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Taking the politics out of our public service

Opinion

The politicisation of South Australia’s public service is a product of historical hubris and malice that has become entrenched over decades, writes former minister Mark Brindal. Unravelling the state’s bureaucratic Gordian Knot will be a defining test of Steven Marshall’s premiership.

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South Australia’s public service became politicised through hubris overlaid with malice.

Before calling the 1985 election, then-Premier John Bannon informed his cabinet, asking ministers if they foresaw problems. None did.

The election was called. Teachers at the Parks Community Centre, in Bannon’s electorate, started an industrial campaign.

At the time, SA’s public service was non-political. Tenured heads of department rose through the professional ranks. The head of the Highways Department and the Engineering & Water Supply Department (E&WS) were engineers. Teachers headed Education; doctors, Health. The Commissioner of Police was, generally, a serviceman.

On the night of the 1985 election, Bannon re-imagined the public service. At a victory party at his Prospect home, he spoke to his chief of staff, Geoff Anderson. Anderson was told to “get the bastards”.

Lynn Arnold, a strong advocate for education, was replaced as that portfolio’s minister by Greg Crafter, and John Steinle, the director-general of education, was systematically hounded into retirement.

In 1988, a prescient piece appeared in the Teachers’ Journal, predicting the “publicservantisation” of teaching, and noting: “What better way than replacing a former teacher who probably still has sympathy with chalkies with a real public servant?”

That public servant, the article noted, would be a chief executive officer, directly responsible to the minister.

Sure enough, Victorian bureaucrat Dr Ken Boston became the Education Department’s first chief executive.

That so-called ‘publicservantisation’ was the first tie in a Gordian knot, which subsequent governments have fashioned into the public service we have today.

Steven Marshall has promised to unravel it. To do so he faces a challenge greater than that confronting Alexander the Great. 

In some accounts, Alexander cut the knot. The ship of state, loosed from its permanent moorings, may founder if Marshall does that.

Conversely, retaining the tether guarantees that SA will remain mired in the mud of more Oakdens, abuse scandals, and TAFE and public hospital debacles. 

To premiers like Sir Thomas Playford and Don Dunstan, cleaning out the public service would be anathema. Traditionally, a stable cadre of non-political officials dedicated to implementing the will of parliament forms the bedrock of our stability.

Western-style democracies could not survive without the Sir Humphreys. Why, then, does the public service cupboard desperately need a spring clean?

When the public service is politicised, it becomes a tentacle of the party in power. A newly-elected government can neither fulfil its mandate nor be effective if the public service is salted with potential double agents and saboteurs determined to re-instate the previous regime.

The ALP is particularly adept at this strategy. Political staffers and true believers are, using the interview/merit system, quietly inserted into critical positions. When the ALP has to pass the chalice, it ensures it’s laced.

There is a premium on “sympathetic” public servants – and those seen as sympathetic to the wrong side can be subjected to Chinese whispers loud enough to destroy careers. After the Kerin government lost, I was distressed to hear that one of my departmental officials was being treated unfairly. An exceptional young woman, her performance had been exemplary. I had no reason to question how she voted but I suspected it was for the ALP.

Yet the new administration treated her appallingly. I asked a friend from the ALP to try to ascertain the cause and to intercede. I learned that there was no logical reason, save that the person “was thought to be too close to the previous minister”. Her position became so untenable that she resigned.

Compound this polarisation with a public service that that has been systematically inflated beyond both efficient levels and the state’s capacity to pay and you glimpse Marshall’s nightmare.

His response will mark him as either just another politician or as a statesman. The politician will be content to continue the game. The statesman will be zealous in trimming the fat and depoliticising the service.

Appointments need careful scrutiny so that we employ not only the brightest and best, but people who can leave their voting in the ballot box. To continue with a political public service is to sell SA short.

However, that’s just a beginning. The bigger challenge is to ensure that the changes endure. Legislation provides a partial solution. Finding a way to remain in government for at least three terms will help. Convincing the public should be a priority. The fourth ace he could pull from this pack is to convince the ALP that the way that the game has been played for the last 30 years is buggering us. Given the new Opposition Leader, I think that Marshall’s in with a chance.

If he succeeds, will SA find itself a new Utopia? Hardly.

SA will be better served. However, ministers will still battle, not with a politicised public service, but with public service politics.

Former deputy premier Frank Blevins once explained public service politics to me. He said: “Whenever a new minister is appointed, public servants dust their wish list and present it to an untried person who wants to make an impression.”

He went on to say the ALP had had enough experience to sort wheat from chaff. He illustrated this with station closures along the Belair line. He claimed that the public service had unsuccessfully tried to convince successive ministers. The then-new Liberal minister closed the stations. Subsequently it became obvious that the reasoning was faulty and the benefits dubious. It took almost two decades to re-open Millswood.

We elect a parliament to reflect our will. Good government necessitates an able, depoliticised public service to provide stable management. Properly implemented, the structure involves a healthy political tension between the two.

Marshall’s challenge is not to cleave the knot but to find a linchpin, the removal of which will allow it to be unraveled.

Mark Brindal was a Liberal member of the South Australian Parliament from 1989 to 2006, and was Minister for Water Resources, Local Government, Youth and Employment and Training during the Olsen and Kerin governments.

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