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Heaven Help Australia's Public Service - Email sent 26/12/09

Verona Burgess,
Australian Financial Review

Re: 'Change looms for public service' Australian Financial Review, 4/12/09

Your article suggested that the Prime Minister wants to see 'sweeping reform' of the Australian Public Service and has a 'stated vision of reinvigorating the Westminster tradition'. It also drew attention to Sir Lennox Hewitt's concerns about 1999 changes which he saw as having 'disembowelled the public service, destroyed the career service by introducing the spectre of summary unemployment, and (being) wholly incompatible with Rudd's aspirations'.

However there is a problem - because the 1999 federal 'reforms' to the public service had essentially the same disastrous impact as earlier 'reforms' introduced by state administrations - including Queensland's Goss Government in which Mr Rudd had a central role (see The Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002). Moreover those 'reforms' had been introduced following pre-election claims about a 'Return to Westminster' approach to public service reform - which (perhaps unintentionally) had precisely the reverse effect because of the ignorance and inexperience of those charged with implementing 'reform' (see Toward Good Government in Queensland, 1995, and note observers' reactions in Attachment A). For example, if one wished to promote a career public service rather than 'summary unemployment', it was unwise to say the least to legislate to make it unnecessary to seriously consider merit in making senior public service appointments while engaging in an across-the-board restaffing of the public service.

While it is impossible to tell which of the Goss Government's political cronies was mainly responsible for the reform failure that led to the ongoing dysfunctions and crises that have plagued Queensland's public sector, there is a need to seriously consider what happened before encouraging any of those involved to take a role in making changes to the federal public service. Where outcomes have previously been the reverse of claimed aspirations, a degree of caution is warranted.

John Craig