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Bernard Keane

Legacy of fear: Andrews outdid Morrison in politicising his public service

If the eye-popping contents of the Victorian Ombudsman’s report on the politicisation of the Victorian public service don’t alarm even the most ardent supporters of now-former premier Dan Andrews and Victorian Labor, then presumably nothing will. It spells out in detail how the Andrews government debauched the Victorian public service in a way that surpassed even the excesses of Scott Morrison in Canberra.

The report by Deborah Glass could have — should have — been even more startling for what it reveals about the Andrews government’s internal workings, but she was stymied in pursuing lines of inquiry, including one matter raised by a former departmental secretary, both by Labor’s obsessive use of cabinet secrecy and by the unwillingness of senior figures to go on the record or speak at all with the Ombudsman out of fear of reprisals from the government.

Glass can’t be accused of having an anti-Labor agenda. The inquiry arose as a result of a Victorian upper house reference relating to an Age article on the politicisation of the Victorian public service. In response, Glass specifically rejects many of the claims that Andrews government staffers have been inserted into senior positions. “Our extensive investigation, conducted across multiple fronts, found no direct evidence of widespread partisan hiring of the kind suggested in the Legislative Council referral.” Indeed, Glass says, “People’s reputations had been unfairly sullied by stints, sometimes many years previously, in ministerial offices.”

But what she did find was widespread abuses of, and failures of, hiring practices at senior levels in the Victorian public service, sufficient to undermine perceptions of merit-based recruitment. There were “multiple examples of rushed and shoddy recruitment practices, poor record-keeping and opaque selection methods … direct appointments are used too frequently by some agencies, often to hire or promote former ministerial staffers … decisions were not always properly recorded or explained. We also noticed poor record keeping and procedural irregularities when it came to filling some advertised vacancies.”

The report also details the bypassing of the public service in favour of consultants for politically favoured projects. This was particularly the case with the vast Suburban Rail Loop project, a major Andrews election commitment, which has suffered repeated, mammoth cost blowouts and is now headed for a cost of $125 billion despite having a benefit: cost ratio of just 0.7. Glass says:

It was so secret it was kept from the secretary of the relevant department, and most of the board of the originating agency. The stated reason for the secrecy — to mitigate against land speculation — does not stack up, as no land was acquired by the responsible agency before a public announcement, and in any event would not justify keeping the relevant secretary in the dark. It was “proved up” by consultants rather than developed by public servants, and its announcement ‘blindsided’ the agency set up by the same government to remove short-term politics from infrastructure planning.

This was a recurring theme in the Andrews government’s approach to projects: “Excessive secrecy and the use of consultants also featured in the early Commonwealth Games planning. History has since revealed major flaws in the assumptions underpinning the financial modelling.”

This is not separate from politicisation — it is politicisation: “As one former Secretary told us, the more the public sector is weakened in its ability to provide coherent senior advice, the more politicised it effectively becomes: ‘It’s not by planting people, it’s simply by cutting [important people] out of the advisory loop’.”

Glass also found a familiar theme of bureaucrats feeling pressure to be “responsive” to the government: “There is widespread concern that the merit selection principle is sidelined when responsiveness to government is at stake. Senior public officials with little job security are feeling more pressured to align their advice to the apparent political imperatives of government.”

Each of these elements — the appointment of former staffers, the sidelining of the public service in favour of consultants, the reliance on secrecy — were hallmarks of the systemic politicisation of the Australian public service under Scott Morrison. But the Andrews and now Allan governments appear to have gone even further, possibly because they knew and know they are unlikely to lose power to a feckless and useless opposition any time soon.

“We were also deeply troubled by the number of people who were afraid to speak to us,” Glass says. “It is disappointing and disturbing that to protect the identities of so many people we were unable to follow some promising lines of enquiry.”

Even Labor finding out a former public servant had spoken to the Ombudsman would be enough to end any possibility of further government employment. One former deputy secretary told Glass “It would be the perception that you had spoken to me, that’s all. I mean, I still want to work in the public service in Victoria and like it or not, they will form a view that I am untrustworthy because I spoke to you.”

The fear extends to those working in the private sector:

Another former executive expressed reservations about speaking freely even under affirmation and with a promise of anonymity, for fear of jeopardising their private employment: “I want to be as expansive as possible, but … if I’m critical of governmental process or whatever, I think that would be the end of my career.”

This ongoing culture of fear and intimidation — that the government can still wreck your career even if you have moved to the private sector — is extraordinary and has rarely been seen before — outside the days of the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland. If it were a Coalition government perpetrating such intimidation, the outrage from the left and Labor would be palpable. Daniel Andrews and Victorian Labor have taken the Victorian public service to a very dark place characterised by fear, intimidation and secrecy — and it is Victorian taxpayers who bear the cost for generations to come.

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