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Abbott's night of the short knives

  • 20 September 2013

The standard selection criteria for members of the Senior Executive Service of the Australian Public Service state that they should 'shape strategic thinking, achieves results, exemplify personal drive and integrity, cultivate productive working relationships, and communicate with influence'. The third of these goes to the crucial working relationship between SES public servants and their political masters.

It is elaborated in the Senior Executive Leadership Capability Framework, which states that public servants should demonstrate 'professionalism and probity' as they adhere to and promote 'the values and ethical framework as set out in the code of conduct', serve the government of the day 'irrespective of personal preferences', implement 'policies and programs based on corporate decisions rather than personal views', and 'show personal courage' by being 'prepared to be forthright' and 'independently minded and willing to challenge ideas and confront issues'.

If public service selection and promotion processes are non-corrupt, we can safely assume that the men and women now occupying positions as heads of departments met these criteria when promoted or selected by governments of the day. Why, then, should it be necessary to remove any of them when the government changes?

This week, former Treasury secretary, current Westpac Banking Corp chairman Ted Evans condemned the removal of four serving APS heads — Blair Comley, Andrew Metcalfe, Don Russell, and soon Martin Parkinson — as a waste of 'good people'. 'It's a great pity — we can't afford to lose people of that quality. It's hard enough to get top-class people in Canberra these days. To see them treated in a political fashion is more than disappointing, it's sad for the country frankly. We'll end up as bad as many other countries ... where appointments are purely political.'

Evans, no Labor partisan, gets right to the heart of the issue. Under the US revolving door model, there is waste and destabilisation every time the government changes. Top public service jobs are held by openly politically affiliated people who move in and out of government whenever it changes, at other times working as special interest Washington lobbyists.

Australians have made clear many times that we don't like that system — it is open to corruption, and when our governments flirt with it, they usually come to regret it. We are rightly apprehensive about effects on good governance when we hear of top public servants sacked by incoming governments.

Famously, John Howard did it on a massive scale in 1996. His