Thursday, 26 August 2010

Andrew Wilkie, ethics of government and the caretaker conventions

Andrew Wilkie, MP-presumptive for the Seat of Denison, like all of the Independents who could decide the outcome of the Federal election, is a curious figure on the Australian political scene. 

He is not someone a Catholic could reasonably have voted for given his anti-life views, but I have to say I do have a certain empathy and admiration for his campaign for better ethics in government.  And nothing illustrates the nature of the problem more than Mr Abbott's refusal of the self-proclaimed 'gang of four' independents' request for to see a Treasury costing of the Liberal-National party election commitments.

Lies, damned lies and politicians

Life issues aside, I'm not really much of a Wilkie fan per se. 

While I share his outrage at the Howard Government's regular breaches of ethical behaviour (he blew the whistle in relation to the justifications for the Iraq war), and bear some personal scars from one of their other notable exercises in disinformation, I regard the way he by-passed proper process in his whistleblowing efforts, going straight to the media rather than through proper channels to voice his concerns, as unethical behaviour for a public servant.  It was certainly contrary to law and he was lucky to avoid prosecution. 

Others have made the case that going outside proper processes gets better results at a much reduced personal cost (see the enlightening article by Brian Martin of the University of Wollongong).  Maybe there is something in this, but the ends do not justify the means.

So there is, in my view, a certain irony to his championing of ethics in government.

Nonetheless, I do strongly support the push on from him and the other independents to engender a little more openness in Government, and attention to substance rather than point scoring.

The costings

And in this light, it is hard to see any rationale for Tony Abbott's refusal to allow Treasury costings of his party's policies to be done and released to the MPs who will need to guarantee supply for the next three years if we are to have stable government.

The main reason for Mr Abbott's concern is surely that his claims of a lower budget deficit than Labor will be blown out of the water when the more rigorous tests of Treasury (as opposed to a paid for costing by a private accountancy firm) are applied.  There are good reasons for his concern, particularly given he may wish to continue to train on those claims if we end up going back to the polls sooner rather than later.  But can such a position be justified ethically?

Public servants just don't understand!

Mr Abbott has come up with a number of arguments to support his position.  The first is that Finance officials (since they, not Treasury actually do most of the costing work) will find it hard to understand Coalition policies. 

Hmm, yes well.  It is true that many of the policies released were nothing more than sketch outlines presumably to be fleshed out later. 

But if they have been costed by someone, it would be a simple matter to provide the details of the costing assumptions made to the Department of Finance, and make appropriate staffers available for the provision of additional information as needed.

After all, if Mr Abbott ends up forming the Government, those public servants are going to have to understand the policy in order to implement it and..oh, by the way, that includes costing it for inclusion in the Budget.

The leaks

Mr Abbott's second argument goes to the leaks relating to earlier costings. 

There is something deeply hypocritical abut the Coalition's outrage on Treasury leaks - leaks are good it seems, when it is a Godwin Grech undermining the elected Government behind its back if said Government is Labor, but bad when it is the Coalition that is leaked against.

All the same, there is a legitimate question here - if, as the media claims, the leak actually came from the Treasurer's Office one could reasonably ask why the material got there in the first place.  Under the caretaker conventions, surely public service assessments of Opposition policy should have been kept within Finance/Treasury until publicly released by the Secretary in accordance with the Charter of Budget Honesty?  And if the leak was from somewhere below, then it should be exposed.

Still, the fact that this information might be leaked doesn't seem to me to be a strong argument in the current circumstances.  After all, under the Coalition's own Charter of Budget Honesty, the costings are supposed to be made public, preferably before we actually vote on them!

One could reasonably argue that the failure to actually put this material before the public was one of the reasons neither party got a clear endorsement.

The nature of the incoming Government brief

Mr Abbott's other concern is about the release of the incoming Government briefings prepared by the public service for incoming Ministers.

Preparing such briefs (with different versions for each possible colour of Government) is one of the main preoccupations of bureaucrats during the election period. 

In the main, the bulk of these briefs actually tend to be fairly bland documents (unless the Department head concerned is particularly 'courageous' in the Yes Minister sense).  You don't win friends and influence people by dumping on a new Government's election promises.  At this stage of the cycle, the main preoccupation of most departments is starting to build a good working relationship with their new Minister; besides, few would be unaware of the possibility of another night of the long knives lopping off Departmental Secretary heads such as occurred when the Howard Government was first elected (though I suppose it is possible that Mr Abbott fears that some, such as Ken Henry might have decided that when death is inevitable, go out in style...).

Instead, they rely mainly on public statements, and focus primarily on things like implementation processes and timetables.  All pretty harmless, and probably not a problem to have in the public domain.

Nonetheless, incoming government briefs do inevitably flag potential problems with announced commitments, costings and the like, and neither party would be keen to see this material become widely disseminated. 

Nor would public servants - I rather imagine that a lot of quick review and if necessary sanatisation is currently keeping more than a few public servants occupied at the moment.  And that more closely guarded separate slim folder raising the more problematic issues facing an incoming Government is being given another hard hard look...

But what about the caretaker conventions?

All the same, maintaining the caretaker conventions in itself I think does not stand up as a rationale for keeping this material secret.  The conventions are just that - rules that have no legislative or constitutional backing, and that are in practice regularly stretched, ignored or changed (for example by the Charter of Budget Honesty).

I would actually have thought that the decision to allow senior public servants to brief the Independents privately (agreed to by both sides) is potentially far more dangerous than releasing incoming government briefs and costings.  The issue is that there should not be any suggestion of public servants being invited to assess the relative policy merits of the two parties.  That's what elections are for. 

It is why each side normally only gets to see the incoming government brief on its own policies.

Presumably, Mr Abbot and Ms Gillard are relying on public servants to know their proper bounds.  That may be an overly optimistic assumption given the politicisation of the public service that is the legacy of the last few decades.

***For those interested in learning more about the nature of incoming government briefs, Crikey have posted a useful exposition from a line Department perspective. 

1 comment:

R J said...

This must be one of the very few Catholic blogs in Australia (indeed one of the very few Australian blogs upholding any kind of Christianity) which - very refreshingly - refuse to accept the unexamined belief in the Immaculate Conception of Tony Abbott. Of course, those who propagate that particular doctrine now were the same sorts of Catholics who in 17th-century France were spouting tosh like "Le roi [the unlovely Louis XIV], Jésus-Christ et l'Eglise: Dieu en ces trois noms." Erastianism, anyone?