Monday 4 May 2015

AFTRS and After Sandra Levy - or Let George Do It

There are some in the Canberra community who take it upon themselves to keep a weather eye on just how the public service is functioning. Most people are however, it’s very fair to say, not very interested. But some in our mandarin class, current and former, especially the people with long memories and a career long commitment to service, take the view that ensuring proper process goes a long way to getting good results. Bad process, especially where it is based on fear, bullying and general intimidation, produces bad results.  So a career-long attention to doing things right is something to be applauded.

One keen observer of these matters is former senior bureaucrat Patrick Gourley and I’ll admit he’s an acquaintance of mine which is why I’m always up to read any of his current writing. Paddy got all the way to Deputy Secretary status in a fine career that ended just a few years ago. One of his great attributes remains his analytical skill and he still puts this to good use, along with his memory, in writing pieces for a newspaper section known as The Public Informant in the Fairfax press which physically appears only in The Canberra Times, but is available online. Paddy also has exemplary writing skills, an art fashioned long ago when he was a protégée of the legendary Sir Frederick Wheeler, then Chairman of the once very powerful Public Service Board. Sir Frederick put great store on the Board’s Annual Report and Paddy, among many other young bright sparks of the day, was frequently involved in the report’s assembly and composition. For a lifetime bureaucrat it was invaluable experience.

In a piece published yesterday which you can read online at the Canberra Times, Paddy has looked at how bureaucrats are dealing with the Abbott Government. For instance, Paddy notes:” It's not helpful that, since they were appointed at the end of last year, neither Thawley, the nominal head of the public service, nor the Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, have made on-the-record speeches for their APS subjects, saying: "This is how we see it." In the four years ending 2014, the then public service commissioner, Stephen Sedgwick, and his staff made 27 speeches on the record. This year, Lloyd and his staff have made none (at least, none are published online). In the face of this inscrutable silence, officials may be excused for thinking the message is: "Keep your heads down."

Which is why you worry that, beyond the possible lack of enthusiasm to give frank and fearless advice, these days appointments to even the seemingly most minor or politically neutral positions come under intense scrutiny from the political masters thus putting some considerable pressure on on the occupants of advisory and other positions of what might once have been seen as quiet backwaters. Paddy has discovered one film industry related case in point, the appointment of the next Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Film and Television School. The story is spelt out in a little detail on the link provided above. The Act of Parliament (1973) governing the AFTRS clearly states in S24 (1): “There shall be a Director of the School, who shall be appointed by the Governor‑General on the recommendation of the Council.”. What attracts attention in Paddy’s piece about this particular appointment process is the advice he was given when preparing his story that “…The Minister for the Arts will approve the final appointment but will not be actively involved in the initial process of assessment and recommendation but that he did not wish to comment on any other aspects of the process.”  (That’s my underlining.)

This ought to be of interest to those who want AFTRS to be as good as it possibly can be because it would seem to imply that George Brandis can exercise a veto over the appointment. Why he would want to take such action is mysterious given the process that has been followed and which Paddy spells out. As for "active involvement" whether any delicate negotiations about the final nominee have taken place between Brandis, his private office, his various Departments (the statement quoted above was made by a spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s Department, not the Department of the Arts), and the Council and officers of the AFTRS is of course not known. Maybe there's nothing to see here or maybe things  will never be known. There's just enough slippery language here to make you want someone to press the issue with George when Senate Estimates come round just to see if he thinks he really can intervene in any way in the appointment. If he does believe that it would be something with serious ramifications for other agencies in his portfolio which have similar provisions for the appointment of a Chief Executive.

For old hand Canberra watchers, it’s a most interesting little matter and one which does shed just a shred more light on the control freakery of the Abbott Government. 

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