Government and governance | Australia

5 January 2016

Is the role of the Australian Public Service to provide impartial advice being undermined, writes Charlie Shandil.

The past month has witnessed a fundamental shift in the top structure of the Australian Public Service (APS) with the loss of some of the most esteemed bureaucrats in Australia.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Secretary Peter Varghese AO announced on 24 November 2015 that he was stepping down for a position as Chancellor of the University of Queensland. Hours later, the Secretary of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), Michael Thawley AO, announced his departure from the top job. In the same week, Drew Clarke PSM, Secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts, was permanently instated as Malcolm Turnbull’s Chief of Staff.

This reshuffling of the bureaucracy has left three departmental head positions vacant. However, it has also brought into question the nonpartisan nature of the APS. In accordance with Section 58 of the Public Service Act (PS Act), the Prime Minister, the Australian Public Service Commissioner and one other will need to inform the decision about who will fill these positions, ultimately appointed by the Governor–General.

However, while the PS Act underpins the appointment mechanism, it should be questioned why a prime minister chooses a departmental Secretary. It is the duty of a departmental Secretary  to provide nonpartisan advice and be apolitical by law. But these appointments are made on a contractual five-yearly basis by the most powerful political figure in the country, who subsequently also has the power of dismissal. This calls into question how appointment and dismissal by a politician allows a Secretary to provide apolitical, nonpartisan advice.

In the family of Westminster nations, the issue of politicisation has become a key concern for the effective administration of the civil service and its role in the political system. In the OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, a study found,

“Neutrality, in the sense of political non-partisanship in public administration, is of course a precondition for ensuring that, regardless of their political orientation, citizens are treated fairly and in an equitable manner. Operationally it is delivered by emphasising professionalism, merit and competence amongst public servants. These values are important to the level of justice and continuity in public administration – arguably a significant determinant of how much trust citizens place in their system of government”.

In Australia, the issue of politicisation was firmly placed on the agenda when six departmental secretaries were replaced after the change of government in 1996. In the United Kingdom, the former head of the British Civil Service, Sir Richard Wilson, also raised the issue of politicisation, stating that the rise of ministerial advisors now requires public servants to have insight into the “mind of a Minister”, thus confirming the importance of political nous in policy advice. In New Zealand, the State Service Commissioner in his 2002 Report to Parliament commented that there are “fears in some quarters about the potential for the politicisation of the Public Service”.

More on this: What would Australia's public service look like if the country were a republic?

A comprehensive analysis of ‘politicisation’ was conducted by Patrick Weller (1989) who argued that politicisation stems from the use of the public service for party-related purposes, and from appointing, promoting and providing tenure to public servants through political influence. Weller also suggests that replacing Secretaries upon the change of a government, without providing enough time to work with the new government, is also evidence of politicisation. This final point also aligns to the decision to removal tenure.

In 1984 the concept of the ‘permanent head’ was removed, and in 1995 tenure was abolished from the public service, enabling the government of the day to appoint Secretaries to serve at the whim of the minister, with the fear of being removed at any time without reparation or justification. In 1996, the Howard government dismissed six Secretaries and appointed a non-public servant to the position of Secretary of the Department of PM&C, and in 2013 the Abbott government removed three departmental Secretaries within hours of swearing in.

While these examples of politicisation are far from the United States example of making three thousand senior public service positions vacant as a result of a new presidency, this absence of formal safeguards for senior bureaucrats now offers the government the capacity to politicise the whole senior executive level if they so wish. This ability to make ‘captain’s calls’ on the bureaucracy puts into question the politicisation of the APS.

Malcolm Turnbull has not followed the style of his predecessors, and the instalment of a top bureaucrat as his Chief of Staff could be an opportunity to explore the politicisation of the APS in a rational and comprehensive manner. Just as the defining factors of enabling frank and fearless advice were removed to professionalise the public service – permanent head, tenure, and the like – this could be an opportunity for Drew Clarke to drive reform in this domain. A reform agenda charged with adapting the APS to contemporary times towards a new and evolved public service: One that is truly ‘apolitical, performing its functions in an impartial and professional manner’.

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Shandil, Charlie. 2017. "Frank, Fearless, And Replaceable - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.