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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

defending political staffers « Previous | |Next »
October 4, 2012

Jennifer Westacott, the Business Council Australia chief executive, gave a speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) International Congress in Melbourne in September that opens up a debate about the power of political advisors and improving public policy advice.

The purpose of the development of the advisor’s role from Whitlam onwards was to have someone to provide political support to the minister. It is accepted that policy experts like John Rose, John Hewson, Ross Garnaut, Don Russell, Jenny Macklin and others, made important intellectual contributions to the economic and social reforms of the 1980s.

They broke the public service’s virtual monopoly over policy advising, and introduced new ideas and greater contestability that many argue has improved the quality of advice. However, it is also widely acknowledged that there are problems in the interface between ministerial staff and public servants.

Westacott said the authority of the public service had been undermined by the power of political staffers, and she called for a halving of ministerial staff and a reinstatement of the tenure system for departmental secretaries. Westacott's argument is that:

many modern politicians have lost sight of the fundamental role of the public service. Its authority has been undermined by political gatekeepers, often with little expertise and no accountability.Its custodianship of the long-term policy agenda has been eroded by short-term thinking, and the necessary investment in capacity building, succession planning, technology and new ways of providing services just isn’t there. The effect of these trends is felt most keenly by public servants themselves; the frustration from the lowest to the highest levels of seniority is palpable in every conversation I have.

Westacott's solution of halving the number of staffers doesn't really address the reactive policy-making that she rightly criticises. That style of policy making emerges out of populism seen through the prism of 1996 (suburban, socially conservative and monocultural) and adversarial partisan politics. What is far more crucial than numbers is the accountability of political staffers.

I agree with Terry Barnes' response in the AFR to Westacott's argument. Barnes' rightly sees this as an attack on political staffers and he responds by highlighting the functions performed by staffers:

Westacott’s comments reflect that senior public servants hate their advice being questioned and contested by staffers who may not have a background in the portfolio or relevant expertise. But a good staffer needs only sceptical common sense and a personal stake in the political future of the minister they serve. Their job isn’t to rubber stamp: it’s to question, consult more widely and, if needed, give their minister more options. They should this by working positively and courteously with public servants, and a successful staffer is one who positively influences the thinking of both his or her minister and the bureaucrats they work with.

There are different types of roles within ministerial offices and many different kinds of people working in them and the job is often seen as a stepping stone to pre-selection. Political staffers--as distinct from say administrative and support people---are trained to see the political implications of public policy options. They need the political smarts to do this policy job properly.

Why is this important? Barnes gives one good reason. He highlights Westacott's assumption that that public servants are expert, impartial and have no other agendas than that of the elected government and he argues that this assumption is implausible:

The bureaucracy is a maelstrom of institutional and personal politics, often played at a ferocity that would make the ALP Right, or the NSW division of the Liberal Party, look like amateurs. Secretaries compete with each other for policy dominance and for resources..... Westacott seems to think, like her former secretary colleagues, that ministers are merely ciphers, portfolio advocates in Cabinet, and the political fall guys when things come a cropper.

I would go further than this. The political smarts are necessary for political staffers because departments are often captured by, and develop policy on behalf of, vested economic interests. A classic example is the Greenhouse Mafia ie., a term that refers to complete regulatory capture by the fossil fuel industry.

Or the departments develop bad policy which can have negative long term political consequences with respect to the public interest. An example is the deeply flawed design of the National Electricity Market (NEM) and the subsequent gold plating of the poles and wires that have lead to the rapid rises in electricity prices of the present.

One way to counter the reactive policy-making typified by the recent NSW Labor government is to have high quality political advisors offering good long term policy advice. This would also avoid the debacle of real bad policy the telecommunications industry has suffered from for over two decades.

The Business Council of Australia is a part of the history of that bad policy. For all their talk of competition, light regulation, deregulated markets creating greater economic growth the BCA failed to defend actual competition in the telecommunications market or to facilitate the shift to a digital information economy. The BCA engaged in reactive short term policy making.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:35 AM | | Comments (5)


" The political smarts are necessary for political staffers because departments are often captured by, and develop policy on behalf of, vested economic interests. A classic example is the Greenhouse Mafia."

And state governments in Queensland and New South Wales. They’ve got dud assets, their networks are basically basket cases, and in the case of the coal-fired power generation, they want to sell them but no-one will buy them.

"The BCA engaged in reactive short term policy making."

That was obvious in the carbon pricing debate. I expect to see more reactive policy making with respect to renewables---the blowtorch will be applied.

"The political smarts are necessary for political staffers because departments are often captured by, and develop policy on behalf of, vested economic interests."

And ministers. Energy Minister Martin Ferguson is pro-fossil fuel, and reflexively anti-renewables.So much for Gillard Labor's policy and program of the decarbonisation of the Australian economy.

"the deeply flawed design of the National Electricity Market (NEM)"

The National Electricity Market is rigged in favour of generators and retailers, and against consumers. It is a system (not a market) where big energy companies like Origin can raise prices even when demand is falling.

"the deeply flawed design of the National Electricity Market (NEM)"

(1) The National Electricity Rules, for instance, make no mention of environmental goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the design goals of the market.

(2) there is no incentive for electricity retailers to sell us less power, and every incentive to sell us more. So the system is opposed to energy efficiency