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Commentator discusses the role of the Public Service and ministerial responsibility.

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CHRIS UHLMANN: Open in front of me at the moment I have my copy from the Canberra Times of their liftout, the Public Sector Informant, which is a fine little liftout, I must say. It comes out once a month on a Tuesday, and in that this morning, on page 4, there’s a fabulous article by our public sector commentator, John Nethercote. It has a body blow to the key institutions. The dented reputations of the public and service and Defence Force will require much attention until the dust settles on the children overboard affair.


We thought it was well and truly time that we got John Nethercote back in to talk to us of these and other things. John Nethercote, good morning.


JOHN NETHERCOTE: Good morning, Chris. How are you?


CHRIS UHLMANN: I’m very well; and how are you? You’ve been locked for months now in this children overboard inquiry. It’s a traumatising experience not just for the public servants but for you, I guess, over time.


JOHN NETHERCOTE: Some people might regard it as a cruel and unusual punishment.


CHRIS UHLMANN: One you inflicted on yourself. Do you really think that it has had a big effect on the way that the public views the Public Service?


JOHN NETHERCOTE: I think it’s a major case. When I visit other parts of Australia I find that it’s the topic they want to talk about, and it’s definitely seen as an indicator of deficiencies in the Public Service. I’ve been endeavouring to explain that the Public Service and the Defence Force are really there taking the wrap. It’s more a pointer to deficiencies in the systems of government and that the particularly deficient part that needs to be addressed properly is the ministerial private office and its accountability-free status as things stand at the moment. And I’m very sorry that the opposition have taken the view that these people shouldn’t be called. No doubt that’s an eye to their next time in government. It also allows them to carry on about cover-ups.


But the facts are that had this been a fact-finding inquiry rather than just a political exercise, then the opposition would have voted with the Democrats to bring the ministerial staff in, and also to bring ex-minister Reith in.


But the Public Service have to face the fact they’re being expected to carry responsibilities for matters which are well beyond their authority at the moment. They are carrying the can on this issue. They shouldn’t be.


CHRIS UHLMANN: What about the role of ministerial responsibility? It seems to be an absolutely moveable feast. What is a minister’s responsibility nowadays?


JOHN NETHERCOTE: This is a most disturbing aspect of this case. Ministers have hardly been seen before the select committee. They have, of course, been present in Estimates hearings, but they haven’t been seen. There should be a minister taking responsibility, not in this case taking the blame because clearly Robert Hill, the Defence Minister, wasn’t in that portfolio when these events occurred. But there should be a minister at the table during these proceedings, which have indeed had a very disorderly dimension to them. It seems that any question goes, any hypothesis, any leading question, any putting words into your mouth.


We saw the same thing when Peter Shergold felt it necessary to take issue with Senator Kim Carr in the other committee. You will remember his—what you might call a tantrum—got a bit of media publicity round the country.


CHRIS UHLMANN: It certainly did.


JOHN NETHERCOTE: Shergold’s action may well have been warranted. I’m not in a position to comment on that. But what he had to say should have been said by a minister, and it does call attention to the fact that accountability and information have their costs, and it would be very useful, especially in Parliament House, if people understood that. And Shergold did the right thing in drawing attention to the fact that these things have costs.


CHRIS UHLMANN: One of the things it drew my attention to is the paucity of public debate in some areas, where we had a cost attached to the questions that had been asked of that particular department which was astronomical—like $3 million or something. I can’t see that as anything but a complete nonsense.


JOHN NETHERCOTE: I think we can rest assured that there was a bit of what you might say, creative arithmetic in that particular calculation, and we can also be certain that if Kim Carr had never asked a question there wouldn’t have been $3 million more for education.


CHRIS UHLMANN: That’s right. It’s as if this is going to be moved about. Oh look, if there’s no questions being asked over there we’ll shunt that across into education.


JOHN NETHERCOTE: Exactly. Yes, that was a bit of what you might call overplaying the hand. We have children overboard in one case and we have overplaying the hand in another case.


CHRIS UHLMANN: John, you of course know well the history of the Australian Public Service. You were talking before about the ministerial officers. Where’s the genesis of ministerial officers? Is there a point in time when they start to take on a real importance in Australian history?


JOHN NETHERCOTE: This is the great irony in this case. You see the form that we know it now emerging in the late days of the long-term coalition government, but it really emerges in the form we know it today under the Whitlam government. Whitlam, on his very first day as Prime Minister, announced the creation of this sort of new ministerial bureau and ironically he said it would depoliticise the Public Service. As we see it today, the absence of these players from the actual action has done more than anything to politicise the Public Service.


The ministerial office and the ministers in this particular case are rather reminiscent of generals in the Great War. They’ve sent the troops, in the form of the Public Service, into battle, and they’re off at some country club watching the action from afar, where they can turn the volume down if it gets a bit too noisy.


CHRIS UHLMANN: What does it say too though about the level of communication between departments and ministerial offices? It seems to me that in many of this, although much has been made of it and great beat-ups have been made in the media about what’s been happening, it seems that it’s a fundamental failure of communication at some point in the system that’s been really the main part of the problem.


JOHN NETHERCOTE: The modern ministerial bureau in its worst form, which I think we can say is manifest in the former Minister for Defence’s office, has an impact on our politics rather like the Berlin Wall had on the civic life of Berlin. It’s a major barrier between the department and its minister. And one of the big reforms—there are two big reforms that have to come out of this. The first one is that we have to put the ministerial office within the bounds of ethics and accountability in our government as we now have it, not least in the Public Service.


CHRIS UHLMANN: So they’re a black hole there at the moment?


JOHN NETHERCOTE: They are in an accountability-free zone, and that has to stop. And the second thing is that ministers have to understand that their first line of support is not the ministerial office but the department. And departments have to be brought back into the ministerial office in a big way. They have to be the principal supports of the minister. Now, if the minister wants to have some lackey around like the fool in King Lear, let’s have a system of joint senior private secretaries. One can be the lackey, the political lackey, and the other can be a public servant put there by agreement between the minister and the head of department, and that person’s business is to make sure in particular that the lackey doesn’t disrupt the proper conduct of government business.


CHRIS UHLMANN: John, do we need a code of conduct for ministerial advisers?


JOHN NETHERCOTE: We certainly do need it. This incident illustrates that ministerial staff don’t, in fact, seem to be aware of what is proper conduct in a public office. They do, after all, have a public office and they are publicly funded. But we have it for the parliamentary staff, we have it for the Public Service and there seems to me to be no reason whatsoever that ministerial staff shouldn’t have it. And another reason they should have it, in a sense a code of conduct was not necessary for the Public Service because public servants, most of what is in the code of conduct public servants knew and they knew almost from the time when they were inducted into the service. I doubt very much if you mention the word ‘ethics’ to many ministerial staff they would ... you know how Goehring used to hear the word ‘culture’ and he’d reach for his gun? If you said ‘ethics’ to the ministerial staff they’d have to reach for the dictionary.


CHRIS UHLMANN: Finally, what about the role of the department, too? It seems that some have the view that the Public Service is some kind of independent arbiter which should act as a balance, if you like, on government or it should be the whistleblower on everything that government does. What is the role of the Public Service?


JOHN NETHERCOTE: This is one of the big unanswered questions in this case. The first thing we must say is that the Public Service is there as the principal adviser and the principal support for the minister. And the role of the department in that sense needs to be restored and the ministerial people need to have explained to them their real place in the scheme of things.


But there is this question of what happens when there is inaccurate information floating around, particularly in a difficult period like an election. And I have to say that in the debate on this matter down at the ANU—they had a seminar on this—a number of the academics were very keen about more leaks and more whistleblowing and so forth. But I, myself, don’t find that a particularly agreeable path to take, but I do think that it is a very, very difficult question. But it wouldn’t be quite so difficult in this case if we could be assured that the message had been, in the first instance, communicated properly, especially to Minister Reith.


CHRIS UHLMANN: John Nethercote, thank you.


JOHN NETHERCOTE: Thanks very much.


CHRIS UHLMANN: That’s our Public Service observer, John Nethercote.