Albanese goes back to the future for governing

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said this week he wants to lead “a government that does things”. COVID-19 management aside, the early signs are that he will. Australia’s international relations performance has been transformed since the election on May 21.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher have set a fiscally sensible, productivity-focussed economic policy tone for an October budget crafted to meet Labor’s election promises while dealing with its inherited Morrison government debt bomb.

Anthony Albanese says he wants to lead “a government that does things”.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone

Releasing the State of the Environment report on Tuesday, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek demonstrated ministerial compliance with legal disclosure responsibilities, and a determination to take effective action on problems outlined which have been chronic for years.

Chalmers’ announcement on Wednesday of the details of the Reserve Bank review reinforced perceptions that this administration will be about the substance, not just the spectacle, of government. It’s refreshing to a populace tired and hungry for better outcomes from Canberra than they’ve had in recent years.

When Albanese said this week that he thought “the former government stopped governing”, it wasn’t just rhetoric. The observation was made against the backdrop of extraordinary comments by Scott Morrison while preaching at the Perth church of fundamentalist Christian firebrand Margaret Court last weekend.

“We trust in Him,” Morrison said. “We don’t trust in governments. We don’t trust in (the) United Nations, thank goodness.” This went off like a depth charge in Canberra. While there was no obvious splash, it sent a shockwave through the public service which had tried to make government work as best it could under a prime minister whose passive aggression towards it was not infrequently naked.

Scott Morrison delivers a sermon at Victory Life Centre on Sunday, urging churchgoers to trust in God, not government.

Perhaps public servants hadn’t been imagining it after all when it seemed Morrison was out to wreck the joint, many thought, especially given his dog whistle in Perth suggesting, as right-wing conspiracy theorists do, that the UN has some sinister dimension.

Few have forgotten the nadir when Morrison called departmental heads – known as secretaries – together after the 2019 election and gave an intimidating speech telling them ministers were boss. Under our Westminster system they already knew that.

What had decayed under the coalition was public servants’ confidence that fearless advice on policy options – the essence of what makes the system so effective – were welcome. The message was sent and received that public servants should give the advice the Coalition wanted to hear.

Albanese’s visit on Monday to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet could not have been more different. He met with a large group of PM and C staff in the department’s training room, gave a speech reflecting on the public service’s role, and spent time afterwards talking to small groups from across the agency. Later Albanese spent an hour with departmental secretaries from across the public service, shared his vision for government and his expectations of professional, systematic and thoughtful policy advice. There was no fanfare – just a brief LinkedIn post and a tweet.

Anthony Albanese at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute on Wednesday.Credit:Penny Stephens

Given there was so little to go on, old-style Kremlinology and Sinology skills from the time when Russia and China were closed to the West, used back then to piece together meaning from scraps of information available, were dusted off to make meaning of Albanese’s visit.

The departmental secretaries looked happy in the picture the prime minister tweeted of them with him. Gordon de Brouwer, appointed at secretary-level to assist Katy Gallagher on public service reform, was notably in the picture. De Brouwer was a panel member of Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS), established by Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister and chaired by David Thodey.

The eventual Thodey Report proposed a strong and cohesive program of APS renewal along traditional Westminster lines, taking into account 21st century digital developments. It defined the modern Westminster principles of government as “an apolitical, merit-based, and open public service, underpinned by integrity, serving the government, parliament and the people of Australia”.

Those who find this statement vanilla are unaware of how far under successive Coalition governments, and first initiated under the Howard government, the decay of Westminster principles in Australian government has become. Leaned on, undermined, underfunded and sidelined by private sector consultants paid multiples of what equivalent – and often better – APS advice would have costed destroyed morale and made government outcomes worse.

The Thodey Report, handed down after Turnbull’s ouster, was ignored by Morrison. In contrast, in the picture Albanese tweeted with a brief message endorsing ‘a strong and independent public service’, there were not one but two Thodey Review members: de Brouwer and Albanese’s own departmental secretary, Glyn Davis.

When Jim Chalmers announced the make-up of the Reserve Bank review on Wednesday, de Brouwer was named as one of the three panel members. All roads seemingly lead to the Thodey Report. People who believe in good government on traditional Westminster lines are heartened that better policy lies ahead.

The “rearview mirror” handling of the latest COVID wave is testament to how run-down parts of the public service are, with the Department of Health a particular example a hollowed-out department.

Health Minister Mark Butler is ultimately accountable for the government’s public health performance. There is a strong sense that the Health Department has provided advice at less than the necessary high level during the pandemic, and continues to do so.

It may be time for a shuffle of the bureaucracy. This would give greater scope for faster renewal of Health. Given the rising daily deaths in Australia, it can’t wait.

Meanwhile, there are signs the government is for the first time getting abreast of the rapidly worsening COVID situation.

Albanese wore a cutting edge N95 mask in the picture he tweeted on Wednesday on a visit to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. It showed he’s now more on top of the latest scientific advice than the scores of Institute staff in surgical masks pictured with him – an index of just how big is the public health education campaign the government has ahead of it.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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