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The attached article appeared in Pearls and Irritations on 26 July, 2021.

Senior public servants are only as good as the leadership provided by politicians working in the national interest.

With appropriate checks, balances and protections in place, senior public servants should be able to give the frank and fearless advice required of their position and as set out in law.

In the absence of good leadership, or worse in the face of corrupt leadership, public servants will not be able to perform their duties as required. Faced with such a situation they may acquiesce and become a part of corrupt practices or they may turn a blind eye. On the other hand, they may seek a transfer, they may resign or retire. In a career ending decision they may decide to become a whistle blower and expose the corruption.

From the time he became Prime Minister in 1996, Howard ran with a very strong ideological agenda which he required public servants to adhere to. Within a fairly short time of him becoming Prime Minister, Immigration officials were expected to break international and domestic law in their handling and processing of asylum seekers. The Navy was directed to break international law by turning back boats on the high seas with asylum seekers on board. He used the SAS to stop an asylum rescue vessel, MV Tampa, letting them ashore in an Australian port which international law required him to do.

Through his Minister of Immigration, he bullied independent decision makers on the Refugee Review Tribunal to change their findings. And eventually he abolished the Tribunal. Determinations relating to establishing refugee status moved further and further from the law. Some decision makers went along with this, others didn’t and left the service of government. Many public servants were rewarded and promoted for their loyalty in implementing policy inimical to climate change, the rights of workers, Indigenous Australians, women and the unemployed. Public servants oversaw policies transferring wealth from the Treasury to government supporters. This has become a marked feature of the Morrison government. In fact Morrison recently bullied public servants with the  Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) an independent government funded body overseeing the efficacy of vaccinations.

This abuse of the Australian Public Service (APS) has also occurred under Prime Ministers, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison. Rudd and Gillard did not transfer wealth to supporters of the LNP, but they did abuse asylum seekers. They tried but did not break the mould of the Howard administration.

Ambitious public servants soon enough realised that the political ideology established by Howard was not likely to change, particularly as it had more or less remained in place through the Rudd/Gillard governments. Developing and advocating policy outside of this ideological framework was not a career enhancing move.

The APS had become politicised. It strengthened over time to the point that appointments as Secretaries of Departments were only given to those who demonstrated a commitment to not only working within the LNP ideological framework but supporting it. LNP governments worked with Murdoch and Murdoch worked with them. There was a brief Murdoch flirtation with Rudd but it didn’t last. The strength of the Murdoch connection with government influenced other media outlets and the ABC, to the point that many in the media became as embedded with LNP governments as the APS.

Howard wrapped himself in the flag. He was happy to deploy to East Timor and go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq as it allowed him to bring the military into the mainstream of the political life he was creating. He saw the ADF as a useful prop. As a small and limited character, he was impressed and enamoured with a uniform. Abbott took this to ridiculous lengths and Morrison has followed. The dangerous thing has been that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has allowed itself to be used in this way. Many in the ADF are not hostile to the ideology of the LNP and in fact support it. It has made their transition into political life while serving in the ADF easier.

It can be argued that the APS has been politicised since Menzies was Prime Minister however the process was more subtle and the like-minded permanent heads, he gathered around himself were not averse to giving him and his government frank and fearless advice and they could afford to do so because they had permanency. They could not be dismissed by government.

On becoming Prime Minister, Whitlam, had a need to introduce the policies of social reform he had promised the people. Standing in his way were some very crusty and rusted on Menzies supporting permanent heads. They were persuaded to move aside, going onto the boards of government owned organisations or postings overseas and were replaced by Whitlam with some of the brightest people ever to enter the senior ranks of the APS. They constructively and creatively altered Australia for the better for the next twenty years – until Howard came to power and actively, perversely and wilfully set about to undo those reforms. His agenda was against the long term national good. Permanent heads who sought to deflect or slow his destructive agenda were moved aside and replaced with more compliant public servants. It was Keating who allowed Howard to act. He had replaced permanency with contracts bringing with it increased salary packages but much increased leverage for the government over the APS. This was the beginning of the rot.

The APS was increasingly charged with developing and implementing policies inimical to the interests of the poor and disposed and favourable to what Howard regarded as his natural constituency – the middle class. Grants to private schools quickly exceeded reasonable needs. This went against the instinct of most in the APS, which was for equity and fairness in the allocation of revenue.

We can only ask who are the poor middle ranking pubic servants who have been made to oversee and administer the malfeasance of the present government with respect to sports rorts, car parks, the barrier reef and so on?

Overseeing such terrible undertakings such as the long-term detention of children, required as administrators’, senior public servants sympathetic to that particular political agenda. Few persons not sympathetic would have the stomach for that particular undertaking. Who would oversee the planned collapse of the relationship with China? And planned it was in the form of provocative statements from Morrison, Payne and Birmingham. Who would oversee the Robodebt scandal and resulting suicides?

We see Frances Adamson going from the head of DFAT to the Governorship of south Australia after failing to address the collapse of the China relationship, possibly the biggest Australian foreign policy disaster in seventy years, to be replaced by Katherine Campbell, who was Secretary of the Department of Social Security when the Robodebt scandal unfolded. She goes to head up DFAT with no foreign policy experience which would appear to offer ASPI the opportunity it has been seeking to develop Australian foreign policy.

The movement of the ADF to the centre of the political stage, first undertaken by Howard through his politicisation of Australian military undertakings overseas, was picked up by Gillard as Prime Minister when she appointed Air Vice Marshall (retired) Houston to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers in 2012. He had no particular expertise in matters relating to refugees and refugee law.

In more recent times Morrison has pushed the civilian/military option much further. Like Abbott he appears to be in awe of a uniform bedecked with medals and believes in the innate superiority of the military to perform difficult tasks. As part of this somewhat romantic notion, he holds the belief that the ADF posses enhanced organisational skills. That is no doubt due to the fact the he has not served in the military. I have, and as a result do not suffer any illusions in that regard. I also come from a military family, grandfather, father and uncles and as a result I am not intimidated by a uniform with medals because all of them had many.

Morrison has appointed Vice Admiral (retired) Griggs to head Social Security, a department with which he would appear to have little expertise. It is a puzzle, in light of this, why he would agree to the appointment.

Morrison stung by criticism that Hawaii was no place from which to oversee major bushfires in Australia, called out the military with much macho chest thumping. Faced with his complete stuff-up of the vaccine roll out he first appointed Commodore Young to solve his problem. He had a few TV appearances before being gazumped by Lieutenant General Frewen, who has managed quite a few TV appearances but not much in the way of a superior delivery of vaccines and how can he when Morrison failed to buy them.

Pushing the military into civilian roles is the worst form of window dressing. It is an attempt to cash in on the fraying Anzac myth, so beloved by the right. The ADF should refuse to allow their officers, both serving and retired, to be used in this way. These appointments mostly end in tears and detract from the independence and proud tradition of the ADF.

Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator.