Just before he retired as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese gave a speech to the Institute for Public Administration in which he reflected on what he saw as a steady, long term erosion of the role of the public service in the affairs of the nation.
It was, in effect, Varghese's valedictory oration, and despite his understated language, he made an alarming case. He described what he saw as a serious loss of clout by the public service in the policy formulation process.
Over the last decade we have seen a significant shift towards implementation and service delivery at the cost of policy work and also a narrowed bandwidth when it comes to the time senior public servants have to wrestle with complex policy issues...However we got here, we must find a way out. We must rebuild, at both the political and public service levels, a capacity for deep policy thinking because without it we will not be able to chart our way through the many economic and other challenges we face as a nation.
Varghese's speech barely resonated beyond the walls of the room in which he was speaking. It went almost entirely unnoticed by the mainstream media. And yet it went to a fundamental issue – the declining quality of government in Australia, a decline which is occurring at all levels but especially at the federal level (see Laura Tingle's Quarterly Essay on this subject).
What is most interesting about Varghese's warning, coming as it does from his own experience in the strategic policy arena, is that his speech was soon followed by the Federal Government's announcement that it had ordered the development of a Foreign Affairs White Paper. In the light of Varghese's public airing of his concerns about the deterioration of the public policy output of the public service, a critical question for the White Paper process will be how seriously it will be affected by this decline.
To insiders in the foreign and strategic policy space, Varghese's analysis resonates strongly. It has been a matter of growing concern that there has been a long and steady decline in the importance to which successive governments have given to public service policy advice on these issues. As a consequence there has been a steady loss from public service ranks of the best and brightest minds.
'Policy thinking', as Varghese describes it, has shifted away from public servants to political offices. The power of the office of the Prime Minister relative to the power of the independent advisers in the bureaucracy has increased dramatically since John Howard's prime ministership.
The most recent evidence was the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, authored by former Federal Treasury boss and then adviser to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Ken Henry.
Henry's report became a matter of deep partisan conflict, with the Abbott Government making the burial of the report one of its first foreign policy priorities. Under the Turnbull Government, despite Turnbull's pre-prime ministerial commentary on Australia and Asia, which clearly differed from the Abbott Government's positioning, there will be no resurrection of Henry. Just what Turnbull is thinking on Australia's most serious foreign and strategic policy challenge – to successfully manage its economic relationship with China and its strategic relationship with the US – is now an open question.
Perhaps the White Paper will bring clarity.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said that the White Paper will look at 'how to maximize our influence through our policies but also shape the thinking of other nations.' That is a tall order. It implies a more independent, more muscular approach than has been the case since the last foreign policy White Paper which was produced by the Howard Government more than 13 years ago (see Commonwealth Parliamentary Library analysis).
But from where will the ideas for such a beefing up of Australia's foreign policy actions be generated? How willing will Bishop and the government be to take advice from the public service?
Given that Bishop has reaffirmed that the White Paper will be a government document, subject to Cabinet discussion and input, it is obvious that Ministers and their advises will have a dominant role in shaping the final outcome of the White Paper. This seems all the more likely given that it is not unusual to hear relatively junior political staffers speak openly and critically of the competency of their Ministers' departments.
The decline in the public policy competency of the bureaucracy that Varghese talked about would appear to have created a serious loss of confidence by government in the quality of its public service advice – even though the decline of the standing and influence of the bureaucracy is almost entirely the result of government's preferring 'insider' advice to 'independent' advice.
The appointment by Prime Minister Turnbull of Frances Adamson as head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could be an important step towards redressing this shift. Turnbull has a very high regard for Adamson and she can be an important bridge between Turnbull and Bishop and the senior officers of her department.
But Turnbull is also beefing up his own office's foreign and strategic policy muscle with the expansion of the unit in his office and the likely appointment of Greg Moriarty to be his senior adviser on these issues. Moriarty has been the government's tough-minded Counter Terrorism Coordinator.
While Adamson can be expected to give the department more clout at the ministerial level, Turnbull's office will have real muscle in the White Paper development process.
But while the evolution of the White Paper will be an interesting exercise in the power dynamics of ministerial offices and bureaucrats, the wider issue that Varghese has raised about the decline of the public policy competency and influence of the bureaucracy is a much bigger story.
With all that he has on his plate in these troubled early days of his government, it is unlikely that Malcolm Turnbull will be able to give the issues raised by Varghese his attention. But if Varghese's analysis is correct – and few key figures inside the processes of government would disagree with it – it poses a fundamental challenge to the good governance of the nation. There could hardly be a more important long term issue, with implications which go far deeper than the quality of the Foreign Affairs White Paper.
Photo: Wikimedia/Christopher Lee