Thursday, July 25, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

Farewell frank and fearless
The independence of the public service has been steadily eroded


Guess what? The prime minister does indeed have an agenda, and it is one from deep inside the Canberra bubble. By appointing himself minister for the public service, and today appointing his former staffer Philip Gaetjens as head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Scott Morrison has signalled his intention to remake the bureaucracy to clear logjams, and a willingness to back this intention up by rolling heads if necessary. The PM’s mantra today was that he would “respect and expect” from the public service – which is conditional, just like his other mantra of “a fair go for those who have a go”. The soon-to-depart secretary of the prime minister’s department, the distinguished Martin Parkinson, must be one of the most battle-scarred of mandarins, now removed twice by the Coalition. Let’s hope Parkinson, who received praise from across the spectrum today, is not the last of those public servants who were prepared to deliver “frank and fearless” [$] advice to their political masters.

Morrison today said that he and Parkinson had “agreed it was time for some new leadership”. It is reported that he had intended to stay in his role until 2021, which would have marked 40 years in the public service – which makes it look like he was pushed – but he is also quoted as saying, “Absolutely I would not want anyone to think there was anything about my relationship with the prime minister that was leading me to leave.”

Michelle Grattan writes in The Conversation that it had been rumoured for some time that Morrison wanted his own man as head of PM&C. It has been a turbulent decade for Parkinson, who was responsible for the design and implementation of the emissions trading scheme as the inaugural climate change secretary under the Rudd and Gillard governments, and this put him on the wrong side of the carbon wars in the eyes of conservatives. Then the prime minister Tony Abbott and treasurer Joe Hockey refused to reappoint him as Treasury secretary in 2014, which caused Parkinson’s predecessor, Ken Henry, to go public over the politicisation of the public service. When Malcolm Turnbull took over as prime minister, in a signal that he would shift back to the sensible centre, he appointed Parkinson as head of his department. Former Labor foreign minister and ANU chancellor Gareth Evans today described Parkinson as his generation’s “outstanding” public servant” Now Parkinson has gone, does the sensible centre go with him?

Gaetjens, currently Treasury secretary, showed his influence recently with the release of a strange paper arguing – on the basis of scant evidence, as exposed in Crikey [$] – that wage stagnation was the workers’ own fault because they failed to move to jobs at more productive companies often enough. What planet are these Canberra people on?

Labor senator Katy Gallagher, shadow minister for the public service, today said the government was seeking about $5 billion in savings from the bureaucracy over the medium term, suggesting there was “a lot of upheaval ahead”. In a statement, she pointed to the imminent finalisation of former Telstra chief and CSIRO chair David Thodey’s review of the Australian public service, and said: “The prime minister says he wants to implement immediate and sweeping changes to the Australian Public Service (APS). It is a matter of concern that Mr Morrison has appointed a long-term Liberal staffer to implement these changes. The APS review is an important opportunity to implement change in the public service in a positive way, but this review cannot and should not be a vehicle for the Morrison government to cut jobs or slash services. It is absolutely crucial that the independence of the APS is protected through these changes. Whether Mr Gaetjens is capable of providing the leadership the APS needs at this time remains to be seen.”

The public service has been steadily cowed over the decades, by politicised executive appointments, by privatisation, by the outsourcing of advice to consulting firms now bloated on taxpayer dollars – more often than not, as public servants say, consultants end up borrowing your watch to tell you the time – and by the revolving door that sees regulators co-opted by the very companies they are supposed to oversee but too often end up working for. A significant share of the blame should lie with the introduction in the 1980s of highly paid senior executive service contracts, which made the big bucks conditional on political obedience to the minister.

It was John Howard’s public service head, Max Moore-Wilton, who is reported to have quipped that the public official willing to deliver frank and fearless advice had acquired a fictitious quality, “like Frank-N-Furter”. In David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s masterful book Dark Victory, Moore-Wilton was asked what he was doing at the Liberal Party’s victory celebrations on election night in 2001; he answered that the Westminster system was “evolving”, and that “what we do on the weekend is our own business”. Gaetjens was adviser to then treasurer Peter Costello at that time. Worryingly, it looks as though the Liberals are reverting to type. 

“No senior politician across the globe has ever got to their position by sitting under a banyan tree waiting for the world to determine they are enlightened – they got there by the art and craft of politics. But every leader when they get there, understandably, wants as much power as they can have by other people having as little as possible. And that is just politics. As a person who has actually been around longer than the prime minister in parliament, I have seen this every time.”

Nationals backbencher Barnaby Joyce lets the prime minister know that he is not one of the quiet Australians.

“The case has not been made for ever bigger super. I would change direction. Super should be made voluntary for Australians earning under $50,000 … Since super started in 1992, every single age group has experienced lower levels of home ownership.”

NSW Liberal senator Andrew Bragg, in his maiden speech yesterday, argues that superannuation should be voluntary for low-income earners.

The march of the older voter
As older voters become a larger and more powerful voting bloc, they are also becoming more organised.


The number of days that Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor delayed the release of quarterly emissions data. A Senate order required the report to be tabled by May 31; according to the ABC it was tabled in parliament on June 12.

“That the following matter be referred to the Community Affairs References Committee for inquiry and report by 27 March 2020: the adequacy of Newstart and related payments and alternative mechanisms to determine the level of income support payments in Australia.”

The first line of successful joint motion by Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who chairs the committee, and Labor senator Patrick Dodson, for an inquiry into Newstart.

The list

“I also spent an ’80s childhood playing elaborate fantasy games with walkie-talkies, just like the suburban kids who are the central characters in Stranger Things. I watched Astro Boy every day! I had a Rainbow Brite schoolbag! By god, I should adore Stranger Things: it’s like my memories filtered back to me through someone else’s memories of all the TV that we absorbed. But actually, the show isn’t half as interesting as that, and I think its nostalgia is pernicious. In order to explain why, I gotta make like a VHS cassette, and rewind.”

“For some, Morrison’s cosying up to Trump is appalling. Conversely, to those Australians who began walking down what is now the Trump path when then prime minister John Howard in the late 1990s laid down its broad parameters, this is a logical development. There is undeniably an element that subscribes to the latter view, but is this really what most Australians voted for when they returned the Morrison government by such a slim majority at the May election?”

“The combination was untried but promising. To a well-pickled English favourite add a hearty Australian staple. Mix together in a selection of French cookware, season with mutual respect, sit with a glass of wine and let the flavours mingle. Elizabeth David was the closest thing to culinary royalty that Britain had ever produced ... Notoriously crabby, David shunned publicity, preferring to let her books speak for themselves. In 1965 she put writing on the backburner to open a cookware shop in London’s fashionable Belgravia. In 1970, Margaret Fulton paid her a visit.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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