Anthony Albanese needs some new departmental and agency leaders. The limitations of some of the existing ones are obvious. But the Prime Minister need not order some summary executions, as Tony Abbott, John Howard, Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam did. Nights of the long knives often seem personal, sometimes vindictive, or in breach of the tradition of secure jobs. A patient, cautious Albanese can be moving with all deliberate speed on his primary agenda, leaving it to the new head of the service to visit the battlefield, shooting the terminally wounded, and applying balm to those of continuing value. Perhaps with a list of diplomatic vacancies in his back pocket.
Albanese nicely balanced what he said and what he did during his first meetings with his caucus, ministry and cabinet this week. On the one hand, there was not a moment to lose, and his government was not going to waste a single day in carrying out its mandate. On the other, he showed caution in trying to do, or in authorising, everything at once. He used his economic ministers to emphasise that the government's program is subject to the constraints of a deteriorating economy and changing world circumstances.
Everything a new government does is closely parsed and analysed for messages, meanings and signs of the government's priorities, who's in and out of favour, and what is in the realm of the possible. For the new armies of lobbyists, business interests, tree people and old Labor mates and cronies now descending on Canberra looking for jobs, favours, or intelligence that they can peddle to those who are currently paying their wages, the intelligence divined is money.
But there are also ranks of Labor supporters, supporters of interest groups (such as climate change action) or people with particular hobby horses looking closely to see the calibre and the character of the new government in action, and signs, one way or another, about the fate of their causes.
Some of the signals sent out have been ambiguous. Some not. Making a mega-department of climate change was a welcome sign of high government priority to action. Despite suggestions that the new minister, Tanya Plibersek was being demoted in being given this task - something that is not in the least obvious - the moves are likely to reassure the teal independents and the Greens that the government is serious.
The public service should be giving expert advice, not drawing up glossy brochures purporting to justify ideological decisions made by ministers.
Labor will be hard to shift on policy commitments. That it might be open to new evidence does not necessarily suggest that Albanese is ready to negotiate revised upwards emission targets by 2030. But it suggests first that the government wants bureaucratic advisers running an academy on what should be done, rather than a PR and marketing consultancy justifying in advance and in arrears whatever ideological decisions politicians have cooked up with the hydrocarbon lobbies and other vested interests.
If Albanese plans to upgrade the quality and range of independent expert advice on water policy, on the environment and on climate change action, Labor may well be forced to respond to new evidence and new argument, based on evidence, about the targets it has set. Scott Morrison, like Tony Abbott before him, insulated himself from such a risk, both by downgrading the capacity of agencies and denying access to information. So far Albanese has said that the targets are not open to negotiation, just because the teals and the Greens want and claim mandates for higher targets. Even talking about being open to argument might suggest a hidden agenda, even a form of the alleged Gillard "lie," about no carbon taxes under the government she led.
But Labor likes to pretend that its target is based on the known facts, and the known evidence, and involves a balancing of interests, including in maintaining the economy and jobs. Not, in short, a number selected for being something higher than the previous government's aspiration, if not so high as to terrify coal workers. If the facts change, the government's plans for labour market programs and new regional technology-based job creating schemes could see room for a well-consulted and publicly discussed shift. Plibersek might be just the person who can sell the idea, first of holding the fort around the present circumstances, but moving if those circumstances change.
A good many Labor-oriented people will be pleased that the Australian Federal Police was been shifted out of the Home Affairs portfolio and back to the Attorney-General's Department. Even the AFP Association, admits that the AFP has acquired a reputation of being politicised. It attributes that to being forced into Home Affairs rather than to the structure and leadership of an inbred organisation hostile to any independent review.
But observers will be somewhat surprised about how limited changes to Home Affairs have been, and even more puzzled that its secretary, Mike Pezzullo, remains in charge. Why, for example, was ASIO left in Home Affairs, with an output implicitly needing to be "coordinated" with the ridiculous private intelligence agency Pezzullo has been allowed to establish? Why was it given extra functions over natural disasters, when it has shown no capacity to manage, and when the new appendage is itself a national disaster?
Why has Border Force been left untouched? To be sure, an inquiry is presently underway, under the supervision of Pezzullo into the extraordinary election-day announcement of the interception of some Sri Lankan boat people, promptly rebroadcast as a Liberal Party advertisement to marginal seats.
Given the delicacies involved - involving boat people - Albanese might be reluctant to act of his own initiative over such an egregious matter. How much better, from his point of view if those whose actions, or management, or ultimate responsibility, came into question were executed by judgments of their own peers.
It is very difficult to imagine that Pezzullo was a witting party in the affair, even if his views on boat people, and the need for unremitting cruelty to them, are well known. Pezzullo, after all, is given to lecturing even his brother and sister departmental secretaries on the proprieties - sometimes implying that he is the only one left who remembers them. And, as his somewhat small list of champions are no doubt pointing out to the new regime, he was once a Labor staffer, first to Kim Beazley and later Gareth Evans. He is not to be dismissed as reflexively anti-Labor, in the manner of some of his peers.
When the Murugappan family, known as the Biloela family, had their temporary right to stay regularised, the new Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, asked sharply whether this was on departmental advice. He would have known that the formal advice would have been the same, if only because Home Affairs is an expression of the will of the secretary, rather than the government of the day. Ministers, of whatever persuasion, are but empty chalices into which Pezzullo's independent but eccentric and often wrong advice is poured.
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Any number of Labor spokesmen (and even Barnaby Joyce, erstwhile Nationals leader) had expressed their view that the continuing persecution and cruelty had lost its point, and to all intents and purposes releasing the children was almost an election promise, however much the department wanted to argue the toss. Even now, no doubt on fervent departmental face-saving advice, their residence rights remain restricted to bridging visas "while" - in the words of acting immigration minister Jim Chalmers - "they work towards the resolution of their immigration status in accordance with Australian law."
The regularisation of the immigration status of the family does not turn on a court case, or on the family satisfying the department or the minister of any disputed fact. It turns on the exercise of a discretion - something Chalmers apparently did not have the immediate courage to issue. No doubt this was for fear of misrepresentation such as the suggestion that he had sent a gilt-edged invitation to every Sri Lankan, Afghan, and Pakistani to set off in a boat. Immigration thinks with one brain and has sometimes announced imminent wars - has long been given to issuing such warnings, often of its own initiative.
The whole idea of Home Affairs needs revisiting
But a government wanting to get rid of Pezzullo or determined to undo his expensive and not very efficient empire, would not necessarily have to be involved in a public argument about human rights for refugees. Home Affairs has been repeatedly criticised by bodies such as the Australian National Audit Office for waste and mismanagement of contracts, running into the billions, whether over computer purchases, facilities in Nauru and Manus Island.
The reasons for the making of some immigration and Border Force contracts without tender remain obscure, in part because of the department's chronic secretiveness. People elsewhere in the national security system have commented that a good deal of the extra money going into national security has been dissipated in the extra liaison arrangements forced by Pezzullo's insistence on his having a role at the intelligence table, duplication of actions in the agency he established more or less of his own initiative, and his efforts to encompass and coordinate the activities of ASIO and police, each supposedly independent agencies, whose collective views cannot necessarily be smoothly coordinated so that they are not at variance with Pezzullo's. Sometimes it is better that different perspectives are heard by the decision makers - before they have been put through the blender.
The head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, went immediately, without an Albanese prod. It is said that a new prime minister is entitled to the person of his choice - which, if true, is a custom that began with Paul Keating, 30 years ago, not before. But Gaetjens, very much a political animal closely attached to Liberal Party fortunes rather than any sort of detached adviser to government, would have been pushed very firmly if he had not walked. One wonders whether drafts of his long-awaited reports will be found. That may await law reform which abandons the idea - extremely helpful to agencies such as PM&C that have resisted FOI vigorously and improperly - that documents of a former minister somehow cease to be government documents open to FOI inspection. A day will come - and sooner rather than later - when documents in the offices of former prime ministers or ministers - and current ones - are as accessible as any other agency documents.
Some people were expecting - and hoping - that Kathryn Campbell, secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade but formerly one of the senior administrators under deep criticism for her role in the robodebt fiasco, would be for the sack. Or for a shift into somewhere humiliating. Ms Campbell - she is also a member of the Army Reserve, and rules rather more like a general rather than a warm and cuddly senior colleague - has been working with Penny Wong, her new minister, over Quad and Pacific family matters, and one might expect that the urgency of that work, from the government's viewpoint might rate above departmental leadership issues.
She is not the only senior public servant regarded with distrust by some Labor people. The leadership of the Department of Finance has been questioned, not least after "independent" insider departmental reviews of ministerial action, and an apparent lack of action in enforcing financial management legislation over sports rorts. There are questions about the management of health and ageing at central office level, including the management of the pandemic. And defence, and not only over submarines. Attorney-General's badly needs a shake-up to be a detached adviser to government, not a solicitor looking for loopholes and dirty tricks.
Glyn Davis is the man for wielding the axe, and the scalpel
These may be matters for public inquiry rather than mere ministerial, or prime ministerial review. Similarly wider questions about the politicisation of areas of the service, or agencies such as the AFP, the loss of departmental expertise and the widespread use of consultants also invites prompt attention from ministers as much as public service guardians.
That little has happened on the public service leadership front does not mean that it is not on the Prime Minister's agenda. But the indications he has given - of not planning a purge - suggest that he wants the changes to be a part of a package of reforms, not able to be characterised as political expressions of his will for power.
That he has an open agenda for integrity legislation, and reforms designed to restore process, transparency and accountability in government decision making, as well as a plan to reduce consultancies, makes it easier for this to occur. As with the announcement of the new secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Glyn Davis, and thus, ex officio, head of the public service. Davis is a widely respected student and practitioner in public administration, who enhanced that reputation as a vice-chancellor at Melbourne and Griffith universities. He was actively involved in implementing the recommendation of the Fitzgerald royal commission, and reforms to the Queensland public service, working with, among others, Kevin Rudd. Years later, he helped Rudd organise the 2020 conference in Canberra.
Davis cannot necessarily undo bad decisions, or bad processes, made or entrenched under previous governments. But one can expect first that he is keenly interested in getting national public administration back on track. This includes a fresh emphasis on advisory functions, including the re-establishment of lost expertise, and more transparent and accountable processes. He does not need media reports - some of which have been limited and partisan - into where the problems lie: they are obvious enough from audit reports, parliamentary committee reports, and court judgments. Restoring public service capacity and reputation necessarily involves fresh examination of what has gone wrong, even at the risk of discovering that some of the previous government explanations have been nonsense.
Once senior administrators themselves could and would review administrative disasters that appeared to be systemic, or to show fundamental weakness. Of their own initiative. But public service courage has been in short supply in recent times. Like the notion that public servants serve the public and the public interest as much as the minister of the moment.
If Glyn Davis gets a free hand to help the public administration give the public and the government a better service, he may do more for the quality of government services than any minister on a mission.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. email@example.com
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