Does the BCA seriously want to bring back the Sir Humphreys?

There is a lot that is good in the Business Council of Australia (BCA) CEO’s latest speech (Restoring a High-Performing Public Service), particularly the endorsement of principles for effective regulation that have been previously set out by the Productivity Commission, Treasury and Finance Department. But the recommended reforms to the public service (cutting ministerial staff numbers and bringing back permanent heads of Departments) should be rejected, and would probably be contrary to the interests of BCA members.

From my experience, ministerial staffers are in better contact with industry and more responsive to the views of industry than public servants. There certainly needs to be better administration of the public service from Ministers, who need to guide the longer-term strategies and work programs of Departments, but this is a separate issue from the number of ministerial staffers, which I think is a minor issue.

Finally, the recommendation to re-instate the tenure of departmental secretaries would bring back the Sir Humphrey culture of public service mandarins who are unaccountable to the voting public and can frustrate the plans of the Government. Sir Frederick Wheeler’s Treasury in the 1970s is a good example of this. With democratically elected Governments, we need public servants who are willing to implement the commitments made by Governments and who Governments can trust. Clearly the quality of public service heads hasn’t declined since tenure was abolished, and the last three Treasury Secretaries (Parkinson, Henry and Evans) will rank highly in future lists of all-time top Treasury Secretaries. Hence I can’t see any merit in the BCA’s proposal.

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