Turnbull coalition rejects ‘costly’ commission

By on 01/08/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister, Australia, whose coalition has rejected a royal commission review of government administration (Image courtesy: US Department of Defence).

Australia’s coalition government has rejected calls from former public service leaders for a new royal commission to conduct a root and branch review of government administration.

During a discussion with Michael Fullilove, director of Sydney-based think-tank the Lowy Institute, former defence secretary Dennis Richardson suggested it was time for ‘a second Coombs commission’.

The remark referred to the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, a landmark inquiry chaired by economist and civil servant HC Coombs which was set up in 1974 by Gough Whitlam’s Labor government to examine the structure and management of Australia’s federal public service and government bodies.

According to civil service news site the Mandarin, Richardson, who retired in May after a public service career spanning 48 years, said: “I sometimes wonder whether the time has not come for a second royal commission, because community attitudes and standards have changed.

“The way in which ministers, ministerial advisers and public servants work together has completely changed and I wonder whether we should not be revisiting the philosophical foundations of that.”

Former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretaries Terry Moran and Ian Watt  supported the call for a royal commission. Moran said: “I think it’s a very good idea – and not just about how the public service organises itself but also about how it arranges the delivery of services.

“The Commonwealth pretty much outsources everything in domestic policy these days, except for Centrelink and Medicare. It’s an artefact of neoliberalism that everything should be outsourced, but the public service in Canberra is not adequately keeping track. Look at the mess in aged care, vocational education, employment services and so on.”

But in a statement to Fairfax Media, Michaelia Cash, the minister assisting the prime minister for the public service, said: “The government is committed to ensuring the public service operates as an effective, efficient and professional organisation.

“While always open to considering improvements to the public service, the government does not consider a time-consuming and costly royal commission would be an efficient use of taxpayer’s money.”

Former Finance Department chief Jane Halton said setting up a royal commission could lead people to believe there was a crisis or malpractice in the public service and called instead for a review or assessment, the Canberra Times reported.

Halton, who stood down last year after 33 years as a public servant, said a review was not as slow and expensive as a royal commission and could ensure a modern, responsive and effective administration, while maintaining the public service’s current philosophical underpinnings.

“These days, royal commissions tend to be about wrong-doing or some sort of immediate crisis,” she said. “They are usually enormously expensive, they’re slow, they lumber. If you think about the problem we’re all tackling here, it’s how do you deal with a modern world which is much more agile, much more data rich and expectations are very different.”

Halton said the risks in launching an inquiry with a royal commission stamp were not only that it would not get you where you want to be “very soon at all” but also that there was a question as to whether it was going to “tar the whole world with a very bad brush”.

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See also:

Australian government launches push to harness benefits of big data

Australian commissioner hits out at partisan public servants

Australia and New Zealand School of Government names new CEO

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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