GOVERNMENT: by Colin TeeseNews Weekly
Democracy needs a professional public service
, July 26, 2003
Fundamental changes hit English speaking countries of the Western world in the 1980s. In fact, the mid-seventies marked the end of the post war period, and with it went the English speaking West's unqualified commitment to full employment and social justice. Fundamentalist economic and social policies replaced that commitment. The new policies had their origins in Britain's first Thatcher government. They were characterised by deregulation, free trade, privatization, the undermining of union power and the paring back of welfare.
That these changes - in effect a roll-back of almost all that had been achieved under the banner of Western post-war democracy - took hold in Britain is perhaps understandable, given its inability to shake off the corrosive effects of a debilitating class system and its offshoot, a belligerent trade union movement.
The Thatcherite policies spread quickly throughout the English speaking developed world, spurred on by a revival of neo-classical economics, which had its resurgence in British academic circles after World War II.
Much less understandable was that the incoming Australian Labor Party, in 1983, accepted - more or less without qualification - the Thatcherite policies. It is also true that Australia and New Zealand accepted the Thatcherite principles more comprehensively and enthusiastically than any other English speaking countries.
In recent years, New Zealand, under a different Labor government, has drawn back from some of the worst excesses of those policies. Under a Liberal - National Party Coalition elected in 1996 Australia has moved further in the other direction.
Concurrently with the changes it made to economic structures, the Labor government in Australia began to recast the Commonwealth Public Service. These efforts, too, have been taken further by the Coalition.
Efficiency and better functioning of the Public Service were the stated reasons for the changes. But the real reason was that when Labor regained office in 1983 it had spent only three of the past thirty four years in government. It apparently believed that the Public Service would resist implementing Labor policies.
Of course, the stated reasons made no sense when one considers that the policies the incoming Labor government had chosen were exactly those in favour with Thatcherite admirers in the Liberal Party. The inefficiency claim does not stand up either. If the Public Service was working below optimum efficiency in 1983 the reasons can be traced back to the Whitlam government's actions nine years earlier.
Mr Whitlam came to office also believing that - after twenty three years of Coalition government - the bureaucracy could not be trusted with Labor policies. Ministers were encouraged to appoint advisors sympathetic to Labor ideas to counter Public Service advice.
There is no doubt that, under this system, the quality of government administration deteriorated. And many of the disastrous mistakes made by the Whitlam government - which ultimately led to its collapse - can be traced back to the advice given by Ministerially appointed advisors. That is hardly surprising. Advice from party faithful is unlikely to identify imprudent government actions by the government providing they line up with party policies. In no way can such advice be compared with that offered by permanent public servants who have made a career of studying and evaluating the management of government business, and the advising of governments, not on political party lines, but in the national interest.
That practice of undermining public servants, begun by Mr Whitlam, was only partially reversed under the Fraser Coalition government. Thus, when Labor regained power in 1983 it was able to finish the job. Measures were quickly implemented which destroyed the permanent, independent and career nature of the Public Service. Heads of Departments were appointed (and dismissible) by the government and chose (and could sack) their own staff. Mr Howard completed the process of politicising the Public Service.
The impact of these changes on our democratic system can hardly be exaggerated.
There is more to good government than regular, democratic elections. Even in democracies the people need to be protected against the misuse of power by politicians. It is not enough to argue-as some politicians do - that regular elections are sufficient protection against the misuse of power. Checks and balances are needed to ensure that politicians will be precluded from the use of the powers available to them to limit the possibility of their being voted out of office.
Democratic government rests upon on three separate arms of government. A legislative chamber in which elected representatives pass laws upon which the legal system is based; a judiciary, which interprets laws; and an administration, which carries out the business of government.
The US system guards against the possibility of misuse of power by the absolute separation of these functions. The President is elected separately, and is responsible for government administration. Officials employed to help the President with administration are appointed by and dismissible by him. But he has no power to create new laws except by persuasion of the legislature. Legislative power is confined to a separately elected Congress. And the law is administered by judges who, once appointed, cannot be dismissed by either the President or Congress.
Australia operates under a Westminster system which we inherited from the British. We have a fully independent judiciary, but there is no separation between legislature and administration.
The leader of the Party with a majority in the parliament, which we call Prime Minister, controls both the legislature and administration. Except for the Senate when opposition party numbers can sometimes overrule government legislation.
This concentration of power over both lawmaking and administration can be tolerated only in the context of a permanent, politically impartial, career Public Service, which is able to provide expert and impartial advice to government. Otherwise, it confers on the elected government virtual dictatorship for the term of its office.
It should be emphasised that the function of the bureaucracy is not to control the government, but rather to advise and warn it. For example, it can suggest, in respect of a particular policy proposal, that such an idea on the basis of its experience and knowledge, is unwise - even undesirable - in the public interest. It might even, on occasion, be required to point out that a policy idea is improper.
There is no obligation upon government to accept such advice. And if, ultimately, the government wants to go ahead, it is the job of the public service to implement - within the law - whatever policy the government wants.
Governments don't always welcome such public service advice - notably because they sometimes feel constrained from following their natural political instincts. In these situations public servants will earn the displeasure of Ministers or even of the Prime Minister. If their job security were not protected, impartial and unwelcome advice might tempt a government to replace an official with another, more accommodating.
That is precisely the situation Australia now finds itself. Advice to the government is no longer the preserve of permanent, impartial officials. Ministerial advisers now control the advice going to Ministers, are quite capable of filtering information - for party purposes - in such away as prevents Ministers' from reaching fully informed decisions.
For the past two decades this has been the case with economic advice. A traditional public service has been replaced with short-term appointed officials whose views tend to support those of the Party advisors. All advice going to Ministers' is thus carefully filtered. They are hearing only what their advisors( and the new breed of Public Servants) want them to hear.
And the practice does not stop at economics.
Whether or not one supports the Coalition position on persons trying to enter Australia illegally, what cannot be contested is that the so-called 'children overboard' incident was an attempt to use the facilities of the military and civil bureaucracies to reinforce a perception later proved to be incorrect. And all of this in the context of an election.
On the basis of what is now known publicly, not all officials were intent upon informing the Government of the full facts. And, had it not been for the actions of a few, the true facts of the situation may never have surfaced. As it was, none did until after the election.
Did this incident have an impact on the election outcome? Probably not. But it might have. Which means that, under the present situation, a government may be in a position to manipulate information and therefore public opinion in the context of an election, and so compromise the democratic process.
More recently, we have the situation with weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. Important questions arise concerning the operation of our intelligence agencies on this issue. One agency claimed that it had information which contradicted the political line but deemed it of insufficient importance to pass on to the Government. Another said the information was buried in an Annex to the main document and overlooked.
Neither of these accounts is entirely credible, the more so because the actions of Prime Minister having been denied access to information which caused him to mislead the public. Yet he defends the offending agencies.
How times have changed.Menzies' approach
Back in the days of the Menzies Government, he and his Ministers were obsessive about the importance of not misleading the public. And not only on the big issues: they were as much concerned with trivia.
The then Deputy Prime Minister, John McEwen would not so much as tolerate a wrong piece of statistical information being given him - even if it arose from genuine bureaucratic error.
Of course he was right. Our democracy rests firmly on the existence of a backward and forward trust between public and politician.
Political probity is an essential part of that trust. And that, in turn, rests upon the idea that Ministers absorbing sometimes uncomfortable advice from independent and fearless sources.
Without an independent Public Service that is no longer possible, and our democracy is accordingly threatened.
Because of this, there are those who now insist that from the mid-seventies on, our democratic process has been receding from its high water mark. Let us hope they are proved wrong.
- Colin Teese was Deputy Secretary of the Department of Trade