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Speech to the John Paterson Oration, Australia New Zealand School of Government Annual Conference, Canberra.
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03 September 2009
John Paterson Oration
Australia New Zealand School of Government Annual Conference
3 September 2009
I acknowledge the First Australians on whose land we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as
among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
It is an honour to be delivering the third John Paterson Oration - following on from the previous
addresses by former Prime Ministers John Howard and Helen Clark.
While the Australia New Zealand School of Government is still in its early years, it is already
building a tradition of helping to shape the next generation of public service leaders on both
sides of the Tasman.
One of the important traditions it is creating is this oration - an excellent occasion to advance
public debate about future directions for public administration and the public service.
The oration is named after John Paterson, a great leader and a greater reformer, a man who in
particular led the way in reform of community services, health and infrastructure in both NSW
John was no Sir Humphrey Appleby.
He earnt a reputation as a restless intellect, a person of great compassion and yet a tough-minded reformer.
He once said that more could be learned about organisational change from the literature on
revolutionary war than from the teaching of business schools.
Paterson said that in the battle to change institutions - and I quote:
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“...peace only becomes possible when you have captured all the territory, re-educated all the
prisoners who are willing to become loyal citizens, and put to the sword those who remain
John displayed what could be described as a firm approach to public sector management.
He clearly encountered some obstacles in reforming the regional water board of the Hunter
Valley in New South Wales - but he also showed a capacity to see the challenges he faced in a
much wider context.
The task of public service reform confronting leaders like John Paterson in the 1980s was to
modernise large, powerful and sclerotic public sector organisations.
In the simplest terms, the task was to make the public service genuinely serve the interests of
the wider economy and society, after decades in which many government agencies had become
increasingly managed for the purposes of serving themselves.
Today’s challenges are not the same as those John Paterson faced.
But they are equally important - broad in scope; deep in complexity, and confronting us a time
when new global, national and local forces of change are blowing across the shores of
Australian public administration.
These are challenges that will require a new generation of public service leadership, a new
standard of public service excellence and therefore a new era of public service reform.
The Government I lead came to office pledging to reinvigorate the Westminster tradition of a
merit-based, independent public service committed to the highest-quality policy making.
We chose the word reinvigorate carefully.
We did not say “reinvent”, because the APS is a strong, professional public service that has
served successive governments very well.
The professionalism of the public service has been evident since the first day after the 2007
election, when I received the first handover briefings from Dr Peter Shergold and other senior
The quality of that briefing, and the work of public servants to ensure a seamless transition to
government in the following weeks and months, was testimony not only to the competence of
the public service but to the value it placed on continuity.
And I note that my predecessor, Mr Howard, made the same point when delivering the Garran
Oration in 1997, and I quote:
“That power can be transferred in this calm, understated way is a supreme asset.’’
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This is truly one of the most remarkable features of the Westminster tradition, and it is one we
should not merely take it for granted.
Its success is in part the result of the sweeping reforms to the public service a century and a
half ago, in another era and in another place - through the Northcote-Trevelyan report in
Britain in 1854.
That report not only created the modern British civil service but laid the foundations of the
ethos of the APS almost half a century later.
At the time, Britain was undergoing major economic changes in the wake of industrialisation.
The Empire was expanding, people were on the move and Europe was alive with revolutionary
And the British civil service was riven with patronage, incompetence and corruption.
The recommendations of the Northcote-Trevelyan report - a response to crisis in its time -
helped create a civil service that was independent, impartial, recruited by competitive
examination and promoted on merit.
In time, its impact stretched to the Australian colonies, where both Victoria and Queensland
sought to limit political patronage by introducing competitive entry exams into their public
And it profoundly shaped the culture of the APS after its formation in 1901.
But Australia never simply copied the British model.
The APS never recreated the class structure in the way the British civil service did, with Sir
Humphrey’s Oxbridge-educated administrator class unfailingly at the top.
Instead, some of Australia’s leading public servants have been the children of builders, boot
makers, railway station masters and refugees, or they left school at 15 to be telegraph
messengers and bank clerks.
What counted was not their modest beginnings but their fitness for the job.
Take Sir Roland Wilson, our longest serving Treasury Secretary and the son of a west coast
Or another former Treasury chief, Sir Richard Randall, who worked for eight years as a wool
Or another, Ted Evans, who worked for 10 years of his early life as a PMG linesman.
And given that his replacement, current Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, is the son of a New
South Wales timber worker, it is clear that the APS principle of promoting merit over privilege is
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alive and well.
And there is a second lesson from history that particularly resonates today.
As I said before, the periods of most active public service reform have been periods of rapid
change and even upheaval in the wider society, times when change has forced the public
service to develop new structures and skills, and find talented new people.
In the 1940s, the all-out war effort, followed by the huge post-war nation-building program,
created a generational change in the APS. For the first time there was an influx of brilliant outsiders to manage great wartime enterprises, to staff the departments of Treasury and
Postwar Reconstruction and to establish the new foreign service.
At the time, the public service was a closed shop - the idea of outsiders joining was intensely
controversial. So much so that when the economist, Roland Wilson - with doctorates from
Oxford and Chicago - was recruited to the Bureau of Census and Statistics as the first
government economics adviser in 1932, the staff of the Bureau went on strike!
The new public servants laid the foundations for decades of post-war prosperity and better
living standards for Australians. They were among the first in the world to see and seize the
opportunities of Keynesian economics and an active economic and social role for the post-war
They managed the government’s commitment to full employment and the development of a
modern social security system, to a large immigration program, to enormous infrastructure
projects such as the Snowy Mountains scheme, and to the beginnings of our national university
In other words, they were nation-builders - with their own professional public service tradition
- with a sense that the words “prosper the Commonwealth” were etched deep in their intellect,
their imagination and their sense of duty to the nation.
Nugget Coombs, a railway station master's son, is perhaps the best known of them - a man
who earnt his place in any catalogue of the greatest Australians in our nation’s history.
In his appointment to head the Department of Postwar Reconstruction, he was given an explicit
brief to promote a much more activist role for the state.
And it was Nugget Coombs who, a generation later, chaired the famous Royal Commission into
Australian Government Administration in 1974.
Nugget’s broad vision for the role of the public service was reflected in his remark after
releasing his report, that in the modern world the bureaucracy:
“...is not ‘an island entire unto itself’ but a living part of Australian society, reflecting the
strengths and weaknesses of the society.”
The Coombs Royal Commission came at another turning point for Australian society and
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The long post-war boom - in large part made possible by the reforms of the 1940s - created
huge national wealth but also in time a culture of self-satisfaction, complacency and rigidity in
the public service, in the broader economy and to some extent in society at large.
Public service structures created 30 years earlier struggled to cope with a time of profound
economic and social change.
The Coombs Commission identified themes that have shaped the development of the APS ever since.
It argued that the public service had to become more responsive to the democratically elected
government of the day, more efficient in its operations, and more diverse in the composition of
its workforce - reflecting the growing diversity of the wider society.
Critically, it concluded that government administration was excessively centralised and
It recommended greater devolution of management authority and of service delivery - including
the idea of one-stop shops for citizens to access a range of services in the one place.
It found that - and I quote:
"better decisions will be made and better service given to people if authority and responsibility
are devolved to officials close to where the action occurs.”
In that idea lies the foundation of our modern, decentralised public service.
The great themes of the Coombs Report were reflected in a decade and a half of reform from
the early 1980s onwards. The public servants of that era - John Paterson among them -
undertook a fundamental rethink of what government should do and how it should do it.
In difficult economic times, they helped to internationalise the Australian economy and to move
beyond the policy complacency of previous decades. They were partners in a long-term reform
agenda, whose central organisational principle was the enhancement of Australia’s global
Within the ranks of the public service, they forced their colleagues to focus on efficiency,
transparency and accountability to government, because taxpayer dollars were scarce and
economic reform also meant the reform of government itself.
They were modernisers. They had to be. There was no turning back.
In those years, all the major legislation governing the public service, some of it dating back to
the early years of Federation, was completely rewritten.
The budgetary, structural and other public service reforms of the 1980s and 1990s were as
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large in their time as those of the post-war reconstruction generation. They helped to produce
Australia’s long period of economic growth and they positioned us well for the challenge of the
global economic crisis.
These were also the years when Coombs' vision of a more diverse public service, more
representative of the Australian population, began to be realised. For example, in 1999, women
outnumbered men for the first time and today account for nearly 58 per cent of the APS. More
than one in three members of the Senior Executive Service is female, and while we have further
to go, the proportion is rising.
That is just one example of how the APS has continued to change and evolve to meet the needs
of its time.
Today, the APS again confronts a changing world, and the need to prepare for these future
challenges. I do not believe the changes required involve a revolution. Instead, the APS
requires continuing reform.
As the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, said in a
recent speech, “the APS is not broken - it is not a renovator’s opportunity”.
Cast your eyes across the governments of the world, and consider the quality of public
administration that has been achieved in Australia across the 108 year history of the Australian
Public Service. It is not completely without its faults or failings, but any fair-minded person
would agree that Australia has been remarkably well served by the APS, and it has been
remarkably stable, impartial and free from corruption.
It is no surprise that a British report last year reported that 87 per cent of Australian citizens
expressed satisfaction with Federal government services. Or that the same report listed our
public service third in a long list of similar countries - ahead of Canada, New Zealand, the USA
and the UK - for its independence from political interference and in its capacity to give impartial
Likewise, an assessment of the quality of e-government services and products of 192 UN
member states in 2008 ranked Australia eighth in the world.
These are impressive results for a comparatively lean public service of just 160,000 employees
- or just 1.5 per cent of the Australian workforce. But in the face of the challenges facing us in
the decade ahead, it is not enough for us to say that the APS is doing a good job and therefore
the status quo is fine.
In my address to the Senior Executive Service in April 2008, I spoke of the need to develop a
culture of policy innovation and enhance the strategic policy capability of the APS. This means
becoming more creative, and not just reactive.
It means the APS being bolder in its thinking, and doing more to consider the big picture -
transformational policy change, not just piecemeal reform.
It means strengthening the APS’s ability to deliver high-quality services and linking policy
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creation more closely to program implementation so that lessons learnt on the front line of
service delivery feed back into the agencies that formulate policy.
Public servants, from portfolio Secretaries in Canberra to front-line workers at Centrelink, work
tirelessly to put the citizen at the heart of everything they do. And critically, that the APS does
more to attract, train and retain the very best people.
The APS must have its proper share of the nation’s most talented people, because as I said last
year to the SES, the challenges facing government are as tough, intellectually demanding and
important for our nation’s future, as the challenges facing any of our businesses or non-profit organisations. It is the view of the Government and the heads of the APS that only by hiring
and promoting the best people can we solve the great challenges of our time.
From health reform to the education revolution; from our climate change strategy to dealing
with national security threats; from tackling Indigenous disadvantage to building a globally
competitive 21st century economy.
We are facing challenges so complex in their causes, so shifting in their natures, so contentious
in the arguments they provoke and so radical in the solutions they demand that they cannot be
addressed with business-as-usual thinking.
Some social scientists have coined the term “wicked problems” to describe these challenges.
However, as a former member of the APS, I know that public servants don’t believe in
wickedness. Instead, I suspect they are more comfortable with what we might call “systemic
Challenges that might even call for courageous policies.
Whatever the label, these challenges often have these dimensions: