Albo’s hidden menace: A sullied public service
21 December 2022
NOOSA –In an explosive article, a prominent Australian journalist has said the seven-month old Albanese Labor government is already “letting its moral mandate wither away”.
Jack Waterford, a much admired former editor of The Canberra Times, now a regular contributor to the Pearls and Irritations website, says Albanese has been excessively slow in building momentum for change and seems oblivious of the urgent need for it.
Waterford observes that “administrative reform is in the doldrums and focused on rhetorical fluff” and “there is no talk about accountability, individual and collective responsibility, or about moral cowardice”.
He writes that this failure to begin to address the massive systemic malfunctions inherited from Scott Morrison “is astonishing and criminally negligent.
“The Morrison government’s corrupted idea of government almost caused orderly government to collapse… but Labor has yet to show any great reforming enthusiasm, or higher ideals of public stewardship.”
He points out that most Morrison-era public servants remain in office, even those who have shown corrupt or unethical behaviour or are “without significant achievements in any form of public administration”.
“Some, indeed, will have been promoted,” he says.
On a more sinister note, Waterford remarks that some senior public servants “will have become as useful, responsive and willing to look in the other direction for Labor ministers as they were previously for coalition ministers, and will have become indispensable to this government.”
The bottom line is that the Albanese government, slow to act on issues in its own bureaucratic ranks, now owns the systemic issues within the public service which flowed from “Morrison’s abandonment of honest government”.
“A few inquiries are not enough to claim a momentum for change,” Waterford writes. “The public forgets, and governments become focused on new problems.”
OzSAGE, an independent network of Australian public health experts that take a particular interest in Covid-19, recently published a paper that provides tacit support for the Waterford thesis.
All guns blazing, OzSAGE blew apart a recent National Cabinet statement on Covid saying it had “serious inaccuracies…not supported by the evidence or current real-life experiences.”
According to OzSAGE, in dealing with Covid the government is communicating “a false belief that nothing further can be done and that Australians must now learn to ‘live with’ the virus and revert to pre-Covid behaviours….
“This approach will lead to greater disease transmission and continuing avoidable morbidity and excess deaths, with inevitable negative impacts on the community and economy.”
It attacked the National Cabinet for its “misleading narrative that the pandemic is now manageable and in a stable state” and criticised the statement for being“contradictory and inaccurate.
While Waterford did not specifically address Covid in his article, he would find much to like and little to disagree with in the OzSAGE critique.
“The Albanese government has surrendered almost all of the moral advantage it held over the public administration, and most of the moral advantage it held over the coalition,” he says.
“So bad was the Morrison government and its facilitation squad that we needed to do more than throw the bastards out.
“We needed a thorough clean-out, including of many of the public servants, mostly senior ones, who had badly let the public interest down. We needed new leadership.”
So what does this reluctance to mean in practice?
Primarily, because of the centrality of the public service in delivering the laws and policies the government espouses, Labor is now stuck with a dubious bureaucratic inheritance.
Instead of restoring the “established rules [governing] proper financial and legal stewardship of public resources, and open, transparent and accountable decision-making” Labor has decided to retain the same personnel, systems and most of the policies that underpinned Morrison's administration.
And these were the personnel, the system and the policies that Waterford argues “corrupted basic processes of good and honest government and made all too many senior public servants complicit in, or silent about, illegal and unconstitutional processes.
“Everything bad that occurred was facilitated by senior public servants, almost all of whom are still in the same positions now.
“As things stand under the new, and mostly old, public service senior leaders, none have anything to fear for their manifest failures,” says Waterford.
And that’s how the old guard in Health kept riding high in the saddle when Labor took over.
Despite the manifest failure of December 2021, when the doors were thrown open to allow the then new Omicron virus untrammelled spread, those responsible were kept on and are still able to lie to citizens.
They do this through the artifice of National Cabinet, spreading the dangerous falsehood that “the crisis phase has passed and the risks of widespread Covid-19 deaths overwhelming health system capacity and a significant economic shock from Covid-19 have subsided.”
As OzSAGE commented, this was a “false and unconscionable” lie. The facts bear this out.
Waterford writes that the failure to begin to address the massive and systemic malfunctions inherited from Morrison “is astonishing and criminally negligent”.
Because most of these malfunctions remain embedded in the bureaucracy.
With no real effort being made to expose them and put them to rights, they await as time bombs clothed in rhetoric like ‘Covid exceptionalism needs to be replaced by enduring structural change in our approach to respiratory illness’.
“This is not a public health principle,” argues OzSAGE. “Public health experts know what to do, but we need our leadership to start the country on the right path rather than just wish this disease was like any other. It is not.”
The challenge for Anthony Albanese and his ministers is that they will need to deal with more than Covid remaining a threat contrary to government propaganda.
They are faced with many other structural, systemic and personnel problems still parked within a virtually untouched – and seemingly untouchable - public service.
It's a hidden menace within the body politic, and it will create many complex problems for the Albanese government.
I think that Jack Waterford is absolutely right that reform of the public service is required.
Also, like Phil, I think that we need to cut Anthony Albanese a bit of slack as he progressively works through the legacy issues of a decade of conservative incompetence and corruption.
Based upon my experience as a senior executive in the South Australian public service, I would suggest several important changes relating mostly to the senior executive service (SES) within the public sector.
The first and most obvious change needed is to abandon the practice of employing SES level officers on a non-tenured contractual basis.
The supposed merit of this system is that it makes them much more responsive to the needs of the government of the day.
The actual impact, as we have seen in the Robo Debt Royal Commission, is a demonstrated unwillingness to give 'frank and fearless' advice lest this offends the political masters.
The clear and unequivocal result of this is bad policy advice being provided that, in the case of Robo Debt, meant not pointing to the inconvenient fact that the proposed policy was patently illegal, not to mention the likelihood of unjust and immoral outcomes.
People appointed to the SES should be made 'permanent' at the lowest executive level, with all promotions above that level being for fixed terms of, say, 3 to 5 years.
In the context of the Federal Public Service this probably means being made permanent at the current Assistant Secretary level ($135,468 to $203,700 pa).
If an appointee to a higher-level position is deemed surplus to requirements for whatever reason, then he or she has the comfort of knowing that they can 'fall back' to their permanent position and be found another role in the public sector.
This system will ensure that SES members can feel able to provide 'difficult' advice to their respective Ministers and Cabinet so that, at the very least, the problematic issues are recognised if not dealt with effectively.
With respect to the positions of Departmental Secretary, these would still, as now, be held at the pleasure of the Prime Minister of the day.
No modern politician is going to accept that he or she is stuck with an appointee of the previous government, especially if that person is deemed politically suspect in some way.
The other issue is the growth in the numbers and influence of 'Ministerial Advisers', who are very often aspiring politicians. It is very hard to build a case that the growth in their numbers has led to better policy outcomes.
There should be a return to the practice of the past where most of the staff in the Minister's Office are permanent public servants, with Ministerial Advisers being both fewer in number and appointed because of their knowledge and expertise in a specific policy area.
Such advisers may or not be drawn from the public service but, in the past at least, assigning expert public servants to such roles has been beneficial for both the Minister and for the person themselves.
The biggest likely enemies of the ideas I have mentioned will come from the ranks of aspiring politicians of all parties and from some serving politicians as well.
The loss of various cosy sinecures to offer the party faithful will be inconvenient to some, perhaps many party members but good public policy nonetheless.
If Albanese is as smart as I think he is, he will pull together a manifestly non-partisan group of experts to advise him on this undeniably thorny topic and propose a way forward.
Doubtless there will be opinions contrary to my own but a robust discussion about the options to rehabilitate and improve the Federal public sector is long overdue.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 22 December 2022 at 01:46 PM
It's a bit early to be making prognostications like this about the new government. They've got a huge mess to clean up after all.
This is not to say they're morally clean though. They're morally compromised on their asylum seeker policies, their abandonment of Covid management, their buddying up with the USA and their outrageous defence spending.
As for cleaning out the public service, that's a huge job and politically fraught. There are a few arseholes who need to go but public servants at the senior level have always been chameleon-like and will toe the line of whatever government is in power.
Contrary to popular belief public servants are there to serve the government, good, bad or indifferent, not the other way round.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 22 December 2022 at 04:43 AM