Opinion by The Hon Gary Gray, AO MP
Special Minister of State
It was once said that the role of the Australian Public Service was to “to supply honest advice and to carry out honest and fair administration for whatever government or minister it may serve.”
This understanding of the public service is as true today as when former Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies made the statement.
In this newspaper (“Crisis of our Civil Service calls for some radical changes”, Friday, September 21) excerpts were published of a speech by Jennifer Westacott, the Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, to the Institute of Public Administration Australia. In this speech, Ms Westacott engaged in one of the more egregious examples of false nostalgia the public has seen in recent years.
Her speech continued an ongoing debate about the size of public service in Australia. It dealt with a number of issues, but in particular made two claims that should be rebutted.
First, Ms Westacott made the claim that the government needed to restore independence and control of the public policy agenda to the Australian Public Service. Her concern was that policy was driven by political advisers rather than public servants. She was also concerned that the independence and authority of the Australian Public Service (APS) was being undermined by the lack of tenure for Secretaries of Departments.
Ms Westacott incorrectly believes the APS performs the role of determining the national interest. The government of the day determines what it believes to be the best course for the nation, and has its performance judged at the ballot box. The public service is an important source of advice but it cannot alone determine the path forward, only advise on the possibilities and pitfalls while also carrying out fair and proper administration – a job the APS does, better than any other in the world.
It may interest Ms Westacott to know that it was this Government that established a Ministerial Staff Code of Conduct, a Code that restored long-standing conventions regarding the appropriate role for ministerial staff.
Most notably for Ms Westacott, this code states “that ministerial staff do not have the power to direct APS employees in their own right and that APS employees are not subject to their direction”, and further adds “that executive decisions are the preserve of Ministers and public servants and not ministerial staff acting in their own right.” This code of conduct has been in place for more than four years.
Ms Westacott should also note that a current Bill to amend the Public Service Act, which has passed unopposed through the House of Representatives, includes amendments that require the appointment and termination of appointment of Secretaries by the Governor-General, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
This restores the operation of the Act to the arrangements that delivered great public servants like HC “Nugget” Coombs and Sir Arthur Tange. When these amendments are law, Departmental Secretaries will be employed for five year terms unless they request otherwise, perhaps not restoring the ‘tenure’ that Ms Westacott hopes for, but separating their appointment from the election cycle and reinforcing the long term stewardship role of Secretaries.
I also note Ms Westacott’s call for a more focussed and productive public sector and the need to avoid a ‘bust and boom’ approach.
It’s something I’ve been advocating for some time.
However, Ms Westacott argues that the public service should play a bigger role and at the same time, it should also be cut in size. Unfortunately, this is a debate that is topical in our country in light of the devastating impact of public service cutbacks by the States. This scorched earth philosophy is mirrored in the Federal Coalition’s overly simplistic slash and burn approach to public sector management and its lack of attention to detail.
There is a flawed fundamental assumption in this debate. More or less public servants do not make a better public service and from time to time it is necessary to increase and to decrease the size of the service. But there is more to it than that.
Proper public sector management is more complicated than simple head counts. As the Finance Minister, Penny Wong, pointed out payments to the general government sector as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are below 24 per cent over the forward estimates, the longest sustained run since the 1980s. Our tax to GDP ratio is 22.1 per cent, well below the 23.7 per cent inherited from the previous government.
How does Ms Westacott reconcile these facts with her belief that the public sector is too large? The bloat in Australian Public Service numbers took place under the former Government; under Labor the public service has grown at a rate less than our population growth rate.
The Gillard Labor Government’s approach to public sector management is to do the hard yards to continually identify public sector efficiencies in non-staffing areas. We have made more than $13 billion in public sector savings since Labor came to government.
We have reduced wasteful spending on travel and saved $240 million. Better ICT management has saved more than $2 billion. More efficient Commonwealth Property management has saved $1.2 billion. And we have cut recruitment advertising by $30 million a year since 2009-10.
We have slashed by 40 per cent, campaign advertising from the Howard Government blow-out of $254 million in 2007 - around $330 million if we count production and associated costs, which would have been $375 million in today’s dollars.
These savings recognise that we should not carry a bigger public service than we need.
And they have allowed us to deliver on our priorities in areas like Education, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and important measures like paid parental leave, aged care reform, mental health reform and the biggest aged pension increases in our history.
These important programs are being delivered by Australian Public Servants working from Gladstone to Broome, from Hobart to Darwin, in every community and around the world give the help support and protection Australians need. I thank them for that.
For more information see Media Release - Australia's public service is world class, says Minister
Gary Gray is Minister for the Public Service and Integrity