Flat White

The public service are about to be told: pull your weight

26 July 2019

2:41 PM

26 July 2019

2:41 PM

The unexpected May 18 election results sent a chill through the ranks of Canberra’s public service class.

Now, the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, the most senior public servant in the land, has announced this week that he is going.

Parkinson could not resist the chance to swiftly restate what he has always believed: Australia’s living standards will fall without a comprehensive policy to tackle climate change.

But Canberra’s bureaucracy were saying something else. ‘Parky’ was simply recognised that he was doomed. He had been too close to the PMs eager to instigate climate-change policy, Rudd and Turnbull. While he had enjoyed a meeting of minds on some subjects with Tony Abbott, with Scott Morrison things were different.

Parkinson, public servants also remembered, was head of PM&C when he sent official notices to all the offices of the 13 ministers who had challenged Turnbull in last year’s spill, informing them that all communications, including emails, phone and internet were to be cut off with immediate effect. One minister had claimed his newspaper subscriptions had been cut off within hours of his resignation letter being received in the PM’s office. Many of these were now cabinet ministers

On that occasion, Parkinson had grace enough to admit that “this was not the approach the department would normally take” and let it be known he was acting on instructions from Turnbull but it was also seen as being Parkinson not standing up to Turnbull.

And when the Prime Minister also put himself forward as the Minister for the Public Service, was clearly signalling that the cosy world that the Canberra bureaucracy has enjoyed since the Whitlam years, is about to given a shakeout. Lead Departments such as Treasury, DFAT and PM&C are beginning to look carefully at their policy advice and the people giving it.

Martin Parkinson said this week he wanted a knowledge-based public service, curious, looking al the time for how existing policies are working and how future policies should be engaged in collaborating with public servants as well as those in the private sector. His concern, he stressed, was that a lot of public servants “think disruption is something that happens to other people.” Well, he got that right.

Remember the huge fuss when it was mandated that some Canberra public servants, some in the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority should be relocated to Armidale? With the media defenestration of the Nationals Barnaby Joyce, and several VRs (voluntary redundancies) that scheme was pretty much deflated. Canberra public servants who didn’t want to move were generally found other jobs, usually at their levels, in similar offices.

But here’s the thing. A rort is a rort by any other name (apologies to the Bard) and Canberra has developed some truly creative arrangements, possibly not fully sanctioned by their Departmental heads, but certainly known to them.

Take ‘working remotely’. An innocuous-sounding phrase, that, applied creatively, as one DVA employee did, meant that while your job stayed in Canberra, you could work from anywhere; Sydney, Surfers — or in this case, Bangkok.

Then there’s ‘permanent part-time’, usually enjoyed by older, well-established public servants, many already receiving the very generous CSS (Commonwealth Superannuation Service) pension, where the recipient receives some 60 per cent of his/her pay for life.

CSS is no longer available, neither is the less-generous PSS super scheme, but a ‘permanent part-time’ employee on the CSS is able to be employed by two different departments, for a few hours each day, while working towards another great public service boon, ‘long service leave’.

‘Long service leave’ was a British tradition for members of the civil and military establishments in far-flung colonies to enable them to sail back to Blighty (a sea voyage on say, P&O took some six weeks through Suez or round the Cape).

This tradition still exists in the Australian public service, usually interpreted as six weeks leave on half-pay, which may be extended to up to 12 months, without pay.

Most former leave concessions have been trimmed back or eliminated altogether, such as the one that allowed public servants to take time from their desks to start or complete a degree. But ‘Flextime’ remains and ‘flexing off’ remains a popular aspect of APS culture.

“Public service, Minister?” Well, perhaps not quite as much service as we would expect.

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