In the first days of a new government, the treatment of the public service is a useful indicator of the vision a prime minister might have for the country. John Howard didn’t even wait until he was sworn in: he immediately sacked the departmental secretaries in Immigration, Transport, Foreign Affairs, Health, Environment and Employment, Education and Training.
Scott Morrison used his first major speech to the public service to remind bureaucrats that it was not their job to guide policy. They were there to serve the minister. He described this as “the bacon and eggs principle: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed”.
Anthony Albanese’s first moves have been entirely different. He has promised he will not sack any public servants. He has left in place the heads of departments. He has promised to rebuild capacity and to cut $3 billion of spending on consultants. Reports will be drafted by people working for the Commonwealth, not PwC or KPMG. Independence will be restored.
Climate Change and the Environment will once again be its own department. Workers will once again have a Department of Employment. The ghoulish edifice of Home Affairs will be chipped away, with policing, criminal justice and protective services moved back to the Attorney-General’s Department. The Department of Health will become the Department of Health and Aged Care. The Arts will appear again on letterhead.
Most telling perhaps is the appointment of Glyn Davis to head the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Davis is a suave operator. He is smart and determined. His place at the top of the public service says: your work is important, your advice can be fearless, the pig is not the only one committed. After Phil Gaetjens, he represents a return to independence.
There is significant work to do to re-establish a serious and effective public service. Some of that has already been signalled. Possibly the leftover recommendations of the Thodey report will now be enacted. More important will be a government willing to take advice: to begin a reform agenda bigger than the one so far promised, based on the intelligence and insight of a public service ready to facilitate real action on climate change, re-engagement on foreign policy, genuine tax reform and sensible developments on health, education and aged care.
All this is still hypothetical. The Albanese government is still tentative. It is wrongly leaving the market to decide fossil fuel projects. It has already ruled out tax reforms that will be necessary for fairness. Yet it appears to be setting up a public service that might advise it to be bolder, that might help build the framework for a smarter country. Clearly, we need one.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Bacon and eggs".
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