• Paul Tilley

Has the boundary between the public service and the ministers’ offices become more blurred?

Updated: Aug 2, 2019

While the Australian Public Service is governed by clear rules and accountabilities, that is not the case for ministers’ private offices – the meretricious players as John Stone called them. There has, nonetheless, long been a broadly understood differentiation of roles – the policy departments taking the lead on policy development and advice to ministers and the ministerial offices adding their views and political context.

As the Australian political scene has deteriorated over the last decade, however, this separation of roles has broken down and the boundary between the public service and ministers’ private offices has blurred.

How has this come to pass? As I describe in Changing Fortunes: A History of the Australian Treasury the change has been a consequence of the relentless push for message over substance that has characterised governments fighting for their political survival. In the daily political and media battles of the last decade Treasury policy advice has not been sought, and at times not very effectively given. In those battles, it has been economic and budget facts and figures, not policy advice, that have been demanded.

On contentious budget issues (spending and taxing) in particular, Treasury allowed itself to be partly manoeuvred away from its formal policy advising role. Written policy advice was often replaced by information briefs in the form of so called ‘one-pagers’. The one-pager has a heading, a brief description of the issue, a costing if relevant and some pros and cons – but crucially, no policy advice. Policy advice was to be given, if at all, orally.

The ministers’ offices were then in the position to put their, politically-attuned, policy advice over the top of the Treasury information brief. Treasury had accepted this more subservient role in the name of being seen to be more responsive to the ministers’ perceived needs.

The model of the department taking the lead on the policy development and advice had partially broken down with the ministers’ offices and external stakeholders increasingly filling this space. The balance of policy influence had shifted. Treasury had moved closer to government, and was highly responsive to its self-perceived needs, but had forfeited part of its policy influence.

In the process, Treasury’s status as a strong policy agency, with a definable Treasury economic framework and some separation from the raw politics of government, had been compromised. With the shift in the balance of policy influence, the previous boundary between public service department and ministerial office had become more blurred.

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