NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Colin TeeseNews Weekly
Can Rudd restore an impartial public service?
, December 22, 2007
Newly-elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has spoken of the need for evidence-based policy-making. To get his way, however, he will need to replace the ideologically-driven advisers who have dominated Canberra for much of the past 30 years, writes Colin Teese.We have just witnessed an election in which a long-serving government and its leader have been spectacularly rejected. Less remarked upon has been the triumph, once again, of our Australian political democracy.
Almost uniquely in the world, our system normally confers political power on the basis of the votes of a majority of the population of voting age. It is, of course, possible, under our system, for governments to be elected with a tiny fraction less than an absolute majority, though that is an exception against the rule. What we manage to achieve is unmatched in other long-standing democracies: because we, almost alone among the stable democracies, require all citizens of voting age to cast a vote.Majority vote
In democracies without this provision, it is customary for governments to be elected with support falling well short of a majority. In Britain, for example, the last Labour Government was returned with around 25 per cent of eligible voters. Indeed, no British government has been elected by a majority of those entitled to vote since the 1930s. Much the same happens in the US and Europe. In closing the chapter on the election itself, it is worth keeping these facts in mind.
But the main purpose of this article is to concentrate, not on what has happened but on what might be ahead of us in the coming three years - essentially, not on the politics, but how the incoming government might arrange its affairs. We will also make special reference to the machinery of government built into our system under our federal constitution and its associated conventions.
Despite the strength of our democracy, there has been reason for deep concern - going back to the Whitlam years - about the direction in which various governments have taken us.
Under successive Australian governments over the last 30 or so years (except for that of Mr Malcolm Fraser between 1975 and 1983), there has been a steady erosion of commitment to the principles behind, and the conventions associated with, what is called the Westminster system. This is the system which had its origins in the British parliamentary arrangements, and which we wisely adopted at the time of federation.
Our new Labor Prime Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, has, among other things, declared himself a committed believer in the Westminster system. Good for him! However, cynics among News Weekly
readers (alongside whom this writer places himself) will want to wait and see how steadfast is his commitment and how truly it will be followed in practice.
Associated with the text of our constitution are important conventions which take into account a political society dominated by two major political parties. (In practice, Australia has a two-and-a-half party system, since the non-Labor side has mostly comprised a coalition of the Liberal and National parties). Traditionally, the opposing parties compete for political power.
The Governor-General is empowered to permit the party or coalition of parties which wins a majority of seats in the House of Representatives to form a government. The designated leader of that party is also by convention styled Prime Minister.
Two particular forms of power are conferred upon the incoming government: first, it can initiate and pass new laws through parliament; and second, it is obliged through its ministry - which is nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the Governor-General - to administer, within its designated powers, the affairs of the nation. This is done by means of ministers running various specialised agencies which we call departments, staffed by appointed officials whom we call public servants.
These officials advise ministers on policy options, taking into special account public rather than political interest. Until the time of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, public servants had been appointed to permanent positions within a career service.
This was for a good reason. Giving an incoming government control over both law-making and administration - as in the Westminster system - confers enormous power on a government. Used unwisely, it could harm the nation. The advice and guidance of independent and experienced public servants were meant to be a check on the abuse of power by elected politicians.
This is how it worked. A minister in charge of a department wants to take some action. It may or may not require new laws to be made. The minister asks his department to prepare a document setting out a clear account of what is to be done and advancing arguments in favour of it.
An interdepartmental committee is established to examine the proposal. All departments whose interests are affected participate. If the committee accepts what is being proposed, it becomes a Cabinet submission and is put before the ministry (called the Cabinet) under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. If Cabinet as a whole accepts the submission, it becomes government policy and steps will be taken by the responsible minister (and his department) to implement the proposal.
The new policy should be the subject of debate in parliament. All ministers who have endorsed the idea must support the proposal or they cannot remain in Cabinet; that is what is called Cabinet solidarity.
The Government may or may not change some of the detail of the proposal to meet Opposition demands.
That's what should
happen - and until the time of the 1972-75 Whitlam Labor Government, it is what did
Mr Whitlam's party had been out of office for 27 years, and some MPs and many Labor supporters did not trust the bureaucracy to faithfully work for a Labor government.
The new Prime Minister was among them. Accordingly, he allowed his ministers to appoint advisory staff, most of whom brought nothing to the process of government other than partisan support for the Labor Party. They helped ministers formulate policy and bypass official advice.Fundamental errors
It is now accepted that, in no small measure, this helped an inexperienced government make fundamental errors of judgement in the consideration and implementation of its policies.
Things reverted to normal during the Fraser years. But with Labor back in office in 1983 under Bob Hawke's leadership, a revolution began. Ministers' offices were not only dominated by Labor staffers, but the public service as a career service, dedicated to providing continuity and sober advice to governments, was disbanded. The appointment of senior officials became the plaything of the Prime Minister. The public service became so politicised as to make the Westminster system dysfunctional.
Most important of all, the necessary practice of Cabinet deliberation and decision was suspended as and when the Prime Minister chose - mostly these choices were associated with political fortune. This writer is reliably informed that, by way of example, the decision to deregulate financial markets and to float the Australian dollar was never put to Cabinet.
The Howard Liberal-National Coalition Government, elected in 1996, took the process further. Mr Howard was determined to dismiss all of the senior public servants appointed by his predecessor and to fill the positions with appointees publicly identified with his particular policies.
We must wait and see what might happen under Prime Minister Rudd. He has been anything but specific about his intentions, but he has dropped a few hints - enough, indeed, to give us all a bit of hope.
Mr Rudd has already announced his intention to limit the numbers of staff allowed to ministers and to members of parliament generally. He has said he will rely more on public service advice. More important still, he has expressed a commitment to what he calls "evidence-based" policy-making.
He has said he will take more account of advice from the Treasury - apparently, this is in response to the publicly revealed concern of the Secretary of the Treasury during this year that the Treasury views were not being given due weight by the former government.
All this is to the good. But Mr Rudd has gone further. He has said he wants to get advice and ideas from the specialist departments - other than Treasury - presumably as a part of his search for evidence-based policies.
This, too, is a laudable aim. We must hope he succeeds. But there are difficulties. It is important to have the Treasury view on its own special area of budget policy, and to have Treasury inputs about the impact of other specialist policy proposals - say, industrial relations or the environment - on budget policy.
But the Treasury has gone much further than that. It has ideologically-based attitudes towards certain forms of economic management. These may well encourage Treasury to challenge what other specialist departments are proposing, less for concern about their impact on the budget, than for their ideological purity.
Moreover, the Treasury is uniquely placed to impose its ideological will on the incoming government. This is because Treasury-trained officials have found their way into the specialist departments: there they will be able to shape policy less towards evidence-based outcomes than towards ideologically-based ends associated with Treasury perceptions.
The challenge confronting Mr Rudd will be to see if he can persuade specialist departments, infected with the Treasury ideological position, to pursue policies in accordance with the incoming government's wishes rather that trying to persuade the government to bend its policy ideas to meet a particular economic point of view.
To draw Treasury "plants" of ideologically committed senior public servants in specialist departments away from the path of Treasury economic orthodoxy will be no easy task. It may well be the first test of Mr Rudd's toughness.
If he succeeds, the Prime Minister's next logical step would be to recreate an independent, career-based public service - prisoner of neither ideological nor political commitment.- Colin Teese is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Trade.