How the Australian public service really works: truth and consequences
12 Feb 2021|

‘We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.’

Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg

‘Since a politician never believes what he says, he is quite surprised to be taken at his word.’

Charles de Gaulle, President of France

All politicians battle with Juncker’s dilemma and de Gaulle’s conundrum, while bureaucrats stand back and try to help. The relationship between politicians and public servants is founded on such predicaments.

The bond between these two very different tribes is captured by a simple (and simplistic) division of functions: the job of politicians is to gain and use power; the job of public servants is to tell the truth to their masters in the service of government.

Drawing on 50 years in journalism (mostly in Canberra), ASPI’s Graeme Dobell offers his unholy trinity of how politicians use power:

  1. It’s always personal.
  2. There’s always a deal.
  3. Follow the money.

For public servants, the first two rules shift dramatically:

  1. It’s never personal.
  2. Evidence should always drive the decision.
  3. Follow the money.

Who gets the blame? One key rule of the relationship between the two classes is that ministers get the credit when policies succeed, while public servants get the blame when policies fail. Think of Paul Keating’s enduring stunt (he’s still doing it) of blaming the Reserve Bank for the 1991 recession. This is a remarkable rhetorical transfer of responsibility from a politician who always boasted that he pulled the levers.

Nevertheless, standing close to the fire, top public servants have some sympathy for the heat on their political masters.

Ministerial tribulations. Ministers have their problems, some of them genuine. It’s lonely: there are few people a minister can trust.

Prime ministers are not reliable friends, so one should not rely too much on support from the top. The backing of parliamentary colleagues is always conditional. And, as Gladys Berejiklian recently found out, you can’t rely on those you have close personal links with, either. A good principle for all politicians: ‘Your enemies you can trust because you know where they stand—it’s your friends you must watch.’ Et tu, Bruté.

One of the sharpest distillations of what ministers face is offered by the former Labor cabinet minister John Kerin:

  • Other people will always let you down.
  • You will inevitably let others down.
  • In the longer run, the best policies are the best politics, but do not tell the rank and file, the prime minister or the mob.
  • Policy analysis always beats the divining of chickens’ entrails, opinion polls or the consensus of editorials.
  • Some of the best policies are carried out by stealth.
  • The choice between seizing the moment and compromise is always vexed.
  • ‘All political careers end in failure.’ — Enoch Powell

Rather than invoking Machiavelli in support of Kerin, here’s Gough Whitlam (long after leaving parliament): ‘The punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post, whereas the nag named Self-interest always runs a good race.’

So politicians need to be resilient in Canberra and pretty tough when back in their electorates, remembering Churchill’s line that ‘the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’.

Truth and trials. Faced with these realities, what should a good public servant do? Ultimately, hold to Kerin’s principle that good policy is good politics, while noting that stealth is often part of the game.

Previous columns talked about the different kinds of power available to public servants and the line to tread between ambiguity and action. The central guide is the idea of the public servant as a truth-teller to the minister in support of good government.

Telling the truth requires a tough and delicate touch. The gold standard was set by a legendary public servant, Frederick Wheeler, arguing with Gough Whitlam. The exasperated Whitlam snapped: ‘Shut up. I’ve heard everything.’

To which Wheeler replied: ‘Prime Minister, you will listen to me. I am drawing to your attention facts, your ignorance of which will bring you down.’

Canberra legend has it that this is the expurgated version; some pithy epithets were sprinkled through the actual exchange between the PM and Treasury secretary.

Swearing at the PM takes you close to the oblivion end of frank and fearless advice. The courage to do so is a long way from the tactics suggested in a well-known piece of middle-rank public service doggerel:

If they come for you—hide.
If they find you—lie.

The highest standard calls for the public servant to stand and give truth-telling testimony. The excitement can be as much in saying an adventurous ‘yes’ to a minister as a conservative ‘no’. Wheeler, on occasion, was prepared to urge public servants to put aside their natural caution and take a broad, adventurous view to serve their masters.

Tactics, traits and trails. Bureaucrats get close to their ministers so they can serve. But they also aim to draw on the power.

Ministerial backing is vital in the endless Canberra fights for which an aura of menace is always useful. Arrogance backed by substance often wins. And when attacked, players should strike back fast. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was familiar with the Washington swamp, observed that ‘a demonstrated capacity for reprisal serves valuably as a deterrent’.

Public servants must also write, because reading is a key trait of the tribe. In the truth-telling game, one of the great protections public servants have is the scope to tell the story from their own point of view, to make some permanent marks on the trail.

In judging public servants who have argued with the minister or prime minister, always follow the paper trail. The writing matters not just for the facts that are set down and the policies advocated but for the history that is preserved. The markers that are left will be important for those who will travel similar paths in future.

While being the keeper of the documents is an ancient art, Canberra has added another dimension to chronicling duty: Senate estimates hearings.

For public servants, giving evidence to one of the eight Senate committees is a combination of public-policy testimony and performance art.

Top bureaucrats should cherish, not dread, these inquisitions, as a chance to do the truth-telling three-step. Here’s parliament’s description of the intricate triangular dance involving parliament, ministers and bureaucrats:

Ministers are accountable to the parliament for the exercise of their ministerial authority and are responsible for the public advocacy and defence of government policy. Officials are accountable to ministers for the administration of government policy and programmes. Officials’ accountability regularly takes the form of a requirement for them to provide full and accurate information to the parliament about the factual and technical background to policies and their administration.

Ministers and minders, of course, are less than amused if the officials in their department get into the habit of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to the Senate.

As mentioned, handling truth needs a touch both tough and delicate.

The art is to uphold the gold standard while upholding the minister, point to where the trash is buried, take the chance to confess to errors, and even hint at what good policy might look like.