Public service

Rise of economic rationalism: “government debt is always bad; contracting out is good; the public sector should adopt the managerialism and language of the private sector; public assets should be privatised; government regulation is little more than a frustrating pile of red tape.” “The focus on reducing budget deficits has not only meant a perpetual search for savings and greater efficiencies, but also a gradual shift in the way anything done by the public sector is perceived.”

Public service is left without an institutional memory and cannot act as ballast against short-term politics. Results from: periodic mass sackings/redundancies of public servants at all levels; increased contracting out (with remaining public servants assessed on contract management, not policy expertise and knowledge); more opportunities for economists outside the public service; paths to promotion based on bouncing between departments.

“Without memories, their capacity, their gravitas to advise politicians, is diminished or wiped out”. “With memory goes what is often the most powerful weapon in a bureaucrat’s armoury when trying to influence a minister or the cabinet on a policy issue: the power of the anecdote; the power of a first-person recollection of what happened the last time something was tried.”

Between 2012 and 2014, 62 staff (one-third of total) left Treasury’s revenue (tax policy) group through redundancy rounds as government tried to return budget to surplus, even though there was a government push to start delivering tax reform.

Don Russell: “The wise Secretary realises early on that advice to Ministers is constestable. If departmental advice is to have influence, it has to be useful. It is a mistake to think that the department’s main influence comes from creating the piece of paper that cannot be ignored. It is true that you should never underestimate the power of the written word, but if the department is only viewed as having the capacity to hem in a minister, then over time the department will find itself frozen out and more and more decisions will be taken late at night in ministers’ offices. The missing ingredient that holds back departmental advice is imagination. We have to create an APS where departments become ideas factories; ideas that have been properly researched and tested and that are only looking for objectives and values to be harnessed by the minister or the government of the day. Ministers should take advice from their departments not because they have to but because they want to.”

Ministers’ offices

Increased role for ministerial advisers means policy development may cut out departments, and be influenced more by advisers’ political/ideological perspective. Suspicion of the public service by successive governments from Whitlam onwards; but Hawke pushed to have public servants as chiefs of staff, to keep communications open. Howard continued that. Rudd, Gillard and Abbott did not have public servants as chiefs of staff and this may have contributed to dysfunction.

“The rise and rise of presidential-style politics has infected every aspect of the way politicians’ days are shaped. In QT, almost all the questions go to the PM, rather than his or her ministers. The driving force is getting the grab for the evening news. The days when an Opposition would ask questions of other ministers, or even pick off the weakest minister in a government, seem long past. Even more forgotten are times when oppositions asked questions seeking information, and government ministers took seriously the task of answering them.”

Lack of political memory as well. For example, Abbott’s first term was based on Howard first term playbook of spending time undoing Labor policies and establishing a strong economic base. But economic conditions were very different in 2014 than 1996 and “believing their own story” meant they struggled to adapt.

In 2011, 65% of MPs had served less than 12 years and 20% less than 3 years.


Media focused on current events rather than setting stories into a long-term context - and may also have lost their own memory. “The rewards for political journalists in Australia… flow when you have an exclusive, when you write the supposed inside story, or particularly when you write punchy commentary. They rarely come from spending a couple of days getting to grips with a policy debate and explaining to readers the pros and cons of outcomes - if indeed you can get such a piece in the paper at all.” Fewer specialist reporters (education, health, etc) in favour of generalists, as media organisations shed staff. And fast turnover in the press gallery: every 2-3 years, so many do not remember a time before leadership-driven politics.

Hostility to public institutions under Abbott: ABC, Human Rights Commission, ‘activist’ courts.