By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra
The Australian public service is less well-placed that previously to offer expert advice, according to former minister Fred Chaney.
Chaney said that public service reforms had actually weakened the capacity of the APS to offer frank and fearless advice rooted in deep knowledge and experience, and to carry out efficiently government policy decisions.
Speaking to the Menzies Foundation in Melbourne Chaney, who served in the Fraser government in the Administrative Services, Aboriginal Affairs and Social Security portfolios, said the APS now encouraged generalists with a high level of mobility across the service.
When he had been a minister 35 years ago he had been serviced by departments with deep knowledge and understanding of their policy areas.
“In Aboriginal Affairs and Social Security there were long-serving officers capable of giving me frank and fearless advice based not on politics but on deep knowledge and experience.
“This ensured that, however green the minister, he or she could rely on the accumulated knowledge and expertise of departmental advisers.
“The minister might still make mistakes but could avoid doing so out of ignorance.”
Chaney said there were many factors in the changes, including public service reforms brought in by former Labor minister John Dawkins and the rise of political staffers in ministers’ offices.
“But we are a long way from the (possibly apocryphal) tale of Menzies being queried about the appointment of a weak minister and his response, ‘yes, but he has an excellent departmental head’”.
Chaney said that the departments for which he had responsibility had “many officers of Labor persuasion.
“Never once did I feel less well or less loyally served for that.”
He recounted an effort he had made five years ago to get public service and political interest in the matter of the governance of governments in remote Australia.
“Approaches to Treasury and Regional Affairs departments resulted in advice that departments were no longer structured to examine such long-term issues.
“More recently, when I came across an outstanding research project demonstrating how to hugely improve capacity to deliver age and disability services in remote communities and made inquiries about how to embed this knowledge in the relevant department, I was advised that the sort of core knowledge-containing structures I had enjoyed as a minister no longer exist in the APS”.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.