August 22nd 2009

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Terrorism comes to Sydney

EDITORIAL: Is the financial crisis receding?

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: Heavy-handed China shows its true colours

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Rudd Government bid to take over hospitals

QUEENSLAND: Anna Bligh's Labor Government on the skids

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Regional consultation needed on new Murray-Darling plan

RURAL AFFAIRS: Dairy and irrigation industries hit hard

ENVIRONMENT: Analysis of alarmism: ocean acidification

CLIMATE: Climate change devastation: apocalypse now

HUMAN RIGHTS: Grievance industry shows exponential growth

OPINION: How Australian authors fare in the free market

GOVERNMENT: Public service independence undermined by politicians

OPINION: Forced repatriations from Austria in 1945

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Teenagers rescued from suicide training camps; Demographic time-bomb transforming Europe; Shocking decline of British schools; Bismarck on politics

CINEMA: Portrait of the starship captain as a young hoon - Star Trek


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Public service independence undermined by politicians

by Colin Teese

News Weekly, August 22, 2009
The so-called OzCar affair was a disaster for public servant Mr Godwin Grech - and equally for federal Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

But, much more importantly, the episode highlighted the harm done to the Westminster system by both Labor and the Coalition political parties over the last 20 years.

Mr Turnbull's standing in the polls has undoubtedly been dented by the incident. Less certain, is whether his leadership has been fatally wounded.

Comparisons have been made with what happened to Mark Latham, but these should be discounted. The former Labor leader made fatal mistakes on the eve of the October 2004 federal election. He could not possibly have recovered.

Short of an early election, Mr Turnbull has plenty of time to rebuild his credibility - always assuming he is capable of displaying better and cooler judgment. If he can, and if the party keeps faith with him, Mr Turnbull may yet lead the party in a realistic dash for office.

Dodging criticism

Kevin Rudd has dodged all criticism, though why the leader of the governing party, and a man of not inconsiderable wealth, would want to act as he did is incomprehensible. Of course, what he did in accepting the use of a car from a constituent for electoral purposes was no hanging offence - unwise certainly, but not illegal.

Some might say in Mr Rudd's defence that other MPs, on both sides of politics, and no less wealthy than Mr Rudd, have done much worse. Against that it is worth noting that John Howard, as Prime Minister, would never have done such a thing.

In the end, all of this is the trivia of the affair. The real issue is about how the government and public service should work together in a Westminster system. In such a system, permanent, independent public servants have an important part to play if the checks and balances of our democracy are to have real meaning.

The public servant at the centre of OzCar affair, a reasonably senior and long-serving officer, is really a victim of the political parties which deliver our governments.

Mr Godwin Grech is, according to reports, a firm supporter of the so-called economic rationalist form of economic organisation, which has supporters on both sides of parliament. Reputedly, he is also a supporter of the Coalition parties. Nothing is wrong with that. In the privacy of their own thoughts public servants are allowed to harbour views about matters of policy. Equally, they are not precluded from having political preferences - so long as these views don't affect the way they do their jobs.

If Mr Grech has leaked information to the Coalition parties, both in and out of government, he has crossed the line. As a public servant, his duty is to serve the government of the day, and also to display loyalty to his own department.

It is therefore curious and scarcely comprehensible that both Mr Howard - a former Prime Minister - and Mr Turnbull have acknowledged Mr Grech's actions and praised his integrity.

Mr Turnbull's position is quite puzzling. He is a competent lawyer. He was once a vocal leader of the Republican movement. He must surely understand that our constitution is constructed on the basis of a Commonwealth government committed to what is known as the Westminster system.

That system, following British constitutional practice, is based on a partial separation of the sources of government power specified in our constitution: legislative, judicial and administrative.

By contrast, for example, the US government is subject to a complete, formal separation of powers. Its courts are totally independent. Legislative powers rest entirely with the Congress, and the President has sole responsibility for administration.

The President may perhaps exert influence, but has no control over the creation or passage of legislation. If he wants new laws, he must persuade Congress to pass them. The President does have the power to strike down some laws passed by Congress, but rarely is he in a position to exercise that power.

The Westminster system trades the US-style model of formal separation for British-style-flexibility. Its courts are totally independent, but both the legislative and administrative power are exercised by the government. Government is held by a political party or parties in coalition.

In our version of the Westminster system, the government - led by the Prime Minister - must hold a majority of seats in the House of Representatives; it is the chamber which usually initiates legislation. And since it enjoys majority representation, it can pass whatever legislation it wishes - subject only to the discipline of what the upper house of parliament (the Senate) may decide.

If the government controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the government has total control over the legislative and administrative process - including the various departments which administer policy.

Are, then, the checks and balances of the US system absent in ours? Not quite. The Westminster system presumes the existence of an independent public service, comprising permanently serving officials. These officials will work for, and provide, both continuity and expert impartial advice to the government of the day.

This is in stark contrast to what happens in the US public service. Its senior officials are not permanent. The incoming Administration can, and does, bring with it its own advisers and officials, who displace those of the outgoing administration. In the US system, with its complete separation of legislative and administrative powers, this practice is both desirable and appropriate.

But the important connecting link between the Washington and Westminster systems is that public servants are obliged to work exclusively for the government of the day. The US makes certain of that by each incoming administration appointing its senior officials. The Westminster system rests upon the idea of a permanent and independently appointed set of officials loyally serving whoever is elected to government.

By his actions Mr Godwin Grech has exposed a fatal weakness in the way our system is currently functioning. But he can hardly be blamed for what has happened, especially since his actions have been publicly defended by Messrs Howard and Turnbull.

Blame lies rather with the governments and prime ministers who have been at work, either undermining the system or, in other contexts, posing as its defenders.

The process of disempowering the public service began with Labor's Gough Whitlam nearly 40 years ago. This process was ably consolidated a decade or so later by the Hawke/Keating governments. The final decisive blow was delivered to public service independence by Mr Howard when he became Prime Minister.

Mr Whitlam, unlike his successors, did nothing to change the structure of the public service. What he did was allow his ministers to engage large staffs of advisors from outside the public service and, further, to allow these advisors to overshadow public servants.

These ministerial staffers were invariably Labor Party supporters, who introduced into each minister's office a source of partisan political advice. All subsequent ministries have earnestly followed suit.

On the other hand, public service policy advice came in the form of an objective assessment of what was the best policy option independent of politics - though it is true that the best public servants would temper advice with what was politically realistic.

Ministerial staffers, by contrast, began the process of policy assessment entirely from a party political standpoint. This frequently led to outcomes from which the best policy options never got considered - even when such options could, in the hands of experienced public servants, readily have been reconciled with existing party positions. Much of the flawed policy outcomes of recent times can be attributed to this development started by Whitlam.

The Hawke/Keating governments took the process of undermining the public service influence a stage further. They abandoned the concept of a permanent public service and opened all posts to outside appointment.

None of the new appointments made under this system were permanent. Thus there began to accumulate a body of public servants committed to the shorter-term perspective of a party or government.

Mr Howard took the process a stage further. As Prime Minister, he removed all heads of departments appointed by his predecessor and chose his own replacements.

He thus erased another important element of the Westminster system and replaced it with a US-type system under which an incoming government brings with it its own senior public servants. For reasons explained earlier, this change is not consistent with good government in a Westminster system.

Effectively, we now have a Washington-type public service grafted on to a Westminster system. It cannot possibly work effectively - if only because, unlike the US, we do not have total separation of powers. Having power over both legislation and administration needs the steadying hand of an independent public service.

Westminster system

Currently, we don't have that. In our Westminster system, public service careers can be made and unmade according to the personal preferences of incoming prime ministers rather on how well they have served governments of all persuasions. This is not the way our democracy was intended to function.

To his credit, Mr Rudd has not followed the practice of Mr Howard. While that is a small step in the right direction, it is not enough. He needs to go further and recreate a permanent, independent public service with a culture of loyalty to the government in office.

Thus far, the present Prime Minister has displayed no such intention.

Colin Teese is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Trade.

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