Stacking the public service

Will a Coalition Government have to deal with a bureaucracy stacked with Labor mates parachuted in to protect them? Mates who would run interference on the Coalition Government and hence improve the chances of Labor taking Government in the following election? I think this is a significant risk.

Labor has a strategy, the Embassy Rooftop Strategy, last used in 1996:

It involved, among other things, warehousing of valued staffers in the bureaucracy, earmarking and retention of documents likely to be useful in opposition, and ways to protect the seats of talented MPs so they would be available to help Labor rebuild.

Keating was not told about it. He would have gone off his face had he known. But those involved are convinced the strategy laid the groundwork for Kim Beazley’s near win over John Howard in 1998.

Back in 1996, they didn’t fuel up the choppers until quite close to the election, partly because Keating’s awesome political skills gave the party hope until near the end.

But Gillard’s political skills are not in the Keating class, and voters have given plenty of notice of what is in store for Labor.

The Coalition will need to be quite ruthless if elected, as there seems to be quite a few department heads (and numerous senior executive service officers) who will surreptitiously (but deliberately) work against the Coalition’s interests.  Special projects might be a boom employment scheme for some government officials.

But if the Coalition Government fails to act quickly and decisively an acceleration in the stacking of the public service will help improve the chances of Labor returning to the Treasury benches earlier than otherwise. It could do worse than follow the advice of  George S. Patton Jr. who said

May God have mercy upon my enemies, because I won’t.

This is NOT about competence. For any position there are many potentially competent appointments. It is choosing competent and sympathetic people who are committed to the philosophies of the Coalition to key bureaucratic positions (ie secretaries and deputy secretaries). At the very least it is appointing genuinely impartial and competent officers and rooting out those that will sabotage the Government’s agenda.

Labor does this – selecting competent people who are Labor-friendly and committed to Labor ideologies. Indeed competent people, who fundamentally disagree with Coalition policy, are more likely to be sure of their own position and be able to rationalise their actions of surreptitiously undermining policy and the implementation of policy.

But will an Abbott Government be ruthless? I was surprised to read that the Baillieu Government has appointed Pradeep Philip as Secretary of the Department of Health. Philip moved from a junior Treasury position  to work for the Rudd opposition, then to Senior Adviser in Rudd’s office, before being parachuted to a Deputy Secretary position in the Victoria Brumby Government after Rudd’s demise. Baillieu kept him on, and has now promoted him. Is the Coalition so devoid of talent that people with known ALP sympathies are appointed to high office?

So far it seems that the Coalition is only looking at appointments to regulatory agencies – APRA and the RBA. In the Financial Review on 18 and 20 February (“Coalition may reject Labor appointments” and “Hockey’s threat raises questions of performance”), Joe Hockey states – rightly in my view – that a Coalition Government will not feel obligated to honour five major regulatory appointments that are likely to be made before the election:

  • three from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority for terms that expire on 30 June: Chairman John Laker, Deputy Ross Jones and member Ian Laughlin
  • two from the Reserve Bank: Governor Glenn Stevens’ term expires in September and Jillian Broadbent’s Board position expires in May.

Hockey and Abbott should go further – announcing that they will not honour appointments to departmental secretary positions also (unless consulted by the Government and agreeing to any appointment).

Take just one example of the Secretary of the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Blair Comley, who is very well-connected to Labor and strongly opinionated. Back in April 2012 I pondered  how he would manage the blue book briefing for the Opposition – ie: covering the abolition of that department.

Well he won’t have too. The Prime Minister has announced that Comley will be transferred to become the Secretary of the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. He has managed to jump ship from his sinking department.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister has decided to restart the clock on Comley’s appointment to five years from March 2013.

The announcement of Comley’s initial promotion and appointment as Secretary of the Department of Climate Change was made on 21 December 2010. Comley took up his post in February 2011 so his five-year appointment would normally expire in February 2016.

There is no need (although it has occurred several times under the Gillard Government) to extend the appointment even further to March 2018 as the Prime Minister has done. This has just created a contingent liability for the taxpayer for no benefit. Section 58(1) of the Public Service Act 1999 simply states

The Prime Minister may appoint a person to be the Secretary of a Department for a period of up to 5 years specified in the instrument of appointment.

Why not just appoint Comley (and the others) to the new departments for a period that corresponds to the expiry date of their original (or renewed) appointment instrument?

Meanwhile, Comley has decided to sign a 15 year lease for the premises for the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, which is due to be abolished under a Coalition Government. That’s a $158 million contract. Comley as the Chief Executive of the department has the power to sign such a lease. This is not a ministerial decision – the Public Service Act clearly puts the power and responsibility in the hands of the departmental secretary. Hopefully the Coalition will be checking carefully the processes that led to the signing of that lease. This is not to suggest that the lease is not above board – it probably is – but it does seem somewhat odd and deserves scrutiny.

About J

J has an economics background and is a part-time consultant
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39 Responses to Stacking the public service

  1. Splatacrobat

    The ALP are well versed in the art of planting political sleepers.

    If lists are not being compiled and contigency plans are not being formulated to deal with this issue now then they should be.

  2. Mk50 of Brisbane

    Also, having met Compley, he gave a firm impression of being a genuine true believer in all alpgreenfilth horseshit, AGW and the whole global warming scam.

    ‘An active, intelligent ideologue’ was one description. And so, a dangerous man to an incoming non-alpgreenfilth government.

  3. Toiling Mass

    It is more difficult for the Liberals to recruit the most competent people among their demographic because their high-achievers have successful jobs in the private sector.

    The purest Labor people are already in the Labor party, pursuing power through politics.

  4. Samuel J

    True TM, but it is also about how the Coalition treats sympathetic public servants. From my observation, Labor-friendly public servants do well under both Labor and Coalition Governments. Coalition-friendly public servants get trashed under a Labor government and pushed down by Labor-sympathisers under Coalition governments. It’s a win-win for Labor supporters. Rationally, a public servant would be wise to be Labor friendly.

  5. Steve of Ferny Hills

    This behaviour is mostly not about protecting ALP assets. It’s simply government sanctioned looting of the Treasury and pure bastardry. Eg Greg (Mr Bligh) Withers.

    We need to admit that the notion of an independent public service is a quaint relic of the past and appoint SES officers for the life of the government only.

    Any half decent apolitical bod will get a job with the next mob.

  6. John Mc

    A friend of mine in Tasmania, who works for Hydro-Tasmania, says the Labor Party runs the public service there. As wages are generally not that great, the public service are the wealthier middle class. They are kind of elite cartel who only pander to their own clique. He admits he does not let his political allegiances be known in his professional world.

  7. Steve of Ferny Hills

    Coalition-friendly public servants? They exist but unless they have a death wish, they keep their own counsel. Staff meetings and water cooler conversations assume all are Labor/Green sympathisers.

  8. Splatacrobat

    Gillard denies embassy rooftop strategy. “I am just going for a test drive.”

    McTernan disagrees “Get to the choppa!!!!”

  9. Steve of Ferny Hills

    The recruitment processes also serve to mainain leftist hegemony of the public service. The selection criteria are impossibly obtuse for anyone who isn’t in the club.

    An incoming Abbott government should outsource ALL public service recruitment to the private sector. This would assist in ensuring real diversity in the public service and also enable a reduction in public service numbers.

  10. Joe

    The best public servant – is no public servant.

    Gut and close as many departments/qangos that they can.

    Drop all funding of bodies not directly responsible to the Parliament.

    With the rest – outsource as many public servant jobs as possible and ensure that those managing what’s left are directly responsible to the appropriate minister and sack the rest.

  11. C.L.

    The ALP are well versed in the art of planting political sleepers.

    Well, yes.

    Its pre-eminent ‘think tank’ – the Evatt Foundation – is named in honour of a Soviet spy.

  12. Super D

    The Coalition should set up a department of Labor Mismanagement with responsibility for sorting out all of Labor’s messes. Based in Alice Springs with branch offices on Christmas Island and in Woomera the department will have absolutely zero travel budget and will set an example in the use of teleconferencing. This will allow the Coalition to serperately report at a budget level the ongoing costs of Labor, Blair could be the departmental secretary.

  13. ar

    Small government would help…

  14. Antipodean

    Why don’t an incoming coalition federal government do what incoming state labor governments have been doing for years, that is assigning all senior labor maaaaates in the APS to a “special” division where they are bundled off to some seedy remote office space with no phone, no computer, no fax etc and absolutely nothing to do. The longest I heard someone lasting was six weeks before they resigned.

    Win win.

  15. Abu Chowdah

    Fantastic post. The kind of sophisticated policy observation that makes this site a must read.

  16. Keith

    The instrument of appointment specifies the department to which the appointment is made.
    So, change/merge/split/disband until all departments have been changed or no longer exist. Declare a spill of positions and appoint who you want. Simple

  17. Jazza

    You are so right
    The single worst mistake Ted Baillieu made on coming to office was to NOT replace a number of public servants. He is now languishing in the polls and has been thoroughly and consistently undermined since day one. it is common knowledge for insiders of both sides of politics from the failure to alert media on time to all sorts of pull backs and leaks, he has been thoroughly white-anted and that dreadful Andrews creature looks like being the beneficiary ,despite the mess , “white elephants ‘like the Desal plant and LARGE deficit left from Labor’s previous decade of “rule” in Victoria
    Fatty O Barrell I hear has even taken into the fold Qld’s kicked out pair despite all their messes left behind up there.
    Conservatives seem afraid to be fair firm and friendly but clear headed about where their best interests lie, socialist, well “anything it takes” eh Richo?

    Oh for a Campbell Newman clone for the other states!

  18. Entropy

    It isnt just high profile members of the ALP elite that get parachutes. There is the next generation. Heaps of staffers got parachuted into AO positions, theoretically secure, prior to the 2011 Qld election. The ALP underestimated Newman’s and Nichols’ ruthlessness though. They were mostly purged anyway.
    For high profile SES, gillard is taking her lesson from Bligh, who did the same thing for her husband, known in the QPS as the poison dwarf, who she had given the position of ADG to the office of climate change. He performed the role in purely political terms: nothing was let out of his department until he had a chance to vet it for purity. Which meant even monthly seasonal forecasts would not be released until the end of the month.
    So Greg was blessed with a new five year contract a few months before the election. Newman was smart about it. He made it plain Withers was going to be treated like shit until he resigned, with nothing to do once he had dismantled his empire. But the party was looking after the Blighs, and found him a senior position in the NSW arts department. How that appointment happened is a mystery (I kid), as he certainly is not renowned (I mean in a positive way) for his management skills, let alone his knowledge of the arts. How did O’Farrell let that happen?

    And there are stillALP hacks left in the QPS SES. They ones left may be hacks but they are competent hacks, so what do you do? They live on borrowed time. I know of at least one that they had internally decided to keep, but was then let go when ALP appointments of family connections made it blatantly too risky.

    Newman’s Government has so far been more interested in cutting down the QPS and treats it as the enemy and a cabel of ALP supporters. No doubt that may be true in some departments. Others thought the appointment of a Qld LNP government would be the best thing to happen for the department, particularly those that were regarded, and accused, by the ALP as being a cabel of NP supporters and always the first to be cut in previous ALP cutbacks. But they still suffered the same cuts as all the other departments..

    Disturbingly, there are already examples in the Newman Government of nepotism and appointing (poorly qualified) mates to boards. And Newman has been too slow to root it out as soon as it is detected.

  19. sfw

    Ballieu is a goose, he hopes that by giving money to artists and adopting trendy leftie positions that he will get votes from the left. The dickhead got nothing of course and only alienated the liberal base. I doubt that he will be leading the party at the next election.

    At federal level we the Libs would need to a thorough cleanout and would be very expensive in paying out contracts etc but if they want to quickly and efficiently impose their policies it will have to be done. I doubt whether they have the ticker to do it. After all in many ways it’s one big club and changing the membership can be painful for all concerned.

  20. Alfonso

    Conservative night terrors is Tony doing a Ted.
    Our Tony is a social conservative and an economic valueless welfare statist who knows the Australian bottom line is Cheyne and Karleen welded to govt cheques in the mail.
    Tony’s hesitant, guarded, stilted media performances are very bad news…..better he sends them emails.

    The first test will be Their ABC. Learned helplessness from Tone or destroy it minus a rural broadcaster?
    London to a brick a cosmetic Rotarian ‘independent’ complaints commissioner and some more useless Board members will see Tony out.

  21. JC

    I know some of you guys, if not all don’t much care for Turnbull, however he had a very interesting interview with fat Tony Jones where he let the cat out of the bag with regards to the ABC and the way they will change it.

    Even if the Libs are softcocks self preservation is a strong emotion and they know that the green/ALP/ABC will be gunning for them.

    From what I’ve heard talk within the party is that “reforming” the ABC is one of their most important policies ideas. Sure, we’re from Missouri, but I think this time they do mean business.

    Turbull basically told Jones that the ABC, especially with the rest of the media such as newspapers being rocked and brought to their knees by
    new technology is more important than it’s ever been and therefore has to be guarded to ensure impartiality. There will have to be changes, Turnbull told and intently silent fatty Jones.

    The Brandis example of attacking the herman rights commission is a great display how to get a foot in the door by putting these hotbeds of leftism on the defensive and then go after them.

    If you doubt the libs ideological resolve if not their softcockery, don’t doubt their self preservation instincts.

    There will b some pretty big changes.

  22. .

    It involved, among other things, warehousing of valued staffers in the bureaucracy, earmarking and retention of documents likely to be useful in opposition, and ways to protect the seats of talented MPs so they would be available to help Labor rebuild.

    This is downright evil.

  23. Mother Hubbard's Dog

    It is fairly obvious that both Labor and Coalition governments have made appointments of people sympathetic to their aims.

    A simple way around this would be to make all such high level appointments subject to approval by a Senate Committee, as is done in the US. While this does result sometimes in able candidates being rejected, it does result in candidates that are acceptable to both sides.

  24. Mother Hubbard's Dog

    PS the other aspect of the US system worth considering is that all such appointments end with a change of administration.

  25. Mother Hubbard's Dog

    PPS there is, however, no way around the problem that people who work for the government tend to think that government is a good thing. But politicians of all stripes tend to think the same as well.

  26. Will

    Take just one example of the Secretary of the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Blair Comley, who is very well-connected to Labor and strongly opinionated. Back in April 2012 I pondered how he would manage the blue book briefing for the Opposition – ie: covering the abolition of that department.

    Well he won’t have too. The Prime Minister has announced that Comley will be transferred to become the Secretary of the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism.

    where he can do far more damage

  27. William Bragg

    Even if the Liberals take power and abolish the department of climate change, they will – after the usual post-election cut-backs – soon find they have a need to more office space to house the extra public servants they will need to undertake the new or expanded functions they will want attended to – in response to community demands.

    So, unless the lease deal itself is a bad one, the signing of an 18 year lease for office space by the then secretary of the climate change department is hardly a big deal. And compared to the major waste associated with some government decisions – such as the Howard government decision to sign up to the $35billion JSF fiasco – it is small beer indeed.

  28. .

    The ALP have been in power since October 2007, and they have not had any input to the JSF since then?

    The buck stops with them, they have been in power for over half a decade.

  29. JC

    Fuck off Braggs. As Dot said, the Liars Party has been in power for 5 years now and they had the opportunity to change things.

    Every time you show up, you always end up with black eyes and broken limbs.

    We own you, fuckhead.

  30. Jim Rose

    Howard started this rot in 1996 culling 6 CEs or so and bring in a DPMC head from sydney. he may have had reason, maybe not.

    Rudd kept everyone in place in 2007.

  31. Entropy

    Rudd kept most in place in 2007, because Rudd still probably smarts from the label “Dr Death” given him by the QPS when he was the architect of the shafting of a whole bunch of DGs. Back then of course they had tenure, so he parked them together in a room with one phone and nothing to do except watch the lads pick up designer phrangers from the condom shop below.

  32. wreckage

    Even if the Liberals take power and abolish the department of climate change, they will – after the usual post-election cut-backs – soon find they have a need to more office space to house the extra public servants they will need to undertake the new or expanded functions they will want attended to – in response to community demands.

    Exactly why every government should enact a large PS cull, the better to facilitate the later political theatre, wherein establishment of Departments Of We Really Care A Lot form an essential expressive part of the career politician’s bizarre performance art.

  33. Louis

    The LNP have already fallen foul of this in Queensland. Too naïve to understand just how stacked the Qld PS was with Labor mates and Labor supporters.

    They have even re-appointed some Labor mates to key jobs, and now that they know they are safe they have begun going back to business as usual.

  34. .

    Rudd kept most in place in 2007, because Rudd still probably smarts from the label “Dr Death” given him by the QPS when he was the architect of the shafting of a whole bunch of DGs

    Fuck those guys. What are they gonna do? Write to their local member?

    The ALP’s biggest backers in the sense of the CFMEU, AMWU and AWU are miles apart from the little princesses in the CPSU.

  35. Samuel J

    Rudd kept most in place in 2007

    Because, for some reason, John Howard took Rudd’s advice on who to appoint as secretary in his last few years in office.

  36. Oh come on

    I thought Howard fairly ruthlessly culled a bunch of APS department heads and various bigwigs when he came to power. Of course, this perception may be a hangover from the ABC narrative that I tuned into almost exclusively at the time, being a teenage socialist who was not at all pleased with the change in government.

  37. Fisky

    I remember people hysterically claiming that Howard sacked 1/3 of all public servants, when in fact it was 1/3 of departmental heads.

    Another reason why Leftism should be banned. It simply cannot be relied on to represent reality.

  38. Maxwell's demon

    I think the national school curriculum and its social-democrat ACARA authority will have a lot more effect than the poison pills in the public service.

    For the first time in Australian history a central authority now controls what is taught in classrooms across the country, even in private schools as funding is being linked to national testing.

    Much of the curriculum is political in nature, and is designed to turn the next generation of voters into an echo chamber of social-democrat opinion.

    All the outcry about freedom of speech in Australia has missed the much bigger, more insidious threat to freedom of education and freedom of thought, which requires some diversity. Australian free thinkers have been caught sleeping on guard duty.

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