Coalition's pot calls Labor's kettle 'leaky'

The confected histrionics around Labor leaking Treasury costings of Coalition policy are pretty rich, given they've had plenty to do with the politicisation of the public service.

Crikey

It's a little rich for the Coalition to be complaining about the politicisation of Treasury over its "leaked" analysis of Coalition policies. In fact, to use one of the more obscure Keatingisms, they've got more front than Mark Foys.

I noted on Monday, when I discussed the origin of the document while, seemingly, everyone else was still digesting it, that this sort of thing was standard stuff: ministerial offices ask the public service to cost policies all the time and can then "leak" the results in whatever form they want, regardless of how misleading it is.

Joe Hockey (and even Peter Costello) both subsequently insisted that they had never done such an outrageous thing. That insistence has in turn subsequently been shown to be garbage by Phil Coorey and Stephen Spencer. Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson had also had a crack at Hockey in response to his letter.

The Coalition's confected outrage over the politicisation of Treasury is harder to take, though, when one considers the broader politicisation of the public service under the Howard government. That process occurred less at the individual level (contrary to what was often charged) than at a systemic level. Long-time Secretary (and Public Service Commissioner) Andrew Podger has discussed this process in detail, particularly around the shift to shorter contracts (three years, instead of five) and performance pay for secretaries (one of the things Kevin Rudd moved to eliminate as soon as he became Prime Minister).

The Howard government's emphasis on "responsiveness" and the removal or punishment (in Ken Henry's case, after he made some accurate but politically incorrect remarks about the sidelining of Treasury from public policy) of those seen as failing to be sufficiently responsive saw a series of scandals -- Children Overboard, the Solon and Rau cases in Immigration, the treatment of Dr Mohammed Haneef, the involvement of Barbara Bennett in the WorkChoices propaganda campaign, all reflecting a damaged public service culture of eagerness to fulfil, and often anticipate, the political agenda of the government.

That's why the Coalition hasn't got a leg to stand on when it moans about politicisation, particularly given Malcolm Turnbull and Eric Abetz were happy to exploit a Treasury public servant in Godwin Grech who saw his role as sabotaging a government he ideologically disagreed with.

Some senior public service figures dispute the claim of politicisation. Peter Shergold had a public row with Podger over the issue, but Shergold was still Howard's head of PM&C at the time and couldn't have brought any sort of independent perspective to the issue. But I asked Ken Henry about it in 2008 and he too disputed the characterisation of what had happened during the Howard years as "politicisation".

I was never overly fussed about politicisation. In my view, the public service was there to serve the elected government, and elected politicians had a far keener and informed insight of the public interest than I ever would. In any event, regardless of whether they did or not, they were elected, and public servants weren't, so that settled the matter, although the formal rules of the service and the Code of Conduct always needed to be obeyed.

Such a view wasn't widely-shared within the public service, but nearly all officials took the view that they were obligated to serve the government of the day with diligence and professionalism regardless of whatever personal views they had of policy.

Into the issue today waded Judith Sloan, eager to whip along the outrage. Sloan has previously accused the Treasury of partisanship, and had another go today, claiming Treasury's reputation had been damaged. Why its reputation would be damaged for something that happened as much under the Liberals as under this government Sloan didn't explain.

We also got Sloan's prescription. "What clearly emerges from this episode is the need for tighter guidelines to ensure that ministers do not make inappropriate requests of public servants ... And, in turn, there need to be guidelines that public servants can use to politely decline inappropriate requests from ministers."

It's unclear how far Sloan's term "inappropriate" would go, given public servants are already prohibited from undertaking work that is political in nature. But she forgets that ministers are part of an elected government. Voters have put ministers into their jobs, and ministers can use the public servants at their disposal as they wish, as long as it is not for partisan purposes. Governments have a right to ask public servants for whatever policy advice they think necessary.

It's not for public servants to be deciding what advice is "inappropriate" and what isn't. No one elected them. Governments should be allowed to govern as they see fit. And if voters don't like it, they can turf them out.

This article was first published on Crikey. Reproduced with permission.