Lords* of the universe?

Ministerial staffers &  public policy

BCA Newsroom      |     20 September 2012

The Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott has called for a debate over the role of Australia’s public service – The Conversation.

Anyone with a passing interest in public policy would have been fascinated by the speech by Jennifer Westacott (CEO Business Council of Australia) to the Institute of Public Administration Australia on 20 September.  She took the stick to the political class generally and to Ministerial staffers in particular, who she obviously thinks wield too much influence if not power.  She said she feared “that many modern politicians have lost sight of the fundamental role of the public service.  Its authority has been undermined by political gatekeepers, often with little expertise and no accountability.”  She proposed that the number of staffers be halved  and that a mandatory code prohibit them from directing public servants.

She said a “culture of intimidation and bullying” has pervaded ministerial offices in part because of the dominance of political advisers over civil servants and  observed:

 If policy making, decision making and how we set rules and regulations had reflected the standards of a high-performing public service we wouldn’t be seeing major policies unravelling before our eyes because:

  • The process was poor.
  • The architecture was wrong and was a predetermined political compromise dressed up as eonomic reform.
  • The assumption is flawed.
  • The consultation disingenuous.
  • The communication, at best, opaque.

Members of the political class struck back – wouldn’t be very political if they didn’t, would they? – with the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff emailing all staffers to salve their obviously hurt feelings.  He declared himself

….proud of the high professional standards and behaviour of our ministerial staff.  The shallow, lazy and unsubstantiated claims made …were an insult to both our colleagues and to the once high standards of evidence and policy of the BCA.

Senior government figures (would that be staffers??) said the relationship between the government and the BCA had been damaged by Westacott’s comments.

The Special Minister of State was outraged at the slur on the Public Service,at Westacott making “scapegoats of dedicated public servants with inaccurate and unfair comments” (which doesn’t actually make sense unless you accept Westacott’s primary point).

The head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and the Public Service Commissioner are being sent off to have a chat to Westacott about her claims that staffers bully public servants, to the detriment of good policy.

The defence of staffers was bipartisan, with the usual twist.  Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos, who was John Howard’s chief of staff for the best part of a decade, dismissed claims that ministerial staff bully the public service.   And Chris Kenny, a former chief of staff to Alexander Downer, echoed Tony Abbott’s point that it isn’t a problem of the number of staffers but a problem of  their quality.  The Rudd/Gillard Labor governments have tended to appoint quite

…inexperienced, young advisers who have only worked in State governments previously, put them into powerful jobs and they have thrown their weight around.

It seems that Westacott only said publicly what a lot of others have been saying privately, at least until now.  Terry Moran, only recently departed as the head of PM&C, leapt into the fray:

 I would add that the private (ministerial) offices need to include a significant number of people experienced in the business of government.  And all ministerial staff need to accept the same accountabilities as public servants, including to parliamentary committees.  Their code of conduct should be legislated and enforced, and this should prohibit political advisers from directing public servants in the performance of their duties, as Jennifer suggests.

Now do you reckon the Cardinal might not  have been making a point about his recent sojourn in Canberra?


Business declares war over ministerial staffers ‘costing us billions’

Row over Labor’s ‘bullies’ escalates

Improving public policy advice is a debate we have to have

*Lords being a non-gender specific term in this particular context


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