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Independent advice? Who needs it

Within hours of being sworn in, Tony Abbott’s office issued a press release, announcing three departmental secretaries had had their contracts terminated and the Treasury Secretary would stand down the next year.

Dr Don Russell lost his job as head of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research; Blair Comley was the head of the Resources, Energy and Tourism Department; and Andrew Metcalfe, a former Immigration Department chief, was sacked from head of the Agriculture Department.

Mr Metcalfe led the Immigration Department from 2005 to 2012 in a tenure that spanned Liberal and Labor governments and, as a former Liberal staffer, was thought to enjoy good relations with both sides of politics.

But the veteran public servant, who was less than a year away from being able to access his Commonwealth superannuation benefits, made enemies in the Coalition from his close association with the Labor government’s failed “Malaysia solution” to asylum seeker boat arrivals.

He also publicly disparaged the idea of turning back asylum seeker boats.

Dr Russell, a former ambassador to the US with a long association with Labor, had been tipped to quit the public service rather than serve a Coalition government.

Mr Comley had been at Energy and Resources was the last secretary of the now-defunct Climate Change Department.

Both Mr Comley and his mentor, Dr Parkinson, who also served as head of the Climate Change Department, were closely associated with the design of the carbon price.

Dr Parkinson was forced before the 2013 election to mount a robust defence of his department’s performance in the face of Coalition attacks and accusation that Treasury had been “politicised”.

He is now Turnbull’s Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Abbott also announced that AusAID, Australia’s overseas aid agency, would be integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), leading to the resignation of AusAID’s director-general Peter Baxter.

Turnbull moved quickly to sack Mike Quigley and demand the resignations of the entire NBN co board, appointing his friend, former Telstra chief executive Ziggy Switkowski to kill the FttP model.

The head of Infrastructure Australia, Michael Deegan, stepped down in February 2014 after he lashed out against the Abbott government for eroding the advisory body’s independence.

At George Pell’s behest, the Abbott government tried (unsuccessfully) to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, despite 82% of the sector believing it was important to keep the charity regulator.

They have also tried repeatedly to abolish all bodies that advise on climate change or promote renewable energy – with some success.

Barnaby Joyce, when criticised by Agriculture Department head Paul Grimes, promptly sacked him.

George Brandis has tried unsuccessfully to get AHRC head Gillian Triggs to resign because of her persistent defence of human rights though he did get success in so neutering Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson that he forced his resignation, much to the disgust of the legal fraternity.

There are countless examples of this government’s profligate waste of expertise and experience including in their savage cuts to the ATO, ASIC, the CSIRO and other bodies, all of whom have lost a wealth of talent.

Morrison dispensed with doing a tax white paper altogether despite all his supposed consultation.

The public service used to provide a crucial role, giving honest advice to the government of the day, regardless of its persuasion. Nowadays, advising the Coalition government that their policy has problems or that there may be a better way to approach a problem is career-ending. The IPA has published their wish list. No discussion necessary.

Ignoring advice and silencing criticism is not a formula for the successful running of the nation but hey – it might keep Bananababy, the Mad Monk, Erica and Barnyardi happy.


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  1. Steve Laing -

    Is it any surprise that their policies are so badly thought through when they are developed in such an echo chamber?

    Again, however, this leads to my conclusion that unless Labor start to make some noise about how they will address the politicisation of all these independent roles, then this decline to the gutter will continue. However it would seem that whilst nowhere near as bad as the Coalition are, they equally appear to be not entirely innocent when it comes to providing jobs for the boys too.

    Even setting up a totally independent body to supervise such appointments is now likely impossible unfortunately. The battle lines have been drawn up, and it would appear we are increasingly at political civil war with our compatriots.

  2. Arthur Tarry

    Most people outside the “Beltway” barely noticed these quite drastic changes (sackings) of civil service personnel . The weakening of the civil service in this way, and it had been done before, has been very detrimental to the quality of advice to the govt. This advice now comes from vested interests, lobbyists, mates and so-called think tanks. The Departments these days seem to just servicve entities charged with implementing policies and regulations devised elsewhere. Very American.

  3. Kaye Lee

    As I posted on Malcolm’s facebook page….

    Don Russell
    Blair Comley
    Andrew Metcalfe
    Martin Parkinson
    Peter Baxter
    Mike Quigley
    Michael Deegan
    Paul Grimes
    Graeme Innes
    Gillian Triggs
    Justin Gleeson

    That’s an impressive hit list of people sacked/persecuted for doing their job. Kinda makes it hard for people to give you independent advice but I guess that’s not what you are looking for when you know all the answers. Careful the echo chamber doesn’t deafen you or is it too late?

    Perhaps it is more a case of the mirror blinding him.

  4. Andreas Bimba

    Indeed very American as global capital centred on Wall Street is running our banana republic, and the sheep bleat for more. Baaahhahahahhahhhhahhhhahh Bahahah Vote Liberal Bahahahhhahhhahhh Vote Nationals Bahahahhahahhahhhah FFS!

  5. Gangey1959

    Just two comments.
    1) Listening to the garbage spew from the mouths of the ag, the pm, moronscum, whiney pyney and any one else from the speakers right about the whole bullshit mess is like hearing a gun maker telling a murder victims family ” I designed it, I built it, I sold it to the guy, I pointed the guy at the victim and I told him to pull the trigger and why, but it’s not my fault that the guy’s finger pulling the trigger made the gun fire the bullet that killed the victim.”’
    Or to put it into legal perspective, is baldy george brandisamoron trying to tell Australia that the prosecutors have the right to edit the questions that the other side can ask before and during the trial, just in case the questions might get a bit sticky ? Stuff that !
    Come on mr turnbull. YOU are the prime minister. Or so the story goes. Do your effing job, for once, and SACK HIM. NOW. PUBLICLY. Because just quietly I reckon that when the counting gets done its you or him.
    And 2) I was at Blair Comley’s 21st. His mum made the best Seafood Avocado I have EVER eaten. Then we had too many beers and got a bit silly.
    BTW. Have a listen to this. It’s from 1983.
    @MT. Is Rule 303 looking any more valid yet, or do I have to ask baldy george’s permission first ?

  6. Florence nee Fedup

    In early days of Abbott government, PS at senate hearings appear to have no knowledge of any question asked. One got the impression they had little or no input into government legislation or decisions.

    Nothing seems to have changed with this government. Brandis as absent for a time. PS appeared to be nervous and reluctant to answer any question put to them.

    Any government that sidelines the public service IMHO does so at their own peril.

    Clever ministers know that PS are able to tell them what won’t work and why. Many PS are also willing to sit by and watch the minister fall.

  7. Florence nee Fedup

    Sky at this time talking about government that doesn’t know how to work with public service, that is accident prone (PM AGENDA).

    Disagree, we have a government that believes it doesn’t need pubic service, believes they are out to get them.

    A government that can’t deal with any criticism or advice.

    A government heading for disaster.

  8. Steve Laing -

    How very weird is it that Sky seems to be the only medium prepared to call a spade a spade regarding the performance of this government. All the others still appear to be awaiting for the Real Malcolm, whatever that is, and if indeed it ever existed…

  9. Kaye Lee

    The government tried to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. While they failed to get the change through the parliament, the main office in Canberra was still shut down. Following the resignation of the FOI Commissioner in 2014 and the Information Commissioner in 2015, the government hasn’t bothered to find permanent replacements for these roles.

    The functions of the Australian Government Solicitor were quietly folded into the Attorney-General’s own department under the guise of a cost-saving measure. This means the Australian Government Solicitor no longer enjoys the organisational, operational or budgetary independence from government that it once did.

    Tens of millions of dollars have been gutted from community legal services, which play an important advocacy — as well as representational — role. This decision was taken in direct contradiction of Productivity Commission advice that recommended a $120 million boost in funding. These services now face the challenge of rising demand and reduced budgets.

    And it’s not just independent legal institutions that are under threat. The decisions of scientists, artists, researchers and academics have also been compromised.

    The government thought it knew better than the experts and sought to “reprioritise” how the independent Australian Research Council awards its $900 million in annual funding.

    They asserted their influence in arts and cultural policy too, reducing the independent Australia Council’s budget, diverting it instead to cultural endeavours the government deemed more worthy. Very public and political attacks on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation are fuelled by the same ideology.

    Then there has been the gobsmackingly stupid and ideological attack on climate science. The government’s own climate change department has been dudded and the nation’s peak body, the CSIRO, is facing continued job cuts.

    Instead of expert scientists making their own decisions about what courses of study are best pursued in the public interest, the government wants to make it for them.

    The result is a country where public servants increasingly fear speaking truth to power. The risk is a country run by “yes” men.

  10. townsvilleblog

    This is typical tory action, they consider themselves a class above everyone else, they are born to rule, and any comment that differs in any way from their own must be wrong. The arrogance and ineptitude of these people leaves me breathless at times, Gleeson just the last in a long line of scandals, which would normally take a government a decade to rack up, all done in 3 years, yet the gullible Australian public re-elect them. I’ll never know why as long as I live.

  11. Kaye Lee

    Barnaby Joyce is a deputy prime minister running his own show with little regard for the rules that bind most MPs, according to those working with him and observers of political ethics.

    “That’s just Barnaby,” said one senior Nationals operative, who asked not to be named. “And Barnaby is going to do what Barnaby wants – rules or no rules.”

    But politics expert at Australian National University, Professor John Uhr, said Mr Joyce’s moves were becoming increasingly disturbing.

    “We have seen some unusual activity by this senior minister, who is occasionally the acting prime minister,” Professor Uhr said.

    Professor Uhr, who specialises in political ethics and accountability, said Mr Joyce has displayed form in doing things with scant regard for considered advice.

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