The dismissal of three departmental secretaries by the Abbott administration has resulted in predictable outrage among the Canberra set. Former Public Service Commissioner, Andrew Podger, said
It’s not a good look but it’s not as bad as in 1996 … It’s hard not to speculate that they get into trouble because of the jobs they were given, which were politically sensitive, but they were doing what the government asked of them.
No one would bat an eyebrow if a new company owner decided to dismiss the CEO. As I have noted previously, there are immense powers vested in the departmental secretary by the Public Service Act 1999. Most significantly, the Act gives a secretary the power of patronage in his or her department – loyalty of public servants keen on a promotion therefore lies with the Secretary, not the Minister.
In February I expressed concern about the former government stacking the public service, in particular
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.
Secretaries are not appointed by merit, but by patronage. Sure, a government would be silly to appoint an incompetent secretary. But they will most certainly appoint a secretary considered to be sympathetic to the Government’s philosophy and aims and who is known to be ‘sound’. Governments have come awry when they have appointed unsound departmental secretaries.
So when there is a change of government, a number of the secretaries will continue to show loyalty to the previous administration. Some secretaries have proven not only their competence but their genuine impartiality. A sensible government will not dismiss such secretaries. But I suspect they are a minority – one who I think is genuinely impartial is Ian Watt.
A Government will reasonably want departmental secretaries to be not only outstanding but also sympathetic to the Government’s policies. Those secretaries who have benefited from the patronage of the previous administration are frequently not clearly superior to other potential appointees.
Given the powers vested in departmental secretaries it would be irresponsible for a government to just accept – without review – those secretaries it inherits. The Abbott Government has perhaps not been firm enough in stamping its authority early. With the loyalty of departmental officials going to the secretary, it is imperative that the government has in place secretaries who genuinely work in the interests of the Coalition Government.