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Abbott's night of the short knives


Hand holding a short knifeThe 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 'Night of the Long Knives' is looked back on now as petty and vindictive. Tony Abbott has now done it again, albeit on a smaller scale.

Let's look at those key SES criteria again: 'Exemplifies personal drive and integrity ... demonstrates public service professionalism and probity ... serves the government of the day irrespective of personal preferences'. They are quite clear, and I am sure Messrs Comley, Metcalfe, Russell and Parkinson did all those things in their SES careers.

Their sackings don't just hurt and demean them — they send negative signals to every SES officer in those departments and beyond, that this is a new government-APS relationship based on fear and mistrust rather than mutual respect and trust. This is really signalling to every senior APS officer: 'We believe you may have been corrupted by your six years working under Labor governments. Watch your step.' It is management by fear.

How much better was Labor's record in 2007 after 11 years of Howard rule. It gave every SES officer the compliment of trust that they were working in accordance with the values of the Framework. As proved to be the case: the SES officers who had loyally served Howard went on to loyally serve Rudd and Gillard. As now they would have been ready to serve Abbott. It's a bad signal the new government sends here, for all of us.

Let me also comment briefly on the decision to move Ausaid back within Foreign Affairs. There is a long history of the function of running a national foreign aid budget and program bouncing in and out of Foreign Affairs. In my memory it has done so at least three times. There are strong, finely balanced arguments for each option.

Keeping the aid function within Foreign Affairs makes it easier to place national interest at the forefront of aid budget allocation. It makes it easier to use aid as a foreign policy sticks-and-carrots lever. Many diplomatic professionals think this is legitimate, prudent use of taxpayers' money.

The arguments for keeping aid out of DFAT are quite idealistic. According to this view, it is the job of aid professionals, not of empire-building diplomats with agendas, to ensure the aid budget is spent in ways that maximise recipient welfare, consistent with broad national interest guidelines set by the government of the day. When the aid function is separate from the foreign policy function, it's harder for diplomats to distort aid allocation decisions for foreign policy reasons. (When I was Ambassador to Cambodia 1994–97, Ausaid was separate from DFAT, and it was made politely clear to me on several occasions that I had no official role in determining Australian aid priorities in Cambodia.)

Certainly, the Australian NGO sector, which itself collects and disburses a lot of Australian aid, generally prefers the separation model. They don't like to see aid politicised or misused for other policy agendas. They represent the views of an important part of the electorate. A wise government would heed them.

I suspect that Abbott may rue this decision at the next election. If Labor is smart, it will commit to restoring the independence of the aid function. And so, when Labor next wins, this wheel will turn again.

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin was a career foreign service officer for 30 years. He was in the SES from 1986 to 1998

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Foreign Aid, Tony Abbott, public service



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Existing comments

'Independently minded and willing to challenge ideas and confront issues' - it does seem that Tony Abbott is not particularly looking for these qualities in his public servants. Maybe more like 'yes' men. I think it's also significant that Abbott has moved the Office for Women into his own department. At least he has a female senator, Michaelia Cash, assisting.

Pam | 20 September 2013  

Mr Abbott's actions are purely ideological and, of course, contradict his justification for cabinet appointments that it's about the best people for the jobs. It's not about the best people, it's about appointing his people.

The Suppository of All Wisdom | 20 September 2013  

Probably the greatest problem facing World Peace is Selfishness. Not individual selfishness, which is bad enough, but Group Selfishness, where individuals can hide their personal selfishness under the cloak of "the Party",or "the Nation". In the never-ending struggle between the "Haves and the "Nots", the "Haves" always seem greedier, and ready to go to greater extremes to secure, maintain, and build up their "Lot" than the "Nots" do to gain their "Little." Whoever is not content with their "Little" will probably not be content for long with their "Lot"

Rober Liddy | 20 September 2013  

Regrettably, the Abbott syndrome re SES appointments is not new. In Victoria it started in earnest in 1981 by my reckoning and has been pursued by both parties at state and federal levels. it goes hand in hand with Ministers acting as defacto CEO's of departments , and policy directives coming not from Public Service advice, but from ministerial advisers who are seldom experts in the field but experts in heavying the buraucrats under implied threat of dismissal; they are paid to tell the minister what he/she wants to hear while spinning it as being in the public interest, and of course they are not elected! Public service ethos soon comes to be dominated by the imperative of protecting the minister at all costs - never mind the truth. They are paid handsomely, and they make the most of it, knowing that they will be outed eventually. So much for democracy - you know that value that is under threat from terrorists!! (and maybe asylum seekers!).

Dennis Green | 20 September 2013  

I recall my late father's comments in 1984 shortly after his forced resignation from the then DFA when he lamented the politicisation of the public service; how right he was. A pity to lose intelligent and capable bureaucrats because of a new PM's urge for some political muscle-flexing...

JR | 20 September 2013  

Having worked in the then Department of Trade and Industry in Melbourne for 3 years through the Graduate intake (prior to my marriage and move to the country) and having done voluntary aid work through an professionally based NGO in the Pacific along with my husband on 3 occasions after our children grew up I am all in favour of having AusAid incorporated back into DEFAT. This does not preclude Aid work professionals being employed in appropriate roles but it does open the opportunity for DEFAT employees to be seconded to these roles with, I believe enormous benefit particularly, although not only, to young public servants who besides often having particular expertise in government administrative roles will also gain enormously, for Australia's benefit as well, from living with people from other cultures. My perception after these Pacific experiences was that there is a risk of ongoing AusAid workers becoming almost a cult of their own, Most were lovely people but some were clearly at risk of being isolated from many aspects of life that other people have to deal with. Canberra, like AusAid assignments can be a too protected environment if that is where one always lives.

Mary Hoban | 26 September 2013  

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