Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
A truly independent Public Service: Labor's public service policy: address by Craig Emerson, MP to the Institute of Public Administration Australia: Canberra: 20 August 2004.\n\n

Download PDFDownload PDF



CRAIG EMERSON Member for Rankin



Institute of Public Administration Australia Canberra, Friday 20 August 2004

For the first time since Federation the Australian Public Service has become a significant election issue - but for all the wrong reasons.

The Howard Government has intimidated senior public servants, creating a culture of fear. This week we have heard that Mike Scrafton, a public servant seconded temporarily to a minister’s office, did not feel able to speak out about the truth of his conversations with the Prime Minister until after he had left the Commonwealth public service.

A Latham Labor Government is committed to restoring a truly independent Australian public service.

There has been some media commentary that Labor will wind back the Howard Government’s public service ‘reforms’.

It seems these days that any change implemented by the Howard Government - including changes that dismantle the basic structures of a parliamentary democracy - is considered to be a ‘reform’.

Labor does not consider a ‘reform’ to be a promise before an election that under a Howard Government there would be no more than 2,500 public service job losses with no forced redundancies and after an election sacking 32,400 public servants at a cost to taxpayers of $700 million. Labor considers that to be a broken promise, not a ‘reform’.

Labor does not consider a ‘reform’ to be the placement of the same departmental heads on performance pay, the quantum of which is determined by the Prime Minister.

Labor does not consider a ‘reform’ to be the intimidation of Police Commissioner Mick Keelty following his statements about our involvement in Iraq.


Labor does not consider a ‘reform’ to be the practice of Howard Government Ministers hiding behind their advisers to avoid accountability to the people through the Australian parliament.

In short, Labor does not consider the systematic destruction of the Westminster system of ministerial responsibility to be a ‘reform’.

If restoring the traditions of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy is winding back the clock, then Labor is guilty. Because, that is what a Latham Labor Government will do: restore the Westminster system and re-establish a truly independent public service capable of giving fearless and frank advice.

In a recent interview the Prime Minister described himself as ‘Burkean’, a traditionalist who would need a very good reason to break down established institutions. Mr Howard must have had a very good reason for dismantling the traditional Westminster system of ministerial accountability. That reason is the Prime Minister of Australia does not want to take responsibility for his own actions - always blaming someone else, usually a public servant.

Before the election of the Howard Government there had been a bipartisan commitment to the Australian Public Service as an essential, non-political institution working for the entire community, working for better government.

John Howard’s assault on the public service has been systematic and sustained. The slashing of more than 32,000 jobs in his first term was only the beginning, but it was a sure sign of things to come.

So sustained has that assault been that, in exasperation, 43 former departmental heads, senior diplomats and military leaders felt compelled to call for a restoration of truth in government.

A Latham Labor Government will restore honesty and truth in government.

I have had it put to me that some of the flaws in the current public service arrangements had their genesis in changes introduced by previous Labor governments.

It is true that some significant changes were made to the public service in those years, but they did not corrode the core principle of an independent public service in the way the Howard Government has.

In 1983 the new Labor Government introduced the concept of a Senior Executive Service (SES). No-one seriously regards that as a retrograde step.

In 1984 the Labor Government developed the Public Service Reform Act, which changed the title of ‘permanent secretaries’ to ‘departmental secretaries’.

The Act specified that departmental secretaries could be expected to be rotated after five years in any position. The Prime Minister was empowered to terminate the appointment of departmental secretaries without explanation - but the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was required to issue a report to the Prime Minister summarising the reasons.


Machinery of government changes in 1987, which created ‘mega-departments,’ did not fundamentally alter accountabilities.

The next big change was in 1994 when fixed-term contracts were offered to departmental secretaries in exchange for a 20 per cent pay rise.

While the motivation for this change might have been the worthy one of offering pay rates to departmental secretaries that were more competitive with private sector pay, the effect was to end the notion of tenure for departmental heads.

All but two secretaries opted for the pay rise over tenure and today every secretary is on a fixed-term contract.

Armed with these powers the incoming Howard Government immediately set about destroying the notion of an independent career public service capable of giving fearless and frank advice.

Upon coming to office the Howard Government sacked six departmental secretaries. To this day no-one outside the senior echelons of the Government knows how these six were selected for termination. A plausible explanation is that it was a vendetta on the part of other public servants who had taken up senior political roles in the new government.

The lack of any rhyme or reason for selecting these six was an early dose of the intimidation of the senior public service by the Howard Government. It was strangely Maoist in philosophy: ‘kill one, educate a thousand’. In this case it was ‘kill six, educate six thousand.’

But the government had only just begun. If the random nature of these sackings hadn’t sent a sufficiently cold shiver up the spines of public servants, the next year the Government decided to kill off another departmental secretary. Defence Minister John

Moore (who was so contemptuous of the Westminster system that he responded to parliamentary questions by saying “the answer to that question is well known”) said he could no longer work with Defence Secretary Paul Barrett. The Prime Minister summarily dismissed Mr Barrett, who took the matter to the Federal Court and lost.

Surviving departmental secretaries were given a chilling reminder - they could be sacked at the whim of the Prime Minister.

Departmental secretaries now had a powerful disincentive against providing advice that the Howard Government didn’t want to receive - and a powerful incentive to provide the advice the government wanted to hear.

At the same time the Howard Government introduced performance pay for departmental secretaries, the annual quantum of which would be determined by whom? The Prime Minister, of course.

Now the Prime Minister had departmental secretaries right where he wanted them: able to sack them at his pleasure and able to reward them if they gave him the advice he wanted and withheld the advice he didn’t want.


The Emperor was now supreme and the mandarins totally subservient.

Yet it was just four years earlier that John Howard ruled that: “Truth is absolute, truth is supreme, truth is never disposable in national political life.”

A Latham Labor Government will restore a truly independent, career-based public service capable of giving fearless and frank advice.

Fostering frank and fearless advice

Governments should listen to advice they may not necessarily want to hear. A clever government encourages that advice because it is an essential part of the policy development process - the testing of ideas against alternatives and against prior experience.

Governments are elected with political programs and priorities, but ideology should not be not the sole basis of decision making. One of the more worrying aspects of the Howard Government has been the Prime Minister’s determination to put ideology and dogma ahead of the public interest.

The fiasco of contracting out government IT to the private sector is a case in point. This ideological obsession has so far cost taxpayers $750 million more than the original contracts.

A Latham Labor Government will encourage the provision of frank and fearless advice by giving departmental heads greater job security, and by removing performance bonuses paid at the discretion of government ministers.

These changes will ensure that departmental secretaries and agency heads have the necessary independence and authority to meet their legislative responsibilities, and to ensure a culture throughout the public service based on professionalism, accountability and frank and fearless advice.

Labor will give departmental secretaries a minimum term of engagement of five years, unless a shorter term is agreed by the parties in exceptional circumstances.

Labor will also establish a protocol for the management of conflict between a minister and secretary or agency head, with the emphasis on resolving conflict or - if that fails - reappointment of the officer to another position rather than termination of employment.

At present, only the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet advises the Prime Minister on the filling of secretary-level vacancies. Labor will require that both the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Public Service Commissioner provide independent reports to the Prime Minister on filling such vacancies. Similar reports will be required for all appointments, transfers, dismissals and retirements at this level.

Under Labor the pay and conditions of departmental secretaries will be set through the independent and transparent mechanism of the remuneration tribunal. They will not be paid performance bonuses.

Labor will expect all secretaries and agency heads to ensure that their agencies foster a culture that encourages professionalism, accountability and frank and fearless advice.


Making advisers accountable

My colleague, Senator John Faulkner, in an address in this same forum on 21 July, outlined how the principles of accountability and ministerial responsibility have been eroded over the eight and a half years of the Howard Government.

This assault on standards of accountability has been most vigorous in respect of the relationships between ministers’ offices and public service departments and agencies.

Accountability to Parliament

The Prime Minister has evaded responsibility for the children overboard affair by not allowing ministerial staff to be accountable to the parliament for their knowledge or actions. This is based on the notion that ministerial staff are considered to have no

official role independent of their minister.

Labor will revive the Westminster system of ministerial accountability.

Where a minister denies knowledge of the actions of a staff member, it is only reasonable that the staff member can be required to provide information to the parliament about such actions.

Labor will develop a new framework for the accountability of ministerial staff, drawing on the recommendations of the October 2003 Senate committee report on employees under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act (or ‘MOPS Act’).

This will include making ministerial advisers available to appear before Senate inquiries where the relevant minister has refused to take responsibility for their actions.

Clearer roles and responsibilities

The risk of compromising the independence of the public service is exacerbated by the current lack of clarity about the responsibilities of political advisers and other staff under the MOPS Act. A Federal Labor Government will clarify the roles and responsibilities of MOPS staff by introducing a Code of Conduct for such staff.

A Latham Labor Government will amend the MOPS Act to include a statement of values that will apply to all people employed under that Act. The Act will also be restructured to define clearly the different categories of MOPS employment so as to distinguish between ministers’ staff, non-government office holders’ staff and electorate staff.

Better administration of public services

In the ongoing drive to make Australia more competitive, there is a need for continuous improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of government service delivery.

Labor will establish independent, credible and public benchmarks against which proposals for contracting out and outsourcing will be judged. Outsourcing will not be used to cut wages or conditions for employees or to reward favoured commercial suppliers inappropriately.


A Federal Labor Government will only consider outsourcing proposals that meet the following public interest tests:

• Accountability to the parliament and the public (including access to contracts).

• Maintenance of the value and quality of services and access to services.

• Protecting the interests of Australians living in rural and remote communities.

• Identifying costs and benefits for the public by direct, fair and transparent price,

risk and return comparisons between government and other providers.

• Not resulting in a reduction of the wages and conditions of employment in the

public service.

• Privacy of consumer information.

Where services have already been privatised or contracted out, periodic reviews of efficiency and effectiveness will be conducted. These reviews will be based on the criteria set out above and outcomes may include reintegration of services to the public service - but at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Restoring a unified, merit-based, career public service

The Australian Public Service has a vast pool of talented and committed people. Their aspirations differ, their policy interests differ and their geographical locations differ: but they all share a wish to serve the Australian community.

The policies of the Howard Government have made it more difficult for public servants to make that contribution.

Making public service a career of choice

Labor is committed to a single, integrated, merit-based and non-discriminatory career public service.

Labor will recommit the Australian Public Service to being a career service, in which APS employees are recruited and promoted on merit, regardless of the level of the position.

A Latham Labor Government will seek to attract a greater number of young people to the public service. We will provide a model of best practice in training and career opportunities.

And while women now comprise more than 50 per cent of Australian Public Service employment, women are not similarly represented at executive, SES and agency head levels. Labor will create the conditions at the executive level and at the most senior levels of the service to eliminate this disparity.

A Latham Labor Government will rebuild the core repositories of public service knowledge and expertise which have been diminished in the last eight years. Labor will require the Public Service Commissioner to report annually on the development of

corporate intellectual capital. This will include measures to ensure that older public servants are assisted to stay within the service if they want to.


A unified public service

Under the current Public Service Act, the Public Service Commissioner has only limited powers to promote and develop the public service: most of the Commissioner’s functions are reactive or advisory.

A Latham Labor Government will give the Public Service Commissioner a strong leadership role in enhancing the public service and in directing its continuing development as a professional service and as an equitable employer.

The Commissioner will have greater authority and scope to coordinate whole-of-service issues such as workforce planning, in-service professional development and innovative recruitment strategies.

The Public Service Commissioner has an important role to play in ensuring experienced public servants are not lost as new priorities are implemented through machinery of government changes. The Commissioner will coordinate transfers across the public service of excess employees who wish to be redeployed.

Agency heads will be required to advise the Australian Public Service Commission of excess employees and potential vacancies as they arise. Agency heads, with the advice of the Public Service Commission, will be required to consider excess employees

before filling vacancies. The Public Service Commissioner’s powers to transfer employees may be used to assist with this process.

Labor is committed to minimising the need for unnecessary and expensive redundancies, particularly forced redundancies. The enhanced processes for transfers will improve the job security of public servants, by retaining as many public servants as possible in the event of machinery of government changes.

Labor also recognises that the present significant disparities in remuneration for equivalent levels are a barrier to a unified public service.

To restore equity in pay and conditions Labor will develop a whole-of-service framework workplace agreement. A Latham Labor Government will also ensure that negotiations for public service workplace arrangements recognise and respect the role of relevant unions in the bargaining processes.

Australian Workplace Agreements, which are secret and divisive, will be abolished. Existing AWAs will be allowed to continue until their expiry date.

Labor is committed to recognising the unique nature and role of employment in the Public Service. This will be reflected in:

• Secure service wide standards and classifications.

• Secure superannuation arrangements.

• Accessible training and career development opportunities.

• Reduced reliance on non-ongoing employment and contractors.

• Accessible appeal and review rights.

• Assisting public servants to balance work and family responsibilities.


These policies will ensure the restoration of an effective, independent and professional Australian Public Service.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Senator John Faulkner for his invaluable contribution to the development of this policy.

Labor believes that a fearful public service - the one that John Howard created - is not in Australia’s interests.

All of us here today have a deep interest in the Australian Public Service.

All of us want an Australian public service of which we can be proud: a public service respected for its intellectual capacity, for its commitment to efficiency, and for its fair management of staff.

Over eight years, John Howard has ignored or dismantled various checks and balances which allow accountability between the executive and its public service. The Prime Minister and his ministers have expected a different public service from that which has served Australia so well in the past.

In Labor's view, this approach has inhibited good policy and good government in Australia.

The Howard Government has already rejected the reforms contained in the policy I am launching today, branding them as unwarranted and unnecessary. These are constructive policies, but they threaten Mr Howard's preferred model of a compliant public service.

The Howard Government’s model is not conducive to good governance.

Labor stands for a positive working relationship with the people in the Australian Public Service.

At a time when there is deep concern about honesty in our national government we owe it to the Australian people to restore the best traditions of the Westminster system: open, honest, accountable government advised by a truly independent public service.