The Cole Inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) scandal has once again put a spotlight on the complex relationship between Ministers, their political advisors and public servants.
While Government Ministers struggle to recall just what happened to the dozens of warnings they were sent about Iraqi kickbacks, many in the community are wondering just what is happening to public administration in this country.
By international standards Australia has an excellent Public Service, free from the corruption and maladministration that plague the public sector in other countries.
This can be attributed to three features of Australian Government.
The first is the professionalism and ethics of individual public servants. Second is the legal framework on which it is based, including the Public Service Act, the APS Values, the APS Code of Conduct and merit-based appointment and promotion. Third is our model of responsible government, inherited from Westminster. It holds Ministers accountable to Parliament, and to the electorate, for the actions of the Executive Government.
These features are the foundation upon which our system is built. But when they are eroded, the whole edifice of Government can start to look shaky.
There is a common thread running through recent public service crises such as AWB and the Children Overboard scandal — the ill-defined role of Ministerial advisors.
The size and influence of Ministerial offices has increased under successive Governments. Since 1983, the number of ministerial advisers in Canberra has virtually doubled from 207 to around 400 today.
Traditionally, contact between the elected Government and the Public Service occurred directly between the Minister the Department Head or Deputy.
Increasingly, more direct contact is being made by Ministerial staffers — both formally and informally — to relatively junior officers within Departments.
This practice has become a key conduit for communication between the Minister and the Public Service.
Clearly, modern Government is more complex, and moves faster than it did when many Public Service conventions were established. It is neither realistic nor fair to assume a Minister will have direct knowledge of everything that is going on in his or her portfolio.
The same is true of modern politics where all players are subject to scrutiny by a 24/7 media with an insatiable appetite for news. Ministerial advisors are a part of the response to increased workloads and expectations.
But a few crucial distinctions have to be made.
Ministerial advisors are not public servants. They are not bound by the PS Act, the Code of Conduct or the APS Values. While most are no doubt smart, able and committed, they are not appointed on the basis of merit or transparency.
They are political appointments and their principle role is to advise the minister and, importantly, protect his or her political interests.
These days you don’t have to delve too deeply into the Public Service to see how Ministerial staff skillfully erect firewalls between their Minister and the Department to create the wriggle room needed for plausible deniability.
Advisors can be used as an effective means of protecting the political interests of the Minister, even if means ‘taking a hit’ for the team. Take a bow Graeme Morris; the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff to who fell on a sword in 1997, following the ‘travel rorts’ affair.
So are the conventions of responsible government and the regulation of public administration keeping pace with these changes?
Obviously we can’t turn back the clock. But neither can we allow the effectiveness of our Public Service and the hard won reputation of individual public servants, to be diminished.
Ultimately the unchecked politicisation of the Public Service threatens Australia’s reputation as an open, transparent and democratic society, free from the cancer of corruption.
So what can be done?
Firstly there needs to be far greater transparency in the appointment and role of Ministerial staffers. The public has a right to know who these people are, where they have come from, and what their role is.
Secondly, after they are appointed, Ministerial advisors should be required to comply with a Code of Conduct. This code should be compatible with the APS Code, but reflect the different role that Ministerial advisors play.
While these proposals don’t address all the challenges facing public administration in Australia, they would be a good start.
With such measures in place, we could then turn our attention to other public governance issues such as appropriate post-employment restraint for Ministers, and more transparency and due diligence for Public Sector Board appointments.