It was only a short part of his speech, but Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary Phil Gaetjens’ vehement rejection at the Institute of Public Administration end of year event last week of claims that the Australian Public Service has become politicised grabbed the headlines.
He did not name Senator Rex Patrick, who has been battling the Morrison Government to release details of National Cabinet minutes.
Nor did he name the public servant who was the target of Senator Patrick’s ire for deciding the government didn’t have to, despite an Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision that National Cabinet was not covered by the same secrecy rules as Federal Cabinet.
He accused people such as Senator Patrick of undermining the public confidence in the APS through personal attacks on public servants and accusations of politicisation.
“I have always tried to put the systems in place or institutionalise things that make the public service stronger, that support the values of the APS and empower us as public servants to give frank advice within a respectful workplace,” he told the IPAA event in Canberra.
“Collectively and individually, we should always call out behaviours which undercut these values … I will always call out the inaccuracies of these types of comments and reiterate the importance of our impartial and committed public service.”
Mr Gaetjens said he and Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott had written to the Senate President about Senator Patrick’s claims and attacks on Angie McKenzie, a Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet FOI official.
My Public Sector
The AAT had found that the National Cabinet was not a subcommittee of the federal cabinet. In contrast, Ms McKenzie found that it was for the purposes of freedom-of-information laws.
Unfortunately, while the year in many ways has been a triumph for the public service in how it has responded to the pandemic, other aspects have been allowed to overshadow that achievement.
The sports and car park grants scandals, so ably laid out in reports from the Auditor-General, showed how public servants either were enablers or looked the other way when the Morrison Government so cynically debauched the grants system to use taxpayers’ money to fund election pork barrelling in Coalition seats.
They prompted Auditor-General Grant Hehir to warn public servants that he would be raising the performance bar by injecting ethics into future audits.
In his foreword to the Australian National Audit Office’s annual report for 2020-21, he flagged that the ANAO would place a greater emphasis on whether public servants’ decisions met ethical standards.
He said public sector leaders were legally required to govern their entities in a way that promoted the proper use and management of public resources, defined under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act as “efficient, effective, economical and ethical”.
“The importance of ethics in the use of resources has been highlighted in several audits, particularly relating to procurement and grants administration,” Mr Hehir said.
“I believe that greater scrutiny in this area will help ensure that the public sector continues to look beyond technical compliance and focuses on operating in line with community expectations of integrity and honesty.”
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Mr Gaetjens also had the chutzpah to list the government’s belated and increasingly hollow-looking commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 as a public service achievement.
Calling the move historic, he praised the enormous effort within the Industry, Science, Energy and Resources portfolio and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, along with others in the APS and beyond, “to enable Australia to shift from a decade-long caustic climate debate to tangible action and quantified goals”.
That compels the question of where the APS’s frank and fearless advice has been all this time, and how it could have contributed to a policy so full of holes that even the business and farm lobby are lining up behind the Opposition’s approach.
Mr Gaetjens also praised APS capability and the current reform program to build in-house skills and knowledge, despite the government’s increasing bill for work done by private sector consultancies.
Then there is the stonewalling at Senate estimates by senior public servants who appear hell-bent on covering for the government.
Mr Gaetjens himself was the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff for three years and can’t seem to escape his reputation as a political fixer.
He is right. The APS has had a big year, and overall, no one can doubt its commitment to serving the nation and endeavouring to live up to the values of the service.
It’s a shame these shadows persist, and that must be sheeted home to a government that refuses to be accountable and, in the process, compromises public servants and erodes the very culture that Mr Gaetjens so vigorously defends.