Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Integrity and the public service: the case for some mass sackings

I normally try and minimise my watching of the tv news, but I have to admit to being riveted by 'Utegate'.

The story so far

For the benefit of overseas readers, let me briefly recap. Back when he was an MP, a car dealer in his constituency, a Mr Grant, donated to Mr Rudd, now the Australian Prime Minister, a motor vehicle (colloquially a Ute, or Utility vehicle) to use during an election campaign.

Now, several years later with the financial collapse, the Government started helping car dealers find prop up finance - and the car dealer applied for help. Claims were made that both the Treasurer's Office and the Prime Minister's put inappropriate pressure - supposedly documented in an email - on both public servants and the finance company involved to help the guy who donated the Ute.

On the back of the supposed email, and subsequent emotional testimony given by the public servant, Mr Godwin Grech, who managed the financial bailout scheme, the Leader of the Opposition called for the resignation of the Treasurer and the Prime Minister.

Both the PM and the Treasurer denied any wrongdoing - the PM claimed never to have directly intervened, while the Treasurer claimed that the level of lobbying on behalf of the car dealer was the same as for many others. And in any case, the guy didn't end up getting any money out of the process.

Turns out the PM and Treasurer were correct - the claimed email was a fake, almost certainly concocted by someone in the Department of the Treasury, and the public servant running the scheme is under serious investigation by the Federal Police (who found the fake email at his home). And the Treasurer has tabled evidence that shows several other car dealers got much more assistance than the one concerned here. Moreover the claim of special treatment rests largely on the evidence of the now highly suspect Godwin Grech.

So now the position of the leader of the Opposition, Mr Turnbull, is looking pretty sick. Particularly as the suspicion must be that the Opposition had a role in concocting the email in the first place. If that proves to be the case, it's pretty alarming.

But the other issue in my view, is the role of the public service in all this.

The implications for the Public Service

One of the bulwark's of the Australian system is the neutrality of the Public Service - the idea that they are there to serve the elected Government of the day.

So it is pretty sad to see senior Treasury officials suspected of concocting fake emails designed to implicate the Prime Minister and his Office in improper behaviour.

The theory

In the US, senior officials are appointed by the Executive. In Australia, following the Westminster system, they are supposedly appointed on merit and required to give their best advice and action regardless of their personal views.

But perhaps the time has finally come to acknowledge that we do in fact have a Washminster system, not a Westminster one, and for Labor to clean out those in the Public Service who are white anting the Government and actively attempting to bring it down.

The neutrality of the Australian Public Service has always been more theory than reality. How many politicians down the years, with greater or lesser amounts of evidence to support the claim, have claimed that their public servants have been out to get them?

We all know in practice of course that people come with their own opinions and approaches. We all laughed at the ongoing battle between the bureaucrats and Ministers in Yes Minister for example, and suspected that there might be more than an element of truth in it in our own system.

And there are some pretty famous cases where public servants have seemly been pressured to deliver on policies they know are ill-conceived, and to cover up for the politicians they serve, or who have lost their jobs for refusing to do so.

Still, journalistic claims of a wider duty to the public (not reflected in the law of the land) apart and a few leaks aside, until recently we haven't seen too many overt attempts to actually topple Ministers or even a Prime Minister.

When the public service decides to get its bosses...

We have now.

First there was Defence's alleged investigation of its own Minister for inappropriate links to China (and yes, I know he dug his own grave to a large extent, and that the internal investigation, amazingly found the Department was innocent. Sure).

And now Treasury of all places apparently being the source of a fake email aimed at bringing down the Prime Minister.

This is serious stuff.

Sack the Secretaries

When Labor returned to power, they decided not to sack a number of heads of Department who must surely have been on their hitlist on the integrity/ability to serve the incoming Government front.

That was a bad mistake in my view, and they are now paying the price - because the fish rots from the head.

I'm not suggesting that the Secretary's of Defence or Treasury in particular are the problem - just that the survival of certain others (and I have no doubt, their continuing activities and leadership style) has created an untenable atmosphere, not helped by the Government's generation of excessive workloads and lack of appreciation for effort due to the Ruddbot's workaholic approach to life. It is the conjunction of these factors that has presumably led inevitably to more hotheaded types moving from more traditional methods of bureaucratic warfare to the overt.

And there have to be serious questions about the quality of the leadership of these two departments (and others) that have allowed things to get to this stage.

Mr Godwin Grech

I'll be curious to see just how much of a role Mr Grech and the Liberal Party turns out to have had in this whole affair. Personally, as one who has some experience with Senate Committees, the sight of a public servant actually wanting to answer questions at a Senate Committee and having to be sat on by his superiors to stop him doing so last Friday struck me at the time as very odd indeed.

And Mr Grech does have some liberal connections - apparently he once worked in Joe Hockey's Office some years ago - and more recently was closely involved in the establishment of the Department of Human Services when Hockey was appointed Minister thereof under the previous Government.

Moreover, as Rudd has been pointing out, the Liberal party has quite a lot of form on fake emails and other documents (the current SA situation being a case in point). And this in itself is terrifying. Where are we living after all, Stalinist Russia!

But perhaps all of this simply reflects the state of disintegration of our society and culture, and the triumph of the culture of death and dissimulation.

And the substantive issue?

The worst point about all this is that the substantive issue - about when politicians should accept free Utes (well, never?), and just how much help it is appropriate to give constituents, is surely going to utterly drown.

In reality, I don't think the Liberals have even the smidgen of a case against either Rudd or Swan on this particular one.

First the car dealer didn't end up getting any money, so any special treatment wasn't that effective!

Secondly, it wouldn't be hard to find more than a few cases where Ministers in the previous government did a lot more overt leaning on the public service and made sure the outcome actually was achieved (remember that regional slush fund?) than occurred here! Having the Minister's Office watching over your shoulder so that the Minister can say hand on heart that he did everything possible for his constituent might be annoying to public servants, but it certainly isn't new or abnormal.

All the same, it is a system that is potentially dangerous, and maybe the time has come for a thorough review of just how some of these processes do work.

Westminster style Governments around the world -but most especially starting with its birthplace - are in trouble at the moment over integrity on many fronts, and maybe the economic crisis makes it particularly timely to think hard about where it is headed.

Now is the time to refound Christendom. If we don't manage to do that, others are waiting to step into the breach. And we will like them a lot less!


gmck9431 said...

One of the basic principles of the Westminster system was that the Public Service, at all level of Government, never had a vote. It was accepted that they had to be bipartisan.
No one wants to face up to that; we probably have the worst aspects of the Westminster and the American systems.
Maybe the system "is just broke"? But then despair is a Sin!

Anonymous said...

No refounding of Christendom will ever occur on the basis of liberal democracy.

+ Wolsey

Cardinal Pole said...

York's right.

Felix said...

Wolsey refers disparagingly to liberal democracy.

But the issue in "utegate" is a basic question of law and ethics: should civil servants give honest and devoted service to their Ministers?

The answer was clear in the Middle Ages, just as it should be now. Civil servants should give such service, except for aberrations of such magnitude that they release from that obligation.

In fact, people who sneak around briefing opposition MPs have been unduely influenced by "democratic" notions and have departed from the ideals of Christendom.

Which reminds me - do you remember how Dante assigns the last circle of Hell for those who betray their masters?

Anonymous said...

Er, no, Felix.

You seem to suffer from a form of subjectivism.

You see, the aim of politics is the furtherance of the common good, not the wicked interests of one's ministers. Surely, you realise that??

+ Wolsey

Terra said...

Wolsey - In a democracy, just what the common good consists of is is supposed to be the responsibility of politicians to decide, not public servants. Pollies are the ones who (theoretically at least) get voted out if people think they decided wrongly.

And the public service act reflects this position, requiring public servants to serve the Government, not their own judgments.

Anonymous said...


What you've said is precisely why liberal democracy is destined to fail. It's based on pure naturalism - and it wouldn't even exist were it not for masonry.

+ Wolsey

Cardinal Pole said...

"It's based on pure naturalism - and it wouldn't even exist were it not for masonry."

Quite right--Mr. Davies related, in The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty, how the Declaration of the Rights of Man was the product of French Freemasonary.

Plus, liberalism's key principles were condemned ex Cathedra by Bl. Pius IX in Quanta cura, so no Catholic can be a liberal.

As Leo XIII taught, democracy is a legitimate form (but not principle) of government, but liberalism is completely untenable. Sometimes a bad thing (namely liberalism) mixed with a (potentially) good thing (namely democracy) can produce a very, very bad thing, which is what liberal democracy is.