CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

The Rise and Rise of the 'Yes Men' - email sent 24/9/13

Mungo MacCallum

RE: Out with the bold and in with the subdued, The Drum, 23/9/13

There seems little doubt (as your article suggested) that Australia’s new federal government has a preference for public servants who will compliantly do what they are told, and that this is not a formula for success.

My interpretation of your article: There are two sorts of leaders – those who treat others as allies and those who see others as potential enemies. Tony Abbott has shown himself to be in the latter camp, though his purge was less than that of his mentor, John Howard. In the old days incoming prime ministers used to respect the role of the permanent public service. Bob Hawke altered the system by removing permanency, but did not use the change as an opportunity to politicise the public service. It was John Howard who first openly stacked the service with his own supporters. Loyalty to the government became the prerequisite for career advancement. Kevin Rudd who had worked in the public service and knew the dangers of politicisation attempted to restore the old ways. But it seems that Abbott intends to restore the Howard model. This would mean that the first duty of the public service would not be to serve the public, but to serve the government of the day. This would encourage sychophancy and discourage those considering public service careers. But the Prime Minister is not interested in policy reform and believes he can get all the guidance he needs from his appointed staff and trusted confidents. The public services’ role would be to do what it is told. In the old days prime ministers would first tell public service experts what he wanted to do and then take advice from them on what he could do – and thereby avoid disaster.

However the Abbott Government is anything but unique – as ensuring the dominance of cronies and ‘yes men’ has apparently been a primary goal of public service ‘reform’ in Australia for more than two decades. It has also been a major source of governments’ problems – as governments of all political persuasions have thereby deprived themselves of any reality check on what are often overly simplistic policy aspirations (see Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002 and On Populism, 2007+). The former referred (for example) to:

  • the history of public sector problems which had given rise to a naïve public view that the bureaucracy was the primary source of governments’ problems and thus required ruthless reform;
  • misunderstanding of the economic challenge (eg of the fact that there were alternatives to disruptive public sector changes to reduce growing problems in funding public goods and services);
  • problems with the ‘new public management’ assumption that the efficiency of delivering public goods and services could best be promoted by managerialism and pseudo-commercialization;
  • a failure to recognise that the knowledge, skills and experience that are required to undertake governments’ primary role (governing – ie creating a framework within which others can ‘do things’) are quite different to those required for governments’ secondary role (ie ‘doing things’, such as providing public goods and services, themselves);
  • politically empowering ‘reformers’ with good political connections but little experience of government or practical knowledge, while refusing to listen to the voices of experience.

The Abbott Government’s failure to reinstate the concept of an apolitical public service suggest that it is likely to prove, yet again, that politicians who think that they can adequately understanding complex policy issues without the support of experienced professionals are deluding themselves.

However it is not correct to suggest (as your article did) that John Howard was the first to openly stack a public service with his supporters – and thereby create an unnecessarily incompetent administration. Indications that the Howard Government had encouraged the rise of ‘yes men’ were not apparent until 2002 (See comments on Kelly P., ‘The Power of One’, Australian, 23-24/11/02). And in doing this the Howard Government was merely following precedents set by various state administrations.

The belief by politicians that they did not need advice from a professional public service seems first became obvious in Victoria under the Cain Government – and the result was widely seen as a disaster (see Review of The Fall of the House of Cain (1993). The present writer was directly exposed to an almost identical (and equally chaotic and dysfunctional) process of public service ‘reform’ by Queensland’s Goss Government (see an account of what went wrong in Toward Good Government in Queensland, 1995; external observers assessments of the situation at the time; and a comment on the adverse effect on later administrations in Queensland’s Worst Government, 2005 ). ‘Reform’ in Queensland in the early 1990s (which ironically was heralded by a ‘Return to Westminster’ slogan) involved an across the board process of restructuring and restaffing of the public service, under the control of inexperienced and out-of-date political insiders. The result was not only widespread abuses of power but also an inadvertent purge of both the experience and up-to-date knowledge that those in charge of ‘reform’ did not understand, but were essential if government was to be effective. During the ‘reform’ process, a group of senior officials were told by the new premier (just before he reportedly turned his back on them) that their advice was not required as the government had its own advisers (including, for example, Kevin Rudd who was initially head of the Premier’s Office before becoming head of the Office of Cabinet).

Some earlier comments on the very real problems that your article has identified are referenced in Towards a Professional Public Service: Chronological Summary of Documents (1998+), while suggestions about complementary initiatives to further reduce the obstacles to competent government are in Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building (2003+).

John Craig