The ‘Republic of Australia’ bureaucracy

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

Charlie Shandil

Government and governance | Australia

13 November 2015

The Australian republican movement provides an opportunity to return to the days of ‘frank and fearless advice’, Charlie Shandil writes.

Just days before the latest fly-by-night royal visit to Australia – this time by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall – Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten became a member of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM).

Once again, Australia’s on-again, off-again relationship with the ‘mother country’ was put into the spotlight.

The ARM has had a stop-start relationship with the Australian public. Formed by current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 1991 and championed by then-Prime Minister Paul Keating, it failed to gain popular support due to the resistance by the then-opposition leader, John Hewson.

The next two decades saw a similar seesaw. John Howard was a monarchist and drove, for the sake of the public, a much diluted republican cause. After that, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard faced the resilient opposition of former Australians for Constitutional Monarchy head, Tony Abbott.

For the first time in history, the leaders of both majority parties in Australia are party to the republican movement. However, while there is a lot of talk about how the Republic of Australia will look, not much is being said on what Australia’s failing ‘Washminster’ Australian Public Service (APS) may look like in a reimagined republic.

The Australian federal system stems from the federation of Australia, where the six British-governed states united to become the Commonwealth of Australia. Since then, governments have differed deeply on the direction of all things British, including the academic interpretation of the Australian government and its likeness to the Westminster system.

According to Scott & Baehler (2010), ‘The traditional Westminster advisory system is based on the idea that governments will be served best by a permanent cadre of advisers whose expertise, institutional memory and wisdom about policy is developed over years’. The Westminster system assumes that public servants hold the internal capacity to provide sound support to ministers, and the intent of this relationship is to generate a flow of policy advice between the bureaucracy and ministers based on factual and historical data.

The apparatus of the Westminster system forces a direct relationship between ministers and senior bureaucrats. However, unlike the American system where departmental heads may change when a government changes, the Westminster system allows for a public servant to remain in their positions throughout successive governments. It is here that the discourse of trust is born. While it would be rational to assume that policy-making is based on empirical and historical government data, the rise of ministerial advisers and interest groups questions this.

In 1854 the House of Commons released the Northcote-Trevelyan Report setting the standards for an apolitical and professional civil service in Britain, which was later adapted into the Australian system. While these principles are based on merit and political neutrality, the Westminster system itself forces politics and policy to be fused. Because a minister’s term is temporary, the drive for policy-making is made with popularity payoffs in mind. At a Senior Executive Service conference in 2004 Andrew Podger advised:

“The relationship between the administrative and political arms of Government is always a contentious issue, particularly in an election year and after a Government has been in power for several terms. Accusations of excessive responsiveness, or politicisation, or of a ‘cowed’ Public Service, tend to arise in line with political cycles: new Governments are suspicious of the Public Service …In an election climate, these suspicions tend to get a higher political profile, and the normal bureaucratic response is to keep our heads down”.

Although they may have had the same starting point, the British and Australian systems are quite distinct through aspects such as federalism, separation of powers, and a formal constitution. In assessing the Australian system, the Australian adaption of the Westminster system  itself does not provide scope for ‘frank and fearless’ apolitical advice.

Firstly, to claim the Australian system as ‘responsible government’ is misleading, as the principle of parliamentary accountability is subject to politicisation. Second, the Australian system assumes the ‘separation of powers’ with the lower, upper and judicial arms; however the power of appointment by the lower house contests the scope of an apolitical framework. While judicial independence is fundamental to underpinning Australia’s democratic freedoms, the fact that the process requires the prime minister of the day to sign off on the appointment of a judge renders the process partisan.

Third, politicisation is also witnessed within the Senate. Traditionally, the role of a senator is to represent her or his state and to provide an additional level of ‘checks and balances’ on legislation within the upper house. Yet, senators have become party-aligned, pushing the agenda of the government or opposition. Lastly, the Australian system does not easily allow the altering of the constitution; this puts limits on the powers of central and state governments, and the lower house. As a consequence, these limits result in political disputes, normally argued within the political domain, to be judged under the rule of law.

As the politicisation of each arm of government has been witnessed through time, it is not farfetched to comprehend how this can also be the case for the bureaucracy. The Australian bureaucracy is underpinned by the values of impartiality, using evidence and history to provide advice to the government of the day. However, just as the two arms of the government are in debt to their appointers, the senior bureaucracy too sits on a similar appointment scheme: Ambassadors – Amanda Vanstone, Alexander Downer, Kim Beazley (and possibly, Joe Hockey) – and Departmental Secretaries – Peter Shergold, John Fraser, and Michael Thawley, to name a few.

As the bureaucracy is increasingly politicised, it results in a decline in trust between the APS and its ministers, directly affecting policy capacity. So, is it now time to consider a new construct for the public service? With the promotion of the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the current opposition leader, Bill Shorten, Australia sits in an exceptional position as the leaders of both major parties support the republican movement.

Whatever the Republic of Australia civil service looks like, it needs to sit within a construct that enables closer collaborations with not only ministerial advisors and partisan think tanks, but also specialists and academics, to work with empirical evidence towards a common goal.

Rather than competing for the ear of the minister, the republican movement provides an opportunity for the bureaucracy to move back to the days of the old Mandarin: when advice was frank and fearless, and considered above all others.

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