Speech by Senator the Hon Amanda Vanstone

100 Years of the Public Service

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to today’s National Press Club Telstra address. We are very pleased to have Amanda Vanstone back today. This year of the Centenary of Federation, of course, brings quite a number of other Centenaries in its wake. You have already seen the Army celebrating its Centenary, and this week, the Commonwealth Public Service. There has been a couple of notable events which I notice one was referred to in the media as a politician-free event for the other night, which obviously provoked a great deal of mirth when the paid entertainer was upstaged by a professional public servant who apparently did not even write his own material, he took it straight out of the archives.

But today, to mark this week celebrating the Centenary of the public service, Senator Vanstone, who is also, of course, Minister for Family and Community Services, has decided to deliver to you an address called, Mandarins, pineapples and lemons: The good, the bad and the ugly, 100 years of the Australian Public Service. Please welcome Senator Vanstone.

SENATOR VANSTONE: Thank you very much for the welcome and thank you to the IPAA for the opportunity to play a part in the week of celebrations of the Centenary of the Australian Public Service. The IPAA is obviously quite a smart organisation because they have placed me somewhere between a Prime Ministerial oration, and a quiz night, and this is probably quite appropriate.

The topic I mean to cover is the relationship between ministers and the public service. I have had some experience. In the time we have been in government, I have had three portfolios. Two of them Cabinet ones working with a junior minister and one as a junior minister, working with a Cabinet minister. And boy, have I got some stories to tell. But not today, that’s for another time.

It is not the Crossman diary experience: I’m not a diary keeper. I do not need to be. Where it affects me, I have an acutely sensitive and accurate memory. But today is not the time to draw on that. The general message that I would want to convey from a minister to the public service is how well you do serve the public; and you serve them well when you serve us well.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. But generally, the Australian public is extremely well served by the Australian Public Service.

I should say at the outset, that I have always tried to do the right thing by the public service, to defend them and to promote the excellent work they do. And I think I can say, that I have never let a public servant down. I wish I could say the same in reverse. But I cannot. Nonetheless, those few exceptions to the rule are very few. I want to repeat that I think the Australian Public Service serves any government of the day extremely well and therefore, serves the Australian public extremely well.

So, for all the pollie jokes that public servants tell behind our backs and that the public tell us to our face, and for all the public service jokes that we tell behind their backs, and the public tell everybody to their face, together, somehow, we work it out and we do collectively serve the public well.

Even when we are not in government – and even when I might personally have a deep suspicion that the public may have made the wrong choice – the facts are, they never have. They make the choice they want and that is the right choice. It always is. The job for politicians is to understand why.

So, in this five and a bit years, I have worked with the greater and lesser mandarins in the SES. I have accommodated some pineapples in various ways that have been sent my way. It is not always attractive or comfortable and I have seen them from every direction and I have endured a few sour lemons. And, still, after that, I come out with an enormous plus for the public service.

Go to whatever galaxy you like; go to the mining industry; go to education; go to the retail industry; go to parliamentarians; go to the public service. In any of those galaxies, you will find some stars; you will find some dead planets and inevitably, some space junk. You just have to take the world as it is.

I think the public service might like, might like privately, the Plato model because the people with the knowledge in the Plato model, or with the wisdom, will rule the world. Plato, of course, made the fatal mistake of believing that knowledge equated with wisdom. It does not. Aristotle’s model is much better and I will give you my version of Aristotle’s model which goes like this. You can travel the world and you can buy the best shoe leathers possible; and you can travel the world and you can get the most knowledgeable shoe designer who is breathing life and you can travel the world and you can find the most knowledgeable shoemaker. You can put all that knowledge and experience together, but it is only the person who wears the shoes who can tell you whether they pinch.

That is the situation that the public service finds itself in, in working with Parliamentarians, or with ministers, because we bring to the knowledge, the will of the people, the views of the people. Public servants might think that should be different. The relationship is not one of master and servant. We constantly read this, that the public service is there to serve the government of the day, and in one sense that is true. But in reality, it is much closer to a partnership. No public servant, in my view, should ever do things simply at the instruction of the government. What I mean by that is if a government wanted to do something that was corrupt, or if a minister wanted to do something that was corrupt, I think taxpayers, other Australians, would support a public service that refused such an instruction. So clearly, there are limits to this master-servant business. It is not a perfect partnership, but it is more akin to a partnership than a master-servant relationship.

Now, in this semi-partnership, every three years, we go to the voters and we say, “How does the shoe feel? We’ve got all these bright people working together and we, the politicians, are the intermediary between you and these knowledgeable people and we’ve put together the packages that we think are good for you. How does it feel?” And when you lose office, it means the public have said, “It pinches, it pinches like hell and we don’t want you anymore. You’re going.”

The extraordinary thing is only one-half of the partnership goes. The public service stays. So, all the knowledge and advice that is offered, can be as good as it can be. It can be rejected by the public and the public service gets to stay. Now, there is a good reason for that. They give a degree of continuity – and I will come back to that point – not because they are particularly special or fabulous, although there are plenty that are. But because there is a public interest in having a degree of continuity. A degree of expertise in each sector of policy, and a degree of corporate knowledge.

The ministers pay the price for being in the middle. But more importantly, they pay the price for being the ultimate decision maker. I am sure some public servants think, “Humph, that’s what you think.” We govern the decisions you make by the advice we give you. And that is true if a minister is simply prepared to accept the advice that is offered. But if a minister is prepared to push and argue, they have got the right to do that. If they do not, that’s their choice as ministers to take the public service advice.

So, ministers get the opportunity to make the final decision. They pay the price of being the ones who goes if the public does not like the decision that is made. But the politicians need the public service to inform their choices, and it is through that, that the public service has this extraordinary degree of power. And that is why the relationship is so intriguing. It is why it is so dynamic and so important. It is why the Yes, Minister program sells so well, because people want to understand this relationship. We know that they are caricatures of the relationship. I am sure they are. I mean, do we really have a secretary in this place, I do not mean here, but in Canberra, who is manipulative? Who is concerned for their own position? Who is concerned for the importance of their department above all others? Who is concerned to cover their own back and the back of their departmental officials before they look after the minister? Surely, not. That cannot be the case.

Now, this show, despite the fact that it is not right on the button, has been on a couple of occasions, particularly useful to me. I worked with one secretary who used to frequently say, “Oh, it’s not your job to manage the department.” And did not like it when the response was, “Well, if you won’t, I’ll have to.” It is usually followed by, “She’s not meant to say that.”

On one occasion, having worked with the stereotype of a “disaster waiting to happen” – and I will come back to that too – I made the point that this person was a “disaster waiting to happen”. I was not prepared to wear another one. This person would have to go somewhere, but somewhere that I had no dealings with. And that is when he said, “You cannot manage the department”. I replied, “Well, if you don’t, I will.”

So, what was I going to do about this? I thought, right, do you remember the episode where Hacker was getting too much correspondence? And it was actually his wife that said, “I know how to fix it. Tell him you won’t sign anything unless Humphrey has signed off on it”. So, I said to the relevant secretary, “Fine, you keep this person wherever you damn well like, so long as every bit of paper that comes up from them, is signed off by you”. He said, “What?” I said, “You’ve just heard me, you put them wherever you want. You take responsibility for managing the department; you sign off on everything that comes up from that person”. “I couldn’t do that”. “Why not?” “Oh, I wouldn’t have time to check it all”. I said, “Well, there you are. You want me to take this person’s advice. You haven’t got the time to check it and I damn well haven’t got the time to check it, and you won’t put your job on the line over it”.

Off to filing cabinets the next day.

But it was only because of the Yes, Minister program that I had this handy little trick up my sleeve.

Now, we know it’s a caricature, or do we? We know that British secretaries are more polite than Australian ones. I am sure I never heard – well, I heard Sir Humphrey perhaps give the occasional bit of frank and fearless advice, but never accompanied by other Fs. And by Tony Ayers’ own admission he once said to Malcolm Fraser, “I’m not going to tell you what you effing want to hear, I’m paid to tell you what you effing ought to hear”. And perhaps that is right. I never heard that word used on the program. It has never been used by a secretary to me. Not to my face.

That leads to the question of what is good advice? What really is good advice? We often have senior public servants and senior retired public servants tell us they are not paid to tell us what we want to hear. Not just what the minister wants to hear. And the appropriate response to that is, “Yes, and you’re not paid to tell me just what you want me to hear either”. It shouldn’t be like that, this relationship is meant to be finding the best solution. Not just what I want as minister, what the department or the agency wants, but some choices.

So, I think I can help you. There are three types of advice. There is the bullying, manipulative advice. There is the coward’s advice, and there is the professional advice. Now, the bullying, manipulative advice does not give you much in the way of an option – and one day I had a dead giveaway. Accidentally, some one left a glide-on clip with a note on the file which was an instruction from a senior public servant to the drafter of the advice as to what they should say. I have still got a copy of it and it makes it pretty damn clear what the person drafting the advice should say and that no option should be left. That basically – he does not put it in these terms – I would be at risk if I went another way because there would be clear advice, this was the way to go. I think that is just bullying and manipulative.

The coward’s advice says, “On the one hand there is this”, and a few arguments here and there and “On the one hand there’s that and it is your decision, you choose”. That person opts out of the partnership. That person says, “You choose. If it goes wrong, it is your choice. If it goes really well, I will modestly step forward and accept the praise”. That is how Bill Hayden described the situation – it is the “heads I win, tails you lose”. No risk for the public service. That is a coward’s advice.

Professional advice is advice that really does give you a range of options and argues within each option, the pros and cons of that option. Not just the pros of one option versus the pros of another. Within each option, argue the pros and cons. And then, stand behind it as a professional public servant, rank them in priority, and give the reasons for your priority and then have it out in a frank and fearless way with the minister. The professional, of course, recognises that we are both in this boat together. That we are both accountable. Governments get tipped into opposition, the public service is accountable through that champion of democracy – you would expect me to say this – the Senate.

There had to be some very hard work to get those Senate committees, to drag public servants out of anonymity, to answer to parliament for decisions that have been made. Then Sir Lennox Hewitt tried to attack the Senate’s budget powers. Then Sir Geoffrey Yeend did not want freedom of information. But really, the Senate is there to protect, not only the people, but the good public servants. If a public servant is a good public servant, the Senate will be the Service’s greatest protector and a sister in getting to the appropriate solution. I am told that Sir Fredrick Wheeler played a tremendous role in stopping the Whitlam government from some proposed and improper loans. But, without the Senate committee system and without the Senate’s powers there, his efforts may have come to very little.

Now, if we get to the question of accountability, there are a few things I would like to say. There was once an occasion where the “disaster waiting to happen” eventually happened and I said to the relevant person, “Who is responsible for this”? I do not know if any of you have ever asked that you never get a name. Never. And what was I told? “Well, I will take responsibility”. I said, “Really, how do you do that?”. “I’m being bagged witlessly daily in the papers. I’m paying the political price, what price are you paying?” “Well, I’m accepting personal responsibility”. It is just as easy as that. You do not have to go to confession, you do not have to do anything. You just say, “Yep, I got it wrong, sorry. Bygones, start again tomorrow”.

I think one of the worrying trends in relation to accountability, is the growth of independent agencies. These are the agencies that, like Customs which is not a new independent agency, have responsibility for decision making, but ministers get to wear it when things go wrong and do not have much of a hand in how those agencies can be run. There is a proper place for such agencies, and Customs would be one very good example of an agency that serves Australia extremely well. And, I am sure, I do not mean to pick them out above all others, simply, I have had experience of them, and as an independent agency, I think the relationship with any government would work extremely well.

But, nonetheless, the concept of moving away from the public service somehow not being accountable in the same way, is, I think, a worrying trend. I am sure that Senators in the next decade or so, of either political persuasion, will be focusing their mind to these particular agencies. That is when it is convenient for them to come – I do not mean Customs and the federal police and people like that – but others when they say, “It is not convenient for us to come to Estimates that day; not convenient for us to send these people. Yes, you can fund us, yes, you can bankroll us, but it is not convenient for us to be accountable on that day”.

I think the important thing for the public service to remember and for ministers to remember equally, is that accountability is being strengthened all the time and that for those who choose in one way or another to misuse the power they have got – whether it is over dollars, or people, or activities – it does not matter. There is a diminishing number of places in which you can hide the files. Just shutting up about it will no longer do. Inevitably, you will be outed and the Senate, if no-one else, will do the job.

I do not want to exclude there, the role of the Auditor-General, but, I just make the comment that I have personally been in the situation where there have been mistakes and where under the Westminster system, the minister does take responsibility. Later, I do not know how many months later – an Auditor-General’s report comes out that you could use as a doorstop, that nobody reads but basically indicates the minister knew nothing about it. It was not the minister’s fault and I am sure those in the public service take it home and pop it under their bed and sleep happily.

In any event, I do not raise the accountability issue as any doubt about the accountability of the public service. Parliamentarians now have all the power they need to make the executive and the public service accountable. All they have to question is whether they are prepared to use it. All the power parliamentarians need is absolutely there. They do not need more power to make the public service or anyone more accountable. The powers are there. What they need is the stomach to use them.

Now, I would just like to touch on a couple of points about politicisation of the public service. This is a great shock to me. When I arrived into government, I had spent something like eight years in the Liberal Party, convincing them they needed me. I still have to remind them every now and again at a pre-selection. I might not look like a traditional Liberal, but I am. And then some 12, or 13 years in opposition and finally, the great prize, Government and a $10 billion black hole to fill. Not quite as exciting at the time as people thought it might be. A few secretaries, when we came to government, were not reappointed and I do not say that in a disparaging sense. But, that is what it was, just a few were not reappointed. And the price this government had to pay, has been quite considerable in terms of the criticism of politicising the public service.

Now, where do we get off when a few secretaries are entitled through others to claim – or through their agents are entitled to claim – that because they have not had their appointments renewed – because a government of the day decides others could serve them better. Where do people get off assuming that because of that, you can claim that a government is politicising the public service? And the reason I was startled by that, is I know the public service numbers started to dwindle dramatically under Labor. I said, “What’s going on here, if anyone has had a go at the public service in the first instance, it would be the previous Labor government”. And for those members of the SES, who effectively lost their tenure, effectively, because you can always re-arrange, re-juggle departments and have a complete spill. That was under Labor legislation and quite specifically pointed out at the time that the government needed to have more control over the advice that it was receiving. And yet, because a few secretaries are not reappointed, it is us – who were in opposition at the time – who are criticised.

But Labor has always been suspicious of the public service. They came in 1972 and as Alan Renouf pointed out, did not use the public service in the beginning much at all. It used ad hoc recruits and Labor Party appointees. Now, just look at my example, when I came to government, the government is accused of politicising the public service and I walk into my ministerial office and I meet my secretary who is a former chief of staff of a former Labor Prime Minister and then I am introduced to the dep secs and there is another one and she has just come out of the Prime Minister Keating’s office, ever so conveniently, just a few weeks before the election loss. And these are the people telling me and my colleagues that the public service has been politicised. I do not think so. I do not think so at all.

Now, having said that, I was told by a number of people, plenty when I first was appointed to education and employment, one person was singled out, a first assistant secretary, I think, “You’ll have to get rid of him, he’s a Labor person”. As if it was some sort of disease I might catch. I don’t think so. Fortunately, I have a habit of judging people on their merit and I can assure you, that moving into a portfolio like DEETYA, finding a quarter of the government’s savings in that first budget, a quarter from that portfolio if there was one person whose advice I could absolutely and always rely on, it was that Labor person. Absolutely. I do not say that I could not rely on others, I simply say, the one I knew was always telling me the truth, always giving me the maximum options, was the Labor person – openly Labor, he told me he was Labor, no secret about this bloke – just a straight out professional. And I am sorry, I think the public service should be sorry, that he has left the public service. I am sure he would have been the most senior mandarin eventually.

So, I thought I might conclude by sharing a few things that annoy the hell out ministers in an effort to improve the relationship. I think the relationship is not bad, but it can always be improved. Do you know there are some public servants, I am sure that are there, who at night-time read their kids a story and it goes like this, “Scintillate scintillate aerial vervific, Fain would I fathom thy nature specific, Cast as thou art in ether carpacious, Strongly resembling a gem carbonacious”. They then walk out of the room and shut the door quietly knowing that the little one is going to sleep and will eventually enter the public service and be perfect at obfuscating.

Normal people say, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are, high above the sky so bright, like a diamond in the night.” So, I constantly have this argument with departments, “Can’t you speak plain English? Couldn’t you talk as you would in the front bar of a pub (what a front part of a public), couldn’t you just say what you mean? I won’t think less of you because you say what you mean.” Quite the opposite. And then I find an email has been distributed in the department, “Senator Vanstone says she likes the briefs to be written in simple every day language”. “That is good, yes, they’ve cottoned on”. Hold on, what’s the next bit? “The sort of language she can understand and use easily”. I do not think the simplicity message got through.

The ‘brief’ however, did get through to Customs. It certainly did get through to Customs. I was going one day to welcome some new puppies, they had been born because we had new bloodlines. We had had some bloodlines coming over from the United Kingdom from the Queen’s puppies. Sandringham Topper in particular, was this dog’s name. The brood bitch was a Victorian bred Customs dog called, Ruby. The press release said something like, “The new pups were bred using frozen semen donated by the Queen”. I am a Republican, born Republican, but I do not think it is the Queen’s fault that we are not a Republic, it is not her fault at all, it is ours. But my Republican friends and colleagues were saying, “Do it, do it. This is great”. And we changed the release, there were shorter words, we used longer ones. “The new pups were bred using frozen semen provided by the Queen’s retriever to assist Australian Customs, world leading detector dog breeding program.” Now, it might be longer and on this one occasion I said, “Longer is better”.

In conclusion, I worked with, I think, every type of public servant that you can. I have worked with the boffins, described to me by another public servant, as those who are likely to say, “That’s all very well in practice, but how does it go in theory?” I am told it is especially found in DOFA, which is not to be called DOFA anymore, for a variety of reasons, best not said here. It is now to be called Finance. But I have worked with those people.

I have worked with the missionaries, the people who could not work anywhere else but the public service because it allows them to work on their niche interests and if your are following their niche interests, good luck to you, they will pour information into you and be hugely useful. If you do not like their niche interest, do not try and work with them terribly quickly, because it will not happen.

I’ve worked with the careerists. You can spot the careerist, they are like the hang gliders that you see on a cliff face and they can smell warm air and an upward current, like a carrion eater that can smell flesh. So, if they think you are doing well, they will help you every inch of the way. But if there is a warmer current, well, you have got to fly, don’t you? You have got to look after your career.

Then there is the “accident waiting to happen”. Oh, I have told you about them. They are the people who have an extremely high blink rate and they give you a different answer to the same question, sometimes within the same minute or two. They are accidents waiting to happen. I can spot them a mile off. Sadly, some departmental secretaries cannot.

Then there is the comfort zone cruiser. Now, look, there are a few of these, they have got a nice office, they have a bit of travel here and there and they do not really need to contribute a lot. They are relaxed. I think some of them are incapable of doing a full day’s work and I think there is a real problem that the public service does not do something about them. You do not shift them around and get them out of their comfort zone. Ministers are chucked out of comfort zones, from one portfolio to another with, you know, regularity, in my case. And I do not see why public servants should be allowed to sit in a comfort zone.

Worse, of course, this is the product of the public service protections. They are there. I do not have the figures because I was too embarrassed to get them, of how many times people have been removed from the public service for incompetence and I do not think they are very high and I am sure, if you did it on a ratio to the private sector, it would be embarrassingly small. There is no reason for good public servants, tremendous public servants, like the vast majority of the people that I have worked with, to have to carry the load for duds.

So, if I had a message to the public service, it would be the same as I try and give to my party, “Look, duds don’t get you anywhere, you’ve really got to find a way to get rid of them”.

And then, of course, I have worked with the professionals, the people that can offer you the tremendous advice that really is professional. They may have another political view than yours, but they know their stuff, they give you the choices and they are always there to help.

So, in summary, I think the Australian Public Service does a tremendous job. The relationship it has with its ministers, I think, is pretty good. But for those of you – actually it is damn good – who saw the movie, As Good as it Gets, you might remember the first smooch on the way to the bakery, he has a go at the first smooch, he does not think it is too good. He says, “Damn, I’m sure I could do better than that.” And I’m sure we can too.

Thanks very much.