CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Email sent 13/11/08

Bernard Keane

Politicisation of the Bureaucracy

I should like to suggest, with respect, that you may be missing a key point in relation to your comments about Public Service politicisation ('Ken Henry a welcome addition to the public tax debate', Crikey, 13/11/08).

".... Thereís a debate, not exactly a raging one but at times very heated, occurring at the moment about politicisation of the Treasury.

When it comes to politicisation of the bureaucracy, neither side of politics traditionally has clean hands. The Hawke Government ended permanent tenure for department heads. Keating boasted of his influence over the Reserve Bank. The Coalition came to power in 1996 with a visceral loathing of the bureaucracy, and took deep pleasure in inflicting cuts and sacking six secretaries, including one because they confused him with someone else. The Howard years witnessed a steady politicisation of the Australian Public Service, under the mantra of "responsiveness".

I tried to draw Henry on that sort of long-term perspective yesterday, hoping that he might be more forthcoming in taking a long view than he would with more politically-charged commentary on recent events. He didnít bite -- ever the professional.

The Rudd Government has, so far, been wholly different except in one key aspect. To the chagrin of his backbench -- and, almost certainly, of 99% of public servants in Canberra -- he dismissed no secretaries, not even those who morally bankrupted themselves by happily participating in the worst excesses of the Howard years. And Rudd, while happy to work bureaucrats to death, has also publicly demanded higher-quality and more independent advice. ......"

The point is that politicisation is a bipartisan (not a partisan) phenomenon. It primarily ensures that the Public Service comes to be dominated by 'Yes men' (ie those who are happy to put the political interests of the government of the day above professional concerns for realism and practicality in the advice they provide). The Rudd Government didn't need to politicise the Federal Public Service. This had already been done by the Howard Government (see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service). The Rudd Government simply inherited the political 'benefits'.

The mantra of 'responsiveness' that you mentioned has indeed been a powerful one. A recent comment on the way this contributed to Public Service politicisation in Queensland may be of interest - as it primarily concerns an era with which Mr Rudd would be quite familiar (see A Functional and Responsive Bureaucracy?).

In passing I would suggest that that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that Treasury advice about Australia's likely economic growth rate may be a wee bit optimistic (see Managing Australia's 2009 Economic Crisis). Moreover: Australia's bureaucracy / regulators may not have a spotless past record in terms of the emerging crisis (see Defects in Financial Regulation and Monetary Policy) and will come under a lot of pressure to find 'miracle' solutions if an economic crisis is recognised to be a real possibility. As a class, they may thus not be entirely disinterested

John Craig