in the sense of appointments to suit the preferences of the government of the day, has been gradually increasing over recent decades. The process has been given added impetus by the growing insecurity of tenure among secretaries and by the sometimes uncritical adoption of private sector management model.’

Political appointments to senior public service positions, and the removal of senior public servants by incoming governments, unfortunately is nothing new at both State and Federal levels. But the effect of the sackings doesn’t just affect other senior bureaucrats who want to hold onto their jobs: it immediately filters down through all levels of the public service. So your average public servant is then constrained and gagged not only by broad reaching guidelines but also – and perhaps more effectively – by a fear of personal consequences.

While Tony Abbott said in response to the sackings “I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of individual decisions”,  most public servants recognise the all too familiar dog whistle that the newly elected government wants them to give it what it wants. In other words, for all the officially prescribed “Values” and “Codes of Conduct” in Christendom, if you’re a public servant with a family and bills to pay you toe the line: you don’t make career limiting moves, you don’t probe too deeply and you don’t expose embarrassing matters. Any thought of facilitating integrity or accountability through fearlessly exposing facts is shelved.

The end result is a top-down culture of self-preservation and self-interest, built on security if not comfort, with blind obedience to the dictates of government.

As anti-corruption fighter John Hatton AO recently pointed out,  “Corruption can’t occur if government departments are truly independent, open, accountable, efficient facilitators of the flow of information acting in the public interest. It just can’t happen…Corruption flows from government to government and from department to department irrespective of the political colour.”

Hatton points out that the “public service is the oil that greases corruption”. Why? Because corruption, or any government wrong doing for that matter, can’t take place over long lunches alone:  it requires execution, and execution requires a team of participants, willing or not. It involves the taking of calls and typing of notes, the drafting and delivery of documents, informal conversations within earshot, advice being sought and given, people coming and going from offices and activities cloaked in secrecy.

It does not auger well for the independence of the public service if department heads are sacked without reason by newly elected governments.

In fact in order to maintain public confidence in the integrity of the public service and to help stamp out cronyism, Heads of Departments should be appointed on a bi-partisan basis or by Parliament, and they should have the right to an independent judicial review if their contract is not to be renewed so that their performance can be independently assessed against the relevant guidelines. This should prevent the dismissal of senior bureaucrats who disagree with a position taken by a government or who have expressed views contrary to some official line.

We need a truly independent public service with departments led by competent managers appointed on merit who can perform their duties without fear of political interference. We also need public servants who are able to speak out without fear of retribution when they see government waste, corruption or wrong doing. After all, it is our money and the integrity of our institutions that they should be protecting.

Why should public servants not be able to speak out if a government demands improper actions or unethical behaviour in relation to its citizens, or requires acts to be taken in breach of international laws or conventions? In many cases the public servants are the only people with the information and expertise who can identify such transgressions.

A truly independent public service is a cornerstone of the Westminster system. Depriving public servants of that independence means that they become servants of incumbent governments rather than servants of the public.

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