Public service sackings ‘not helpful’ says retiring DFAT chief Peter Varghese

Retiring Department of Foreign Affairs chief Peter Varghese warns that trying to change the public service overnight could do more bad than good. Photo: Andrew MearesPolitically motivated sackings of top public servants are “corrosive and not helpful”, one of the nation’s most senior mandarins has said.
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Retiring Department of Foreign Affairs boss Peter Varghese has become the first senior public servant to speak out publicly after the cull of top officials by the Abbott government soon after its election in 2013.

The widely respected DFAT chief also warned about “messianic” figures trying to change the public service overnight, warning they might do more harm than good.

Three of the victims of the “night of the short knives”, Agriculture secretary Andrew Metcalf, the Industry Department’s Don Russell and Blair Comley from Resources, Energy and Tourism were sacked on September 18, 2013, the day the Abbott government was sworn in.

On the same day, the head of AusAID, Peter Baxter, went on “extended leave” just hours before the abolition of his agency was made public and Treasury chief Martin Parkinson was also sacked with his departure delayed until the following year.

The sackings struck fear into the bureaucracy’s senior ranks.

Mr Varghese ended his 38-year public service career with a speech to the Institute of Public Administration on Wednesday saying he did not believe the public service had been politicised.

But the outgoing DFAT boss warned that public servants must hold the line against politicians or their staffers who tried to exert pressure and departmental bosses must be prepared to back their workers.

But purges of departmental bosses did not help, Mr Varghese said.

“Retaining an apolitical public service is not helped by the disturbing trend for incoming governments to sack some secretaries,” he told his audience.

“The more often this happens the easier it becomes.

“It is highly corrosive of the culture of impartial service which is essential to an effective public service.

“We may never go back to it, but there was a reason why secretaries used to be permanent heads.”

Mr Varghese said politicians relied, on coming to office, on public servants to turn their “headline policy positions” into workable public policy, but there were serious problems with that system.

“The public service meanwhile has itself lost depth when it comes to policy thinking,” he said.

“And so we have had the two systems, political and bureaucratic, talking past each other and each nursing a quiet disappointment with the other.

“I fear that the combination of a relentless news cycle, social media that can often distort the centre of gravity of a policy issue, and the technology of instant connectedness, has weakened our capacity to reflect and to think deeply.”

Mr Varghese also warned of “messianic leaders” who promised overnight transformations of institutions, with the DFAT boss saying “radical incrementalism” using “small steps” was a surer way to succeed in reforming institutions.

“Great leaps forward usually end in tragedy,” he warned.

“History teaches us that messianic leaders have been the biggest cause of human suffering. Certainty can be a great strength but it can also blind us.

“If we want to change an organisation we have to be prepared to recognise failure; to acknowledge that some changes have not worked and should be abandoned.

“The public service should not be shy of trial and error.”

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