30 August 2022

'Good, solid and apolitical': Chris Johnson on why we should know the public sector better

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Chris Johnson now heads ups Region’s public sector coverage. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Chris Johnson never intended to get drawn into covering the public sector. With a long and distinguished career writing about politics behind him, an unexpected re-assignment was also a significant turning point in his career as a journalist.

He was chief political correspondent at Parliament House when a Fairfax resources merger pointed him towards the public sector. Chris was initially somewhat unwilling, but soon realised his coverage was deeper – and better informed – by understanding the people who carried out the work as well as their political masters.

The former Fairfax bureau chief has joined Region, heading our public sector coverage. He’ll dig deeply into the public service and surrounding issues, its tensions and manoeuvring.

Chris starts with a fierce loyalty to Canberra’s workers.

“Governments come and go, but the public sector is always there doing it,” he says.

“There is constant political debate, but the working government is still carried on by a good solid, apolitical public sector.

“Stories get interesting when there’s pressure from the government for the senior public servants to maybe cross that line. How they react, how the policy is processed, is really quite fascinating stuff.”

Chris says there’s been a noticeable relaxation of tension in the public service since the May election as the new government seeks to establish its legacy and differentiate itself from the weary, strife-riddled last days of the Morrison government.

“At this stage, there is a pretty secure sense that Labor is going to be in office for a little while, so you won’t see too much pressure from the government on the public sector to maybe cross boundaries, although it also depends on ministers and their personal staff,” he says.

“But the closer you get to an election where the outcome is uncertain, that’s where the public service starts feeling pressure from the government of the day because they want to look good and to be seen doing good. They want to make sure that the public servants do what they say.”

READ ALSO Public service classifications to remain untouched, for now

He believes most public servants are invested in doing their jobs well and no matter where their sympathies lie, are conscious of their responsibilities towards the public.

“I think they push back pretty well when the minister’s office is pressuring them to step out of line,” he says, adding that some appointments, like the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, will inevitably be politicised because that’s the nature of the role.

Chris won’t be pushed on who he thinks is currently doing a good job in the sector more broadly, on the grounds he is still reporting on them, but he admires the likes of Dr Heather Smith, who has just completed the APS Hierarchy and Classification Review.

He describes her as “an outstanding secretary” during her time heading the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, and before that, Communications and the Arts.

“But for me, some of the most impressive and hardworking public servants I know are the ones who aren’t necessarily in the most senior ranks of the APS with high profiles and such. But are just getting on with and achieving great things.”

He says the public service is often “not very good” at talking about itself, despite being integral to the national interest and a key part of the Canberra community.

“They worry about saying the wrong thing, they often believe they should be seen but not heard, but Region has a lot of readers and a lot of them will be public servants. I’d like to get some of those issues and stories about the things happening behind the scenes.

“I really love it that Region/Riotact doesn’t ask readers to pay for content. I especially think public servants shouldn’t have to pay to read news and analysis about them and the work they do.

“That is a very appealing aspect of this publisher and one of the many reasons why I wanted to join. No paywall. Paywalls are old school. Public servants deserve to get all their news for free.”

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Nice work Chris – I look forward to reading your inevitably constructive analyses, which no doubt will contrast with the endless denigration of public servants that we have suffered through the Coalition governments.

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