Trust In Thy Leader: Is 'Washminster' Apt for the Australian Public Service?

Charlie Shandil

Charlie Shandil is a student of the Master of Public Administration programme at the Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis

The Australian federal system stems from the federation of Australia, where the six British-governed states united to become the Commonwealth of Australia. Since then, governments have listed deeply on the direction of things British, including the academic interpretation of the Australian government and its likeness to the Westminster system.

 “The Westminster system is all things to all people – that depends on whom you are asking to define it” (Sir Geoffrey John Yeend AC CBE)

According to Scott & Baehler (2010), ‘The traditional Westminster advisory system is based on the idea that governments will be served best by a permanent cadre of advisers whose expertise, institutional memory and wisdom about policy is developed over years’. The Westminster system assumes that public servants hold the internal capacity to provide sound support to Ministers who will be responsive to that advice. Furthermore, the intent of this relationship is to generate a flow of policy advice between the bureaucracy and Ministers that is based on factual and historical data.

The apparatus of the Westminster system forces a direct relationship between Ministers and senior bureaucrats. This is dissimilar to the American system where departmental heads may change when a government changes, as the Westminster system allows for a public servant to remain in their positions throughout successive governments. It is with this premise, then, that the discourse of trust is born. However, while it would be pragmatic to assume that policy-making is based on empirical and historical data held by a government department, the rise (and rise) of ministerial advisers and interests groups questions this.

In 1854 the House of Commons released the Northcote-Trevelyan Report setting the standards for an apolitical and professional civil service in Britain, which was later adapted into the Australian system. However, while these principles are based on merit and political neutrality, the Westminster system itself forces politics and policy to be fused: by virtue of a Minister’s term being interim, the drive for policy-making is made with popularity payoffs in mind. At a Senior Executive Service conference in 2004 Andrew Podger advised:

“The relationship between the administrative and political arms of Government is always a contentious issue, particularly in an election year and after a Government has been in power for several terms. Accusations of excessive responsiveness, or politicisation, or of a 'cowed' Public Service, tend to arise in line with political cycles: new Governments are suspicious of the Public Service …In an election climate, these suspicions tend to get a higher political profile, and the normal bureaucratic response is to keep our heads down”.

However, while this rise of ministerial advisers and partisan interest groups sheds light into the apolitical nature of policy advice within the Westminster system, it is not prudent to interchange the British and Australian systems as both are quite distinct: Federalism, separation of powers, a formal constitution, etc. Thus, in assessing the Australian system, the Australian adaption of the Westminster system (or ‘Washminster’) itself does not provide scope for apolitical ‘frank and fearless’ advice.

Firstly, to deem the Australian system as ‘responsible government’ is misleading, as the principle of parliamentary accountability is subject to politicisation. Second, the Australian system assumes the ‘separation of powers’ with the lower, upper and judicial arms; however the power of appointment by the lower house contests the scope of an apolitical framework. While judicial independence is fundamental to underpinning Australia’s democratic freedoms, the fact that the process requires the Prime Minister of the day to sign off on the appointment of a judge renders the process partisan. Third, this level of politicisation is also witnessed within the Senate. Traditionally, the role of a Senator is to represent his or her state and to provide an additional level of ‘checks and balances’ on legislation within the upper house. However, Senators have become party-aligned pushing the agenda of the government or opposition. Lastly, the Australian system does not easily allow the altering of the constitution; this puts limits on the powers of central and state governments, and the lower house. As a consequence, these limits result in political disputes normally argued within the political domain, to be judged under the rule of law.

Thus, as the politicisation of each arm of government has been witnessed through time, it is not farfetched to comprehend how this can also be the case for the bureaucracy. The Australian bureaucracy is underpinned by the values of impartiality, using evidence and history to provide advice to the government of the day. However, just as the two arms of the government are in debt to their appointers, the senior bureaucracy too sits on a similar appointment scheme: Ambassadors – Amanda Vanstone, Alexander Downer, Kim Beazley – and Secretaries – Peter Shergold, John Fraser, Michael Thawley, to name a few.

As the bureaucracy moves towards a more politicised state, it is resulting in a decline in trust between the APS and its ministers directly affecting policy capacity. Thus, is it now time to consider a new construct for the APS? With the promotion of the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the current opposition leader, Bill Shorten, Australia sits in a unique position as the leaders of both major parties party to the republican movement. If the nation moves towards a ‘Republic of Australia’, is it also time to allow the APS to move into a construct that puts it on an equal playing field against ministerial advisors, partisan think tanks and lobby groups, rather than hiding behind apolitical smoke and mirrors. Additionally, will a politicised APS enable closer collaborations with not only partisan group, but also specialists and academics to work with empirical evidence towards a common goal? Thus, rather than competing for the ear of the minister, this may provide an opportunity for the bureaucracy to move back to the days of the old Mandarin: when advice was frank and fearless, and considered above all others.

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