CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Email sent 14/10/07

Mr Paul Kelly,
The Australian

Political and Public Service Reform: Tell him he's dreamin'

Your recent article ('Rudd's mantra: serve public, not political interests', The Australian, 3/10/07 - which I have outlined below) detailed Mr Rudd's proposals for restoration of the spirit of Westminster political traditionalism, and of the independence and expertise of the Public Service.

There is no doubt that the federal government has abused those traditions to some extent with adverse consequences for the effectiveness of government.

However, in doing so it has merely followed the example of various state governments (notably the Goss administration in which Mr Rudd had a prominent role). Thus Mr Rudd's rhetoric about the ALP's intended reforms, which sounds remarkably like that of the Goss Government, suffers something of a credibility problem. Reasons for this are detailed further below.

May I suggest, in the famous words of Darryl Kerrigan, that someone 'tell him he's dreaming'.


John Craig

Comments on Your Article: 'Rudd's mantra: serve public, not political interests'

My interpretation of your article: Labor wants to entrench independent and impartial experts in the bureaucracy. A key to Kevin Rudd's outlook as potential PM is his history as a public servant. From the time he left university until 1998 Rudd essentially worked as a public servant. This shaped his philosophy on public administration and the need for strong cabinet coordination of executive government. This background instilled: a spirit of Westminster political traditionalism; high expectations of the public service as a source of advice; and a commitment to strong coordination of the executive - a task he fulfilled for Queensland premier Goss. Rudd spoke of the need to entrench independent, impartial advice and the capability to provide this fearless advice. The present federal government aligns the policy role of the public service with the political interests of the government. Rudd repudiates the idea of a night of the long knives as when Howard came to power in 1996 and 6 Commonwealth permanent heads lost their jobs. ALP would retain contract system for permanent heads, but increase term to 5 years. ALP's shadow minister for public administration (Penny Wong) argues that the goal is to shift the balance from responsiveness back to impartiality. Andrew Podger argues that the system has moved too far to responsiveness. Rudd has a mantra - a restoration of ethics and professionalism in the public service. Rudd proposes to shift cabinet policy unit back from PM's office to his department. Rudd believes there is a need for a functional delineation between ministerial offices and public service. Rudd wants to renew the public service culture - but this requires high standards of advice. Quality controls would be imposed on the public service that might shock some people. The shock in Brisbane was profound. Rudd would rely on two instruments for organising government - cabinet and his department. Rudd's department would become the focus of coordination not just amongst federal departments but with state governments given high priority. Ministerial staff numbers would be cut. (Kelly P., 'Rudd's mantra: serve public, not political interests', Australian, 3/10/07).

More Effective Government

Australia's system of government is beset by many difficulties (see Australia's Governance Crisis). The latter refers (for example) to: the challenges that globalization and growing complexity pose for the democratic process; the erosion of professional support to elected governments; and problems in Australia's federal system. Reforms to the federal system and much stronger institutional support to the community's political representatives (both internally and externally) seem likely to be required to meet these challenges (eg see Restoring 'Faith in Politics'; and Queensland's Next Successful Premier).

Clearly the suggestion you reported from the ALP's shadow minister for public administration (Ms Penny Wong) would be a useful contribution, ie shifting Public Services back from responsiveness to impartiality.

Why? Reducing professional competence and independence in a search for 'reponsiveness' has had serious adverse consequences (eg see Decay of Australian Public Administration and The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service). The latter document includes suggestions on why professionalism is vital (eg to provide knowledge and experience about the immensely complex practical aspects of policy to complement the role of elected representatives in government). In the absence of such support, there is no automatic 'reality check' on populist policy proposals - and community representatives can inadvertently do a great deal of damage to the public interest (see On Populism in 2007).

Likewise, as your article quoted Mr Rudd as arguing, there would be benefits in promoting something like Westminster political traditionalism as well as effective coordination, both within each level of government and between different levels of government.

Less Effective Government: The Case of the Goss Administration

Unfortunately Queensland's Goss administration (in which Mr Rudd had a central role) provides an unbelievably poor example of how such aspirations might be achieved in practice. This was despite its publication of fine-sounding pre-election policies in the late 1980s (eg promises of a 'Return to Westminster') that sounded remarkably similar to the ALP's current proposals outlined in your article.

Whilst it is impossible to judge how much responsibility Mr Rudd personally had for the ensuing public sector 'reform' process (and some assert that he wielded a great deal of power in the Goss administration), what happened was certainly a 'shock in Brisbane' (as your article stated).

However the 'shock' was not over the quality of public service performance that was demanded (as your article implied). Rather it was about the unexpected and rapid further deterioration in public administration that resulted from the ill-informed and brutal approach that was taken to 'reform'. The massive electoral reaction that surprised political commentators by ejecting the Goss Government a few years later resulted from (a) public concern about Government's practical performance and (b) the general disillusion of the Public Service about their working environment. An analysis of what went wrong is in my submission to the ALP's 1995 election review committee (Toward Good Government in Queensland), which interestingly never gained any acknowledgment.

While you have quoted Mr Rudd as endorsing independent, impartial advice and the capability to provide this fearless advice - such noble ideals were quite the reverse of what actually happened under the Goss administration (see Bureaucrats fear new Rudd Gulag). Moreover

  • the Goss Government's implementation of institutional reform to Queensland's fraying system of democracy that was proposed by the Fitzgerald inquiry was anything but successful (see Reform of Queensland Institutions - or a Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy?);
  • the highly centralised system of administration that the Goss administration created in the name of strong coordination has proven counter-productive. Those responsible for 'reform' seemed not to have noticed that 1970s' corporate ideas about 'strategic planning' had largely been abandoned by the 1980s (Strategy Development in Business and Government, 1997) - presumably because of the inability of aspiring central decision makers to acquire the practical information and commitment needed to develop relevant plans. In particular early machinery created to coordinate growth management in SE Queensland (which perhaps parallels current intentions for improving state coordination) involved an unrealistic politically driven and public sector centred process that could only add to red-tape (see SEQ 2001 - A Plan for an Under-developed Economy, 1994). This process was then generalised as the basis for an Integrated Planning Act which a knowledgeable observer described as merely a pretence (Day P., 'Planning for Queensland: Is it all procrastination and pretence?', Brisbane Institute, 1/10/03);
  • while the Goss Government's decision to abandon the Wolffdene Dam proposal was not the only cause of South-East Queensland's water supply crisis, the impractical government machinery it established prevented recovery from that set-back (see Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis).

The are other indicators that Queensland's government administration has been dysfunctional and crisis prone (see Evidence of a Problem), and that much of those problems can be traced to the failure of 'reform' under the Goss administration. For example:

  • diverse observers of the Goss Government's process of public sector reform spoke at the time of: a reduced calibre of public servants; attacks on whistleblowers; the inadequacy of Government's reform philosophy; and the creation of an exceptionally complex system of government (see Comments);
  • insider claims of political favouritism in restaffing were submitted to the Shepherdson inquiry into ALP electoral rorts (Griffith C., 'Inquiry told of jobs for the boys', Courier Mail, 12/10/00);
  • even though some political cronies were quickly appointed to key Public Service functions, there was not just a 'night of the long knives'. In Queensland the 'long knives' were out for years, and involved a complete restaffing of the Public Service in which compliant 'yes-men' prospered. And a couple of years ago a former ALP Lord Mayor of Brisbane suggested that independence, fearless and frank advice, autonomy of thought and constructive criticism have disappeared in Queensland's public service (Soorley J., 'Beattie Burger loses its taste', Sunday Mail, 21/8/05);
  • in 1995 the head of the Public Sector Management Commission promised an end to bullying of the Public Service (see Koch T., 'No more bullying of Queensland Public Service', Courier Mail, 29/7/95). Despite this bullying apparently continues to be a problem (see History of the Breakdown of the Westminster Tradition);
  • one observer suggested that many of Queensland's problems date back to 1989 when, in efforts to reform the political scene, the inexperienced Goss government did a lot of harm to the public service through listening to academic theorists, economic rationalists and administrative amateurs (Day P., 'Time to make our move', Courier Mail, 11/10/05);
  • another observer argued that the Goss administration put in a political fix under the mantle of Fitzgerald reforms, centralised control, made partisan appointments across the public service, continued executive dominance of Queensland unicameral legislature and contained corruption watchdogs such as the Criminal Justice Commission (Prasser S., 'Rudd's ruthless style entrenched Labor', Australian, 11/1/07).

Perhaps something has been learned from these experiences. But the fact that past reform failure has never been publicly acknowledged suggests otherwise.


By way of background I note that:

  • I was employed on strategic policy R&D for over 20 years mainly with the Queensland Coordinator Generals Department focusing on a systems approach to both public sector and economic development. I was acting Regional Coordinator for North Queensland for a year in 1973; completed a masters thesis on coordination in government at the University of Queensland in 1978; took an activist approach into Queensland's need for reform and development in the 1980s; and made useful progress in understanding economic development as a systemic learning process (see CV). On the election of the Goss Government, I continued internal advocacy of the need for Public Service professionalism and cautioned of risks with that Government's proposed approach to reform on the basis of past experience of the vital importance for successful change of building on existing capabilities;
  • a dispute between myself and the Queensland Premier's Department was described in the professional literature as a test of the Westminster tradition (see McDermott P., `Tenure of Senior Queensland Public Servants', Australian Journal of Public Administration, March 1993). The dispute arose from the Department's refusal to allow professional merit to be considered in relation to making a senior policy R&D appointment in the early 1990s - an apparent abuse of natural justice that the Ombudsman's office determined was quite acceptable as the Goss Government had enacted legislation that made it unnecessary to seriously consider professional merit in making 'senior' Public Service appointments;
  • I have maintained an ongoing advocacy of the restoration of serious professional accountability in the Public Service, and produced many analyses of the consequences of the loss of professionalism (see Chronological Summary of post-1998 representations and other documents on this matter).