Can the Public Service be depoliticised?by Colin TeeseNews Weekly
, April 20, 2002
Colin Teese, formerly Deputy Secretary of the Department of Trade and Australia's negotiator to GATT, examines the consequences of political appointments to senior positions in the public service.In a recent edition of the Financial Review John Hewson, former leader of the Parliamentary Liberal Party, criticized the present Liberal Prime Minister for the damage he had done to the notion of an independent public service.
Hewson's conversion is as welcome as it is surprising. Back in the early eighties John Hewson was most notable for his dual roles as a high profile academic with an unswerving commitment to economic rationalism, and as an economic adviser to the then Treasurer, John Howard.
Probably he was, to an important degree, responsible for Howard's conversion to economic rationalism. To my recall, he was a member of the Campbell Committee, commissioned by the Fraser government, to report on, and make recommendations about the future of the Australian financial system.Politically committed
At that time, Hewson was in fact part of a relatively new band of politically committed advisers who had become appendages of Federal Ministers' staffs. Whitlam initiated the precedent for this kind of advice a decade earlier, and that unfortunate initiative was not reversed by the incoming Fraser government.
Essentially this category of adviser provided Ministers with political and ideological direction, which was, in all-important respects, a contradiction to the nature of advice provided by a professional, permanent and independent civil service.
It was to this group that Hewson became attached, and he was among those who, for ideological reasons, set out to demonize the public service.
The group, including Hewson, found welcoming ears among Ministers who were often frustrated by the objections ranged by public servants against some of the Ministers' pet projects whose main purpose was frequently to service narrow party political interests.
Demonisation of the public service was also intended to reach a wider audience; notably that of the business community - large and small. Responsibility for excessive regulation, which was sometimes costly and irritating for business, was misleadingly attributed to the zealousness of a misguided bureaucracy.
These tactics, to which Hewson attached himself, were perhaps more successful than was planned for. In any event, the then Secretary of the Treasury felt compelled to describe the group as meretricious advisers flitting irresponsibly across the policy making stage.
So how did Ministers' offices become crowded with party politically oriented advisers in the first place?
The practice began with the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972. At that time Labor had been out of office for 23 years, and the excuse of the incoming Prime Minister (though not publicly expressed) was that after such a period the Public Service was hopelessly committed to the politics of the Liberal-Country Party Coalition. A battery of academic economists with the ear of the Labor Party, persuaded the government that this was especially so of the Department of Trade.
They were disturbed by the influence that the Trade Department had accumulated as an alternative source of economic advice to the orthodox views of the Treasury. Somewhat ironically, this assertion was wholeheartedly embraced by Whitlam. What the new Prime Minister entirely overlooked was that, assuming the assertions of Trade's opponents were correct, the Trade position on economics - in favour of intervention in the economy for public interest reasons - aligned more closely with Labor's position than with the other side of politics.
So much was Whitlam taken by the anti-Trade position that one of his first acts upon assuming office was to cut tariffs by 25% across the board.
This was entirely against Labor Party policy at the time, and, as a matter of record, undermined permanently, what had previously been a bi-partisan policy on full employment. From that moment there has never been a time when the entire workforce would be fully employed.
To be fair, Whitlam did nothing to disturb the traditional organization of the public service. That honour rests with Hawke and Keating. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that, in recent times, Keating too has taken to criticizing the present Prime Minister for taking further the process begun by him as Treasurer, and Hawke as Prime Minister.)
Is the criticism by Keating and, more recently by Hewson, over John Howard's so-called politicization of the public service justified?
Yes, we must conclude, but surely such criticism must rest uneasily upon the shoulders of those who did so much of the groundwork in making it possible. No wonder Howard does not take it seriously.
What is it that makes a professional, permanent and independent public service so important? Basically it relates to the kind of political system by which we are governed.
The United States, for example, has a politicized public service - at least at the top, though it is also true that in the lower levels, permanency and a measure of independence still exist in a way they no longer do in Australia.
The US administration is organized this way because it fits in with their political system. In their system, the President exercises no legislative power, except that he may, but rarely does in practice, overturn legislation.
The Congress, which enacts laws, is entirely separate from the administration, and guards its independence jealously. If the President requires a law to be passed he must persuade Congress of the merits of the legislation.Checks and balances
Of course, in the interests of good government, the Congress does not lightly reject a Presidential proposal for a new law, in the same way as the President does not normally overturn legislation enacted by Congress. Those checks and balances are built into the US system and they act as a restraint on the abuse of power by politicians. And they work.
Under the US system it is, for example, quite possible, and happens not infrequently, that Congress will refuse to pass the budget.
In that event there is no mechanism for resolving such a deadlock; Congress and the administration must simply negotiate an outcome. Until they do the administration must muddle along without money-sometimes for several months, as happened a few years ago.
No such restraints are provided for in the so-called Westminster system under which politics is played in Australia.
There is no separation of power. In fact, following an election, once the party (or coalition) with the most seats becomes the government, it enjoys virtual dictator status over both administration and legislation, by virtue of controlling the House of Representatives. Apart from the Senate's limited power to reject legislation, there are no checks and balances to curb the tendency of politicians to abuse the power of their office.
The emergence of a professional, permanent and independent civil service, which we inherited from Britain, along with the Westminster system, are really inseparable and represent the essential checks and balances against abuse of power which would otherwise go unchecked.
It should work like this.
Professional, permanent and independent civil servants will manage day-to-day administration impartially and according to rules laid down by the government. And they will resist pressure to depart from the rules. They will also tender advice on measures with the public interest in mind, which may at times conflict with the intentions of government. Such advice will also be invaluable because it proceeds from a permanent service able to draw upon a continuity of experience.
As a matter of principle and practice permanent civil servants do not try, nor do they have power, in the final analysis, to prevent an elected government from doing what it wants to do. What they do is tender advice which might dissuade governments from precipitate and inappropriate actions.
The necessary pre-conditions for such advice is that officials are immune from dismissal (except for misconduct) and that they are appointed and promoted with immunity from government influence; neither should appointments, in the interests of continuity, be made from without the service. It is also essential that their salaries are set by independent tribunals, and that they should not be benchmarked to private sector executives of comparable rank.
Professional civil servants have been drawn from a group which chose consciously to work as civil servants, with the expectation that it would be a life's work. They had no possibility of accumulating wealth as would successful management people in the private sector: nor would they expect to take private sector employment after retirement. Thus they needed adequate pension arrangements.
More or less this is the kind of system we had before the assaults upon it, begun upon it by Whitlam, Keating and Hawke, and completed by Howard.
The attack upon the public service by Whitlam, which opened up the possibility of what came later, can possibly be explained in a Prime Minister bringing his party to office after 23 years in Opposition. Still it's hard to understand the action of Whitlam, who, in many other respects, was as sensitive as Menzies, in the protection of Constitutional proprieties and the need to guard institutions.
Keating and Hawke seemed to be driven by ideological considerations. As to the present Prime Minister, he of all Liberals one would have thought, by reason of his conservative instincts may have preferred to reconstitute the traditional civil service.
And, ironically, it may have been better for him to have done so. It is hard to imagine, for example, the government getting into the trouble it has on the so-called asylum seekers on the basis of professional advice.Dangers
What ever may be the merits of taking the government's position, or opposing it, a group of professional advisers would have informed the government of the dangers of proceeding the way it has, and most certainly would have suggested a safer and less potentially harmful means by which the same objective could have been achieved. The same is probably true of the advice relating to the children overboard issue.
Howard obviously believes he is more comfortable with loyal supporters chosen by him in all key positions, but the question to be addressed is whether he is able to provide better government by this means. The evidence suggests that he is not.
And Howard, of all people should know that.