Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, who has died aged 73 of cancer, leaves a political and personal legacy as a man of courage, conviction and congeniality.
The support that Fischer as National Party leader gave was crucial in John Howard’s success in achieving his ground-breaking gun control measure after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.
While the issue tested Howard, for Fischer it was extraordinarily tough. Howard recalls: “He never tried to talk me out of it but he made it plain how difficult it was going to be in certain parts of the bush”.
Fischer remained resolute despite the fury of many among his party’s base, where hostility lingered for years.
When Fischer became leader in 1990, with the Coalition in opposition, quite a few observers doubted the party’s choice. (They included this writer; Fischer delighted in recalling that misjudgement.)
He defied the sceptics, managing his party and the Coalition relationship to the benefit of each, despite the challenges, which included not just gun control but the Wik issue, constant sniping from the Queensland part of the party, leadership rumblings, and the electoral threat posed by One Nation.
“The boy from Boree Creek” was born in the Riverina, and educated at Boree Creek Public School and then at Xavier College in Melbourne. He was conscripted in 1966 – subsequently saying his birthday being selected in the ballot proved a “great door opener” – and he served in Vietnam.
His long parliamentary career spanned state and federal politics. In 1971 he entered the NSW parliament; in 1984 he won the federal seat of Farrer.
Grahame Morris (who became Howard’s chief of staff) remembers as a young country reporter covering Fischer’s appearance at a hall in the town of Grong Grong, in his first state campaign. The speech seemed to take forever, because Fischer had a dreadful stutter – which in later years he managed to control, although it left him with an unusual speech pattern.
“That a fellow [who started] with a pronounced stutter became deputy prime minister and an effective communicator is remarkable,” says Morris, a friend of Fischer over decades.
Cabinet colleague Peter Reith said once, “You don’t so much listen to what Tim has to say as imbibe it”.
In the Howard government Fischer was trade minister, a powerful economic bastion for the National party in those days. But his time in office was limited. He stepped down from his party’s leadership (and the ministry) in 1999, largely driven by family factors – Harrison, one of his two young sons, had autism.
When he went to tell Howard of his decision, the PM tried to talk him out of it. Fischer, feeling he was losing the argument, played his winning card – revealing he had already told a journalist on a VIP flight from New Zealand earlier in the day. He left parliament in 2001.
The citation when Charles Sturt University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2001 captured much about his personality: “Tim’s life has been about dogged adherence to goals. It has also been about risk-taking, grabbing opportunities and perseverance.”
The highlight of a busy post-politics career was serving as Australia’s first resident ambassador to the Holy See, a post to which he was appointed by Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Among a myriad of interests and activities, including writing several books, Fischer’s special passion was trains, which saw him leading tours at home and abroad and, while at the Vatican, organising the Caritas Express, a steam train trip from the Pope’s platform to Orvieto in Umbria .
Last month Fischer was among those aboard a one-off passenger train, raising money for the Albury Wodonga Cancer Centre trust fund, that travelled to tiny Boree Creek, where a park was named for him. “It’s nice to be going home, on a special train,” he said.
Amid the tributes to former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer and the stories of his authenticity, courage and quirky interests – like trains and military history – what has struck me most are the examples of his personal kindness.
One of those stories is how Fischer helped a desperate Laotian refugee who in 1986 pulled a gun at the Immigration office in Albury, near Fischer’s office. It turned into a siege. Fischer walked in alone and defused the situation. He then travelled to Thailand in an attempt to get the man’s family out of the refugee camp in which they were stuck.
There are many similar stories – from army mates, farmers, journalist and politicians of all parties. I experienced Fischer’s personal kindness several times.
The first was when I was appointed chief economist at Austrade in 1999. That made Fischer, who was the federal trade minister as well as deputy prime minister, my boss.
My appointment was heavily criticised in The Australian newspaper – presumably because my previous job was with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It called my appointment “payback” for Fischer’s chief of staff, Craig Symon, getting a senior executive role at Austrade.
I was a bit worried. But then I got a phone call from Fischer. “You got the job on your abilities as an economist,” he said to me. “If you get any political crap, let me know.”
Austrade staff loved working for Fischer. Every time he made a speech at a public event, he would single out an Austrade employee and recall something good they had done. It it made the person feel like a million bucks.
The second was when my book The Airport Economist was published, in 2008. Fischer took a copy to Thailand and gave it to the Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, an avid reader of economic literature.
At a later APEC summit, when world leaders were asked their favourite book, Abhisit replied: “The Airport Economist.” Straight away the Bangkok Post published the book in the Thai language. We had a book launch at the Bangkok Stock Exchange with Australia’s Ambassador to Thailand and Thai TV anchor Rungthip Chotnapalai. The book became a best seller in Thailand, all thanks to Fischer.
An unsung hero of Asian engagement
Fischer is in many ways the unsung hero of Australia’s changed attitudes to Asia in the 20th century. Labor’s legends Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating are all known for championing Asian economic engagement. But Fischer also played a huge role in cementing relationships. He laid his Akubra hat on negotiating tables in most of Asia’s capitals, spruiked deals and hammered out treaties.
A veteran of the Vietnam war, his army days no doubt affected how he thought Australia should view our neighbours. His passion for improved ties with Asia generally, not just in trade, was genuine and authentic. He loved Thailand and Bhutan in particular.
He was in some ways, part of a tradition of Country/National party leaders who pushed Australia towards Asia, largely for economic reasons. For example, John “Black Jack” McEwen negotiated the Commerce Agreement with Japan in 1957, just 12 years after World War II. In the 1970s, Doug Anthony also championed our interests in Asia. Fischer similarly saw Asia as “Our Near North” rather than that quaint old term “The Far East”.
Fischer had his blind spots, to be sure. He failed to appreciate the High Court’s Mabo and Wik decisions, for example. He was a sucker for conspiracy theories at times. But you can’t have everything.
His political career was long, beginning with election to the New South Wales parliament at age 24. But his ministerial career was quite short – just three years. In 1999 he quit his ministerial posts, and the leadership of the National Party, to spend more time to his family – especially his son Harrison, then aged five, who had been diagnosed with autism.
But the impression Fischer made makes it seem he spent much longer at the top. He was like cricketer Mike Whitney and rugby union player Peter Fitzsimmons. Neither played many tests for Australia but they sure leveraged that time into successful subsequent careers. Fischer did the same.
Now the train has finally left the station.
Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics and host of The Airport Economist, UNSW
Australia will commit a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff to an American-led freedom of navigation operation in the Middle East.
Scott Morrison, announcing the long-expected commitment at a Canberra news conference on Wednesday, stressed this was an international mission, but so far the United Kingdom is the only other country to have signed up.
Under questioning, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, said the operation would be United States-led. But Campbell avoided spelling out in detail the rules of engagement in the event of being involved in an incident, other than referring to legal obligations.
Iran has seized ships in recent months, amid escalating tensions.
This week, an Iranian oil tanker was released after being detained by the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on suspicion of taking oil to Syria. The US tried unsuccessfully to have Gibraltar extend the vessel’s detention.
Morrison said Australia had made very clear both to the US and the UK “that we are here as part of a multinational effort”.
“This is a modest, meaningful and time-limited contribution …to this international effort to ensure we maintain free-flow of commerce and of navigation,” he said.
“Australia will defend our interests, wherever they may be under threat, we will always work closely with our international allies and partners.”
Morrison emphasised that the safety of shipping lanes was vital to Australia’s economic interests.
The government had been concerned over incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, he said. “30% of refined oil destined for Australia travels through the Strait. It is a threat to our economy.”
The Australian contribution will be
a P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft for one month before the end of 2019;
an Australian frigate in January 2020 for six months; and
ADF personnel to the International Maritime Security Construct headquarters in Bahrain.
One complication for Australia in finalising the commitment was the fact there was no Australian frigate in the area, with the next deployment not due until January.
Australian ships participate in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.
The Americans were very pressing in their request to Australia to join the force, including in public statements during the recent AUSMIN talks.
Morrison has emphasised Australia wants to see the de-escalation of tensions in the area and separates its commitment to the freedom of navigation operation from America’s other activities in relation to Iran.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has issued a timetable for the government’s dealing with the recommendations from the royal commission into banking, superannuation and financial services, which aims to have all measures needing legislation introduced by the end of next year.
The opposition has accused the government of dragging its feet on putting into effect the results of the inquiry, which delivered its final report early this year.
“The need for change is undeniable, and the community expects that the government response to the royal commission will be implemented swiftly,” Frydenberg said in a statement on the timetable.
Fydenberg said that in his final report Commissioner Kenneth Hayne made 76 recommendations – 54 directed to the federal government (more than 40 of them needing legislation), 12 to the regulators, and 10 to the industry. Beyond the 76 recommendations, the government had announced another 18 commitments to address issues in the report.
The government had implemented 15 of the commitments it outlined in responding to the report, Frydenberg said. This included eight out of the 54 recommendations, and seven of the 18 additional commitments the government made. “Significant progress” had been made on another five recommendations, with draft legislation in parliament or out for comment or consultation papers produced.
The government at first accepted most of this recommendation, announcing the payment of ongoing so-called “trailing commissions” would be banned on new loans from July 2020. Upfront commissions would be the subject to a separate review. Four weeks later in March Frydenberg announced the government wouldn’t be banning trailing commissions after all. Instead, it would review their operation in three years.
Releasing the timetable, Frydenberg said the reform program was the “biggest shake up of the financial sector in three decades” and the speed of implementation “is unprecedented”.
“It will be done in a way that enhances consumer outcomes with more accountability, transparency and protections without compromising the flow of credit and competition,” he said.
He undertook to ensure the opposition was briefed on each piece of legislation before it came into parliament.
“This will begin with the offer of a briefing by Treasury on the implementation plan. Given both the government and opposition agreed to act on the commission’s recommendations, we expect to achieve passage of relevant legislation without undue delays,” he said.
He said the industry was “on notice. The public’s tolerance has been exhausted. They expect and we will ensure that the reforms are delivered and the behaviour of those in the sector reflects community expectations.”
Scott Morrison has a sharp lecture for bureaucrats about their KPIs, in a comprehensive speech laying down how he expects the Australian Public Service to operate under his government.
Morrison stresses the service must be responsive to both its ministers and the “quiet Australians”, look beyond the noisy “bubble”, and be more open to outsiders, in a Monday address to the Institute of Public Administration, issued beforehand.
He calls for a “step-change” in improving delivery, greater diversity of views within the service, and the “busting” of regulatory congestion.
The Prime Minister is producing his blueprint ahead of formally receiving the report from the comprehensive review led by businessman David Thodey, which is coming within weeks – although Morrison has had discussions on its content and reportedly told the panel to take a tougher line on performance standards.
His speech themes build on views he has previously articulated, directly to departmental secretaries and in media comments. His focus is heavily on better service delivery, and his message to the bureaucrats is to remember they are on tap not on top. His concept is narrower than the ideas in a report, commissioned by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and released last week, which highlighted the need for more creative thinking and a greater scope for public servants to speak truth to power in their advisory role.
In his speech Morrison also has very direct words for his ministers, about running their departments. Responsibility for setting policy lies with those elected, he says – ministers must be clear about what they are asking of their public servants.
They must not allow a policy leadership vacuum to be created, expecting the public service to fill it and do their job. One of the worst criticisms politicians can make of each other is that a minister is a captive of their department.
He says he has “selected and tasked my ministers to set and drive the agenda of our government”.
Morrison points out that accountability to parliament and the public for the government’s policies rests with those who are elected.
“Only those who have put their name on a ballot can truly understand the significance of that accountability. I know you [public servants] might feel sometimes that you are absolutely right in what you are suggesting, but I can tell you when it is you that is facing the public and must look your constituents in the eye, it gives you a unique perspective.”
He says his rugby coach used to describe this as “the bacon and eggs principle – the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.
“That is why under our system of government it must be ministers who set the policy direction.”
Morrison sets out six “guideposts” for the evolution of the public service and his priorities:
the “respect and expect” principle, defining the relationship between government and the bureaucracy
the centrality of implementation
“look at the scoreboard” – a strong emphasis on “priorities, targets and metrics across all portfolios”. (He says he has established a Priorities and Delivery Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department, and cabinet ministers are developing objectives and targets.)
having eyes on “middle Australia” – looking “beyond the bubble” of the “many highly organised and well resourced interests” that go often to Canberra and are in the media
following the “Ray Price principle”, a reference to a former leading Rugby League player dubbed “Mr Perpetual Motion” – adapting amid constant change
honouring the public service code of governance and integrity across the bureaucracy.
On implementation, Morrison says: “Ensuring services are delivered seamlessly and efficiently, when and where they are needed, is a key priority of my government.
Good government is about receiving excellent policy advice. But that advice is only as good as the consideration in detail that it gives to implementation and execution.
And this is not an exercise in providing a detached and dispassionate summary of risks that are logged in the ‘told you so’ file for reference in future memoirs.
It’s about telling governments how things can be done, not just the risks of doing them, or saying why they shouldn’t. The public service is meant to be an enabler of government policy not an obstacle.
Morrison says the thinking behind his establishment of Services Australia – in the post-election reshuffle – “isn’t some fancy re-branding exercise.
It’s a message to the whole of the APS – top-to-bottom – about what matters to people.
It’s about ‘doing the little things well’ – everything from reducing call waiting times and turnaround on correspondence right through to improving the experience people have walking into a Centrelink office.
Highlighting the “quiet Australians”, Morrison says “the vast majority” of people “will never come to Canberra to lobby government. They won’t stay at the Hyatt. Or lunch at the Ottoman. Or kick back in the Chairman’s Lounge at Canberra airport after a day of meetings.”
But these members of the public are the public service’s stakeholders – not the “vested and organised interests that pretend to this status,” he says.
I want the APS to have a laser-like focus on serving these quiet Australians. Those you don’t meet with and never hear from. Australians who just get on with it, but who often feel their voice gets drowned out by shoutier ones in our public square.
There is strong evidence that the ‘trust deficit’ that has afflicted many Western democracies over recent years stems in part from a perception that politics is very responsive to those at the top and those at the bottom, but not so much to those in the middle.
This will not be the case under my government.
Middle Australia needs to know that the government (including the public service) is on their side.
Declaring the public service should value diversity, Morrison says “a commitment to diversity should encompass diversity of viewpoints within the APS. There is compelling evidence that this helps teams find answers to complex problems by bringing together people who approach questions from different points of view.
It’s vital that the APS avoid the sort of stale conventional wisdoms and orthodoxies that can infuse all large organisations.
Urging more two-way flow between the public service and outside employment, Morrison says: “We need to find new ways for smart, dedicated Australians to make a contribution to public service, to see a stint in the public service as part of their career journey. And likewise for career public servants to see time outside of the APS in the non-government sector and in business as an important part of their career journey.”
The Morrison government is at risk of losing control of China policy. Push-back from within its own ranks is complicating its ability to manage relations with Beijing. China policy is being subjected to a buffeting from hawkish backbenchers who would like to see Canberra adopt a harder line.
Let’s dispose first of straw man arguments about whether Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie was within his rights to warn of threats to national sovereignty by a rising China that is ruthlessly advancing its own interests.
Hastie has every right to raise alarms about China’s behaviour in his capacity as a member of parliament and chair of the joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security. He was given opinion space in Nine newspapers to do so.
However, he was ill-advised to use a reference to Nazi Germany to advance his argument about a China threat. Hastie may not have likened China to the Third Reich explicitly, but by referencing France’s inability to withstand German aggression he was implicitly making the link.
This is what he said:
The West once believed that economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China. This was our Maginot Line. It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940. But their thinking failed catastrophically. The French failed to appreciate the evolution of mobile warfare. Like the French, Australia has failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbour has become.
Invoking Nazi Germany or the Holocaust to advance an argument is treacherous terrain at the best of times, unless the author is clamouring for attention.
One wonders how much notice Hastie’s commentary would have attracted if there had been no reference to the inadequacies of France’s Maginot Line.
It’s reasonable to speculate that his contribution would have gone the way of those written by other China hawks in the so-called national security establishment, many of whom have converted their hawkishness on China into a cottage industry.
One other point might be made about Hastie’s contribution. It is simply not correct to say, as he did, there was a general expectation China would continue to democratise and in time become more like us.
This is a flawed and naive point of view.
China’s ruthless suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989 was not an aberration. It was consistent with its behaviour since it began opening to the outside world in the late 1970s.
Its 1979 suppression of a Democracy Wall movement, and the arrest of prominent dissidents including human rights activist Wei Jingsheng, now in exile, attest to a regime’s ruthlessness in stifling dissent.
Beijing’s tolerance of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests will be viewed through a prism of what these might portend for the mainland. If there is any indication of contagion across borders, China will react forcefully, and may do so anyway if disturbances continue.
Before addressing what might be an appropriate response from the Australian government to an eruption of anti-China sentiment on its own backbench, perhaps it would be useful to define the challenges at play.
In its latest manifestation, China is no longer a status quo power. It is one that is seeking expand its power and influence in what it regards as its own sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific, broadly defined to include the southwest Pacific.
These attempts to assert itself are not simply restricted to the militarisation of geographical features in the South China Sea. They also involve pursuit of an economic, diplomatic and propaganda offensive that is designed to advance Chinese interests at home and abroad.
In seeking to promote these interests, Beijing is an indefatigable exploiter of opportunities and weaknesses. If there is a rule of thumb in dealing with China in this latest phase, it is that it will seek to get away with what it can on many different fronts.
In that sense, Hastie has a point: Australia cannot simply adopt a passive response to Chinese single-mindedness in pursuit of what it perceives to be its own interests.
The question, then, becomes what to do?
This is where it becomes crucial that the Morrison government settles on a clearly defined strategy to deal with a disruptive China. What this should involve is a combination of a hedging strategy in partnership with Australia’s allies to balance Beijing’s militarised ambitions, and a separate one in which Australia’s own economic and diplomatic interests are asserted.
The government’s task will be to tread a fine line between security arrangements with its allies, principally the United States, and a relationship with China that is defined by Australia’s own interests and not those of anyone else.
In a thoughtful speech to Asialink before the G20 Summit in Osaka in June, Morrison outlined what appeared to have the makings of a “Morrison doctrine” on how to steer a course in treacherous waters between Australia’s security and economic lifelines.
The prime minister argued for a more activist diplomatic role in the region, aimed at securing Australian national interests in what are choppy waters. He said:
We should not just sit back and await our fate in the wake of a major power contest.
Australia could do worse than pursue an Asian equivalent of the Helsinki Accords that helped keep the peace in Europe during the Cold War.
This is a time for creative Australian diplomacy, not running off to Washington to hide behind America’s petticoat.
This returns us to the Hastie intervention and the national interest question.
Just as Hastie is entitled to express a personal point of view, so does the government of the day have a responsibility to assert what is in the national interest.
Clearly it is not in the national interest for political leaders to disregard comments that might have a negative impact on relations with Australia’s pre-eminent trading partner. China absorbs one-third of Australia’s merchandise exports.
… the government is fully aware of the complexity that is involved in our region and the challenges that we face in the future… And we are careful as a government to ensure that we don’t seek to make them any more complex than they need to be. And that is what Australians can count on. We will be measured. We will be careful and we will put Australia’s national interest first.
Morrison needs to assert this point of view more forcefully if he is to avoid losing control of China policy. These is nothing inherently inconsistent between a national interest argument and one that enables dissident voices to have their say.
In light of the ministerial direction issued to the Australian Federal Police by the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on August 9, it would be a spectacular contradiction in policy if the Australian Federal Police’s current pursuit of journalists were to end in prosecutions.
I expect the AFP to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society and to consider broader public interest implications before undertaking investigative action involving a professional journalist or news media organisation in relation to unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.
So much for the uncompromising stance of Dutton and the then acting commissioner of the AFP, Neil Gaughan, that the law was the law, and if journalists broke it they could expect to be prosecuted like anyone else.
The political sensitivity of this climb-down may be gauged from the fact the direction was issued at 4pm on a Friday.
A combination of early deadlines for the Saturday papers, the incapacity of television to pull together a comprehensive story in time for the evening bulletins, and the dead air of the weekend make late Friday the preferred time of the week to drop bad or embarrassing news.
Dutton’s announcement was bereft of explanation. However, events since the AFP raids on the home of a News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst, and on the ABC headquarters on June 5 and 6 respectively give a hint of the likely reason.
First, there was the international condemnation across the Western world of the repressive nature of the police raids, expressed in a tone of disbelief that this could be happening in a mature democracy.
Then there was the unified response from the heads of Australia’s three main news organisations, the ABC, News Corporation and Nine. Their message, delivered in a nationally televised broadcast from the National Press Club on June 26, was that a government obsessed with secrecy had now gone so far as to criminalise journalism.
There was also the statement by the Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter, that he was “seriously disinclined” to prosecute journalists for doing journalism. His consent is needed for any such prosecution.
Faced with international condemnation, pressure from the media and the potential for a major row in Cabinet between Dutton and Porter, the government then tried to take the sting out of the situation by setting up an inquiry into press freedom.
Bizarrely, this is being conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), the very body that has waved through most of these repressive laws in the first place.
The inquiry has generated a body of strongly worded submissions arguing for the balance between press freedom and government secrecy to be struck in a way that is more consistent with democratic principles.
It begins its public hearings this week.
So Dutton’s ministerial direction may be seen as having two objectives: heading off a potentially damaging split in cabinet, and accomplishing a preemptive buckle before the parliamentary inquiry calls him and outgoing AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, to give an account of themselves.
Of course, as far as anyone knows, the AFP investigations are still on foot. Already officers have removed thousands of records from the ABC, accumulated travel data concerning two ABC journalists and requested their fingerprints, as well as turning Annika Smethurst’s home upside-down.
So the government’s intimidatory tactics have had a good run already, even if prosecutions do not follow.
There is nothing to stop the police from completing these investigations and providing a brief of evidence for Porter. However, given his stated position, allied with the new political dynamics created by the reaction to the raids and Dutton’s directive, it seems unlikely prosecutions will follow.
While the ministerial direction represents a genuflection in the direction of press freedom, it provides nothing by way of protection for whistleblowers.
The direction says it
does not constrain investigation by the AFP of unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.
So it seems the pursuit of whistleblowers – the people who provide journalists with leaked information – can continue unabated. They still have only a demonstrably useless law – the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 – offering a fig leaf of protection.
The present prosecutions of Richard Boyle (Tax Office) and David McBride (Defence) attest to this.
The last paragraph of Dutton’s directive deals with the process by which government departments or agencies refer leaks to the AFP, and the AFP then assesses for investigative possibilities.
This entire reference and assessment process has been shot through with politics, either at the departmental end or the police end, or both.
That is why the ABC and Smethurst leaks – neither of which had much to do with national security but were acutely embarrassing to the government – were subject to police action.
By contrast, a leak to The Australian about the alleged security effects of the medevac legislation, which the head of ASIO Duncan Lewis publicly complained was a real threat to national security, was not subject to police action because it played into the hands of the government’s scare campaign about people-smuggling.
Dutton’s direction says:
I expect the AFP to strengthen its guidance and processes about the types and level of information required from a Government department or agency when they are referring to an unauthorised disclosure. Referring departments or agencies will need to provide a harm statement indicating the extent to which the disclosure is expected to significantly compromise Australia’s national security.
If the direction is to be taken as meaning only leaks significantly compromising national security are to be referred to the police, then there may be a larger safe space within which journalists can operate.
The public service is a soft target, especially for Coalition governments, and Scott Morrison has already had it in his sights.
His early messaging has been that the bureaucracy needs to improve delivery and implementation. He’s also telling it, with a degree of bluntness, to remember the old adage – that it is on tap and the government is on top, and not to go getting too many ideas of its own.
And there will be more to come. On Monday week, Morrison will set out in detail his thoughts on the service in an address to the Institute of Public Administration. Meanwhile a review of the bureaucracy, set up by Malcolm Turnbull and chaired by business figure David Thodey, is about to land. This inquiry was charged with producing “an ambitious transformation program” to ensure the service is “fit-for-purpose for the coming decades”.
The Australian Financial Review reported this week Morrison had told the Thodey review “to take a tougher line on the performance standards demanded from the nation’s 150,000 bureaucrats”. (Whether achieving better “performance standards” in Morrison’s mind includes fixing up the present arbitrary system for chasing welfare recipients over income reporting is another matter.)
Morrison is moving his one-time chief of staff Phil Gaetjens from Treasury head to become secretary of the Prime Minister’s department; Gaetjens is replaced in Treasury by Steven Kennedy, the widely respected secretary of the Infrastructure department. Apart from a new Infrastructure secretary, other changes are expected at the top.
Morrison’s attitudes towards the public service derive from his keen eye on voters’ needs and opinions, and the sort of leader he is.
Given his constant deriding of the “Canberra bubble”, it follows he would perceive mileage in some muscling up to what can be portrayed as a “bubble” cohort (though many of them are actually located elsewhere). Morrison understands the public want efficient delivery – and also knows putting bureaucrats in their place plays well with the shock jocks and their constituency.
As one bureaucrat puts it, Morrison is “an outcomes-oriented person. He likes doing stuff – and he likes people to work out how to do stuff in a timely way”. So, for example, he is suspicious of long processes of consultations by the public service.
Morrison’s belief that the public service shouldn’t get above itself – by having its own policy views, rather than just views on how to implement the government’s policy – hasn’t just been articulated since becoming PM.
He put the same line to Paul Tilley, former senior Treasury officer whose book Changing Fortunes: a History of the Australian Treasury, was published this week.
Tilley quotes Morrison, treasurer at the time, saying:
Treasury shouldn’t tell the Treasurer what to do. They should tell the Treasurer what they think of what the Treasurer plans to do, of alternative ways in which he can do what he wants to do … Treasury needs to remember its job is to advise the government on the government’s agenda – not to decide the agenda.
Of course at one level Morrison is correct – it is not the bureaucracy’s job to “decide” a government’s agenda. But his argument lacks subtlety, and plays down important aspects of the advisory role that a top grade public service should have.
Tilley charts the waxing and waning of Treasury’s influence over the decades. “Through the golden years of macroeconomic and budget management of the 1950s and first half of the 1960s, then again through the nation-changing economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, Treasury was influential. …
“From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Treasury still had a strong economic framework but was seen as dogmatic and was pushed out into the cold. Then, in this last decade, the balance of policy influence has again shifted away from the department”.
While timeframes and individual departmental stories will vary, it is clear that in recent years the public service generally has lost policy clout.
Reasons are multiple. Some are long standing but have increased over the years; others are more recent.
They include the ever-expanding role of ministers’ own staffs; the move (under the Keating government) to have secretaries on time-limited contracts; “reform fatigue” within government, bureaucracy and the community; the proliferation of outside sources of advice; the 24-hour news cycle; hyper-partisanship; increased outsourcing of work formerly done by bureaucrats; and the elevation of the doctrine of public service “responsiveness” to ministers.
The preliminary Thodey report in March was disappointingly bland, affected by the proximity of the election.
It is not particularly deep on this issue of advice. It does observe:
There are strong concerns that the APS’s underlying capacity has been weakened over time. … The risk is that Australia will find itself with an APS that, in coming years, struggles to provide successive governments with integrated advice and support – informed by a deep understanding of the needs of the Australian people – to best tackle complex problems.
Does Morrison’s downplaying the advisory role of the public service matter? On several fronts it does.
In so many areas, the policy world is highly dynamic and rapidly changing. Unless the public servants are encouraged to explore the outer reaches of this world, a government will not have all the information and options that it should. It will lack the best policy telescope.
Morrison makes the government’s “agenda” sound like a once-and-for-all tablet. But a government in office for any length of time needs a constantly evolving and innovative agenda, to which bureaucratic thought and expertise can contribute.
Only an arrogant government – or one living on a temporary high after an unexpected election win – thinks it knows everything. It might come as a shock to some politicians, but departments on occasion educate their masters. Treasury, for instance, shaped John Howard’s thinking, which affected the way in which he sought to change the Fraser government’s policy thinking (albeit with limited success).
Morrison might reply that things have changed, because there are now many more fonts of ideas, in the private sector and think tanks. This is true and they should be tapped. But they won’t necessarily be superior to good public service thinking, and often they are harnessed to vested interests.
Relegating the advisory side of the public service’s role also diminishes the status of the service, making it harder to attract and keep the brightest talent.
Morrison would like a more porous bureaucracy – where people move in and out from the private sector. Again, there is value in encouraging such movement, but experience suggests it doesn’t work as well in practice as in theory.
Gaetjens’ new job as secretary of the Prime Minister’s department involves not just servicing Morrison and his government but also being the bureaucracy’s custodian and voice.
Part of his task should be to convince Morrison he needs strong and broad public service advice more than he currently thinks he does. Even if it’s sometimes unpalatable or outside the square.
It’s been two years since the government announced it would establish a Home Affairs portfolio, and just over 18 months since it came into being. Since then, the department, and its high-profile minister and secretary, have attracted much controversy, discussion and criticism.
The latest debate centres on concerns that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is further consolidating power with legislation that would prevent foreign fighters from returning home for up to two years and the recent decision to move refugee services into his department.
There’s also been criticism that the portfolio is cloaked in secrecy, with some questioning why an internal strategic review of the ministry has not been made public.
Are we seeing an unprecedented consolidation of unregulated power? Or is there a reasonable story of good public policy behind the headlines?
Creating a single defence portfolio
These questions need to be placed in the context of both history and broader developments in home affairs policy.
We’re used to having a single Department of Defence in Australia. But it was only 40 years ago that the momentous decision was made to consolidate five departments — including one for each of the armed services — into a single agency.
There was push-back at the time from some agencies, and also a focus on the high-profile personalities involved in the process, including Defence Secretary Sir Arthur Tange, and his relationship with ministers and service chiefs.
Decades later, the Department of Defence remains a large but effective organisation with a joint strategic and operational command, supported by a capable department. But its strategically important role and the significant resources needed to do its job mean it continues to require close management, attention and review.
Last year’s decision to take the Australian Signals Directorate out of the department shows it remains a work in progress, but one that continues to head in the right direction.
The lesson is that significant change in important areas of government policy, operations and services takes time, accompanied by ongoing review and revision.
Competing agencies and priorities
Before the Home Affairs portfolio was created, there were numerous security issues that cut across government agencies and demonstrated the need for a more strategic approach and greater collaboration among agencies.
The crisis around the unauthorised boat arrivals in the late-2000s, for example, created significant tension between the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
The high number of arrivals saw demands to speed up immigration visa processing. But ASIO was seen as delaying the process as it had to ensure the largely undocumented arrivals presented no security threat.
It was challenging for the two agencies, with such different responsibilities, to work through these issues. There was also pressure on the Australian Defence Force to provide the operational response at sea, and on law enforcement and customs officials investigating people-smuggling operations and other related crimes.
The agencies worked reasonably well together, but were often constrained due to their separate roles and protocols that did not support collaboration. They got through the crisis, with a lot of effort.
Counter-terrorism has been another major cross-agency issue. ASIO handled terror threat advisories and terror investigations (along with the police), while the attorney-general’s department oversaw countering violent extremism (CVE) policy.
The prime minister’s department was home to senior counter-terrorism and cyber-security coordinators, and the departments of defence and foreign affairs and trade ran their own counter-terrorism initiatives.
There was no single agency responsible for providing strategic policy direction on the issue until the establishment of Home Affairs.
One strategic policy home
The advent of Home Affairs means that complex and sometimes competing priorities have a strategic policy home and can be worked through at a portfolio level.
Immigration and ASIO are now in the same portfolio. Other agencies have also been added to the mix, including the Australian Border Force (ABF), the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).
Even in the short period since its creation, Home Affairs has made progress in providing more effective operations and services, supported by enhanced information sharing and technical capabilities.
For example, the department now has dedicated leads overseeing cross-agency efforts on counter-terrorism, cyber-security, organised crime and foreign interference.
Yet, the breadth of issues handled by the portfolio has also raised concerns about consolidation of power.
But most of the Home Affairs agencies are separate statutory authorities, retaining the independence and power established in their roles. The heads of ASIO and AFP, for instance, provide advice directly to the prime minister and cabinet when required and carry out their own operations.
The most important issue facing Home Affairs is the need for clear communication to the public on what the department does, why it’s important, and how its work is carried out. That must also include assurances the department has appropriate oversight and accountability systems in place.
This is easier said than done in the highly charged political atmosphere that’s surrounded Home Affairs since its inception.
It’s good news, then, that Labor chose to establish a shadow home affairs minister after the federal election, thereby working with the new Home Affairs arrangements and letting the portfolio as a whole settle down.
The oversight and accountability mechanisms are also doing what they’re supposed to do. The proposed security laws, for example, were scrutinised by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), which recommended changes to reduce the minister’s power.
Most suggestions were incorporated in the revised legislation, though Labor still has concerns about the minister’s power to grant a temporary exclusion order (TEO) for returning foreign fighters. The PJCIS will continue to examine the use of TEOs, as will the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and other oversight organisations.
The PJCIS is also due to report to parliament in October on its inquiry into press freedom, which will shed light on issues related to the AFP raids. And we’ll likely see the key findings of Home Affairs’ internal review as its annual report and regular Senate Estimates appearances approach.
Why it should work
The creation of Home Affairs enables a more strategic and integrated approach to security, law enforcement, migration and border issues. It also means more efficient delivery of services.
But there are significant challenges to doing this and getting it right, particularly while managing such a vast portfolio of operations and responsibilities. Maintaining a balanced approach, and ensuring considered and appropriate oversight and review will be critical to its success.
More than 40 years after its creation, the Department of Defence is held up now for its strategic vision and stewardship of the country’s armed forces. The divisive politics surrounding its creation have long been forgotten.
And so it should be with Home Affairs. The creation of the portfolio is ultimately a good thing for Australia and for good public policy and services. But this is a long-term endeavour and the project is still in its early days.
Pauline Hanson has saved Energy Minister Angus Taylor from an inquiry into his intervention over endangered grasslands, with a Labor motion defeated 33-32 in the Senate.
Earlier Taylor defended his intervention in a statement to the House of Representatives, insisting he had obtained a meeting with officials on the grasslands in response to representations from local farmers, and there was no canvassing of the compliance issues that were on foot relating to land in which he had an interest.
The opposition continued to pursue Taylor in question time, but it was already clear it would not have the numbers in the Senate for the inquiry. Hanson said One Nation, which has two votes, would not back a “witch hunt”. Labor’s motion had the support of the Greens, Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie. The other crossbencher, Cory Bernardi, voted with the government.
In 2017 Taylor sought a briefing on the classification as endangered of the natural temperate grassland. The environment minister at the time was Josh Frydenberg who was not, however, at the meeting that occurred in response to Taylor’s representation.
At the time there was an investigation into the clearing of a section of the grassland on the property of the company Jam Land Pty Ltd, of which Taylor’s brother Richard is a director. Angus Taylor has an interest in Jam Land through his family company.
Taylor told parliament that when he took up the matter there “had been strong antagonism expressed by the farming community about federal and state native vegetation regulation.”
In late 2016 and early 2017 he had spoken with farmers in his Hume electorate and nearby about their worries with the listing of the grassland.
“On 21 February 2017, I spoke with a farmer near Yass who expressed strong and detailed concerns about the revised listing, pointing out that it had occurred despite the concerns of the National Farmers’ Federation and NSW Farmers, and with little consultation with farmers themselves,” he said.
“All of these farmers were completely disconnected from our family farming operations.”
Taylor said the revised listing of the grassland – which is in both the Hume and Eden-Monaro electorates – “would ultimately halt pasture improvement and efficient weed control across the Southern Tablelands and Monaro” and “has the potential to do untold damage to agricultural productivity throughout the region”.
“I sought a briefing on the revised listing from the then minister’s office, which I made clear was not to include any discussion of compliance matters.”
Taylor said FOI documents already released showed that an official had written that the meeting was “to answer questions on the technical aspects of the listing outcome”, and would “stay out of completely” any compliance action underway.
This was how the meeting had gone, Taylor said. “At no time during this meeting, was any compliance matter, or any personal interest of mine, discussed. At that meeting we discussed precisely what the department had said we would discuss.”
The opposition pressed Taylor to produce any correspondence from complaining farmers. Nothing was forthcoming.
Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong accused Taylor of using his ministerial position to “shore his investments up”.
She told the Senate: “Mr Morrison says Mr Taylor has one KPI, to be the minister for lower prices. But he is the minister to increase the value of his own investments.
“Angus Taylor failed to declare a direct financial interest in a company [in the declaration of interests register]. But worse, he then used his position, as a minister, to defend that company’s interests after it was accused of breaking the law.”