Opinion Editorial: The Australian Public Service Deserves a Leader Who Respects It

5.25pm | July 23, 2018


The position of Merit Protection Commissioner for the Australian Public Service is not one that receives much public attention.  Despite its low profile, it plays a crucial role in ensuring integrity across the APS. It is deeply concerning that the Turnbull Government allowed the position to remain vacant for over six months.
To make matters much worse, the new Merit Protection Officer commences when her office is considering a serious allegation about the very head of the APS, John Lloyd.
Shortly before Linda Waugh took up the post of Merit Protection Commissioner, John Lloyd announced he would be resigning in August for what he says are reasons unrelated to the serious complaint he is facing.  Advice to the Senate is that the investigation cannot continue once the Commissioner leaves office, raising the very real prospect it will be abandoned without ever reaching a conclusion. We deserve better.
There are some countries, like the United States, where it is usual for senior bureaucrats to be partisan. The Australian Public Service is not supposed to be like this. Our public service may serve the government of the day but it does this by giving frank and fearless advice. The public service is a tool of government, not a tool of politics. This is how the APS has worked with governments of all persuasions over the last one hundred and seventeen years. Ministers in every one of those governments have no doubt been frustrated at times by departments giving inconvenient advice, but that is exactly what the public service is meant to do. Its purpose is to tell the government what it needs to hear, not merely what it wants.
The appointment of John Lloyd as APSC commissioner in 2014 by then Minister for the Public Service, Eric Abetz, marked a break from our public service traditions. He came into the role after time spent at the Institute for Public Affairs, a right wing think tank that has publicly denigrated the value of the APS and called for it to be slashed.
Five years later, it is now clear that this appointment was yet another failed ideological experiment by the Abbott/Turnbull Government. By appointing someone from outside the public service, the government hoped to expose its shortcomings and flaws. Instead, it actually highlighted the importance of the values and traditions of the Australian Public Service.
It seems John Lloyd was never able to put partisan leaning completely aside.  As Commissioner he oversaw the introduction of a draconian social media policy for APS employees that many felt unduly curtailed ordinary rights of political association and speech. At the same time, he was using his work email to comment on remarks in the media by the Senate opposition leader.  He spent years trying to cut the pay and conditions for public servants. At the same time, he was providing public service work product to his former employers at the IPA.
Imagine what could have been achieved with an APS Commissioner who wanted to lead the public service instead of undermine it over the last five years. Governments face challenges and opportunities as they respond to emerging technologies and the changing needs of those they serve – the Australian public. The public service can and should be at the centre of these discussions. Indeed many of these questions are likely to be considered as part of the independent review of the public service initiated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
With the Commissioner now resigning under a cloud, the government should ensure that this time the position is filled by someone who understands and supports the importance of an impartial and properly resourced public service.
It has never been more important.
This opinion piece was first published in the Canberra Times on Monday, 23 July 2018.
MONDAY, 23 JULY 2018

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