Shifting the reform focus

Confronting the ‘no-go’ zone of politics

Policy Innovation Hub
12 min readOct 25, 2016


by Professor Anne Tiernan

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to address the Institute for Public Administration Australia (IPAA) National Conference. This is the 20th anniversary of the first IPAA National Conference that I attended in Melbourne in 1996. I was captivated by the ideas and issues debated in that forum — between practitioners and academics who were directly engaged in, and deeply committed to, public administration. It motivated my decision to return to study and to pursue a new career as an academic boundary-spanner.

For reasons that I’ll outline, I believe that IPAA has never been more important — not just to public servants, but to the health and wellbeing of Australia’s system of governance. I’m very much looking forward to its return to my state of Queensland.

Those of you familiar with my research will know that I have written about the growing professionalisation, adversarialism and partisanship of politics and its impact on the work of policy advising and governing for more than 15 years. Much of this has been published in the journal of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA), the Australian Journal of Public Administration, that along with conferences like this, is a key member benefit.

There is broad agreement about the damage wrought by the growing tribalism and hyper-partisanship of Australian politics. Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay Political Amnesia and her earlier one Great Expectations, captured well some of the drivers of political discontent and our system’s apparent incapacity to respond to it. Like you I’m looking forward to hearing Laura’s take on the current state of federal politics when she addresses the Conference dinner tonight.

More recently, Peter Varghese’s excellent valedictory speech highlighted the loss of capacity for ‘deep policy thinking’ and the impact of successive (as he describes them often ‘evangelical’) efforts to ‘transform’ the public service.

In my view, we have spent too long focusing on the non-partisan side of the relationship between ministers and career officials. We have given too little attention to the conduct of politics and the behaviour of the vastly expanded ‘political class’ — here I mean politicians, their staff, and the political parties that produce them.

This is an international problem. Despite having driven successive waves of reform, ministers have been conspicuously absent from reviews and inquiries into the performance of the public sector — despite the leadership role they exercise with support from and ideally in partnership with the public service.

Legendary mandarin Arthur Tange noted as much in his 1981 Garran Oration, reflecting on the Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration (RCAGA), which specifically excluded ministers. Christopher Pollitt and Geert Bouckaert argue similarly the need to review ministers remaining the ‘no-go zone’ of public sector reform.

It is high time we focused on the demand-side: the elected side of the ‘governing marriage’. Despite the often heroic efforts of senior officials to manage the ‘dilemmas’ and ‘puzzles’ created by successive waves of reform (and particularly the ‘political management’ reforms), it is increasingly untenable to ignore the disregard that members of the political class show for ‘the rules of the game’ — the traditions and conventions that guide our system of governance. It’s time, I think, to ‘bell the cat’ on the consequences that the relentless blurring of the boundary between politics and administration has on outcomes for Australians.

The ‘crisis’ of governance

I should explain how my thinking about our current situation has evolved. I’ve done lots of academic work about this, of course. My teaching and research involves a lot of contact with Ministers, ministerial staffers and officials in Commonwealth and sub-national jurisdictions. Over time, the divergence between the theory (how it is supposed to work) and practice of executive governance and policy-making (how it really does work) has become increasingly pronounced.

In 2014, in an effort to understand the deep-seated political malaise that seemed to be gripping Australia, I collaborated with founding Editor of Griffith Review, Professor Julianne Schultz, to co-edit an issue we titled Fixing the System. FTS, as we call it, was published in January 2016. It includes essays and reportage from some of the country’s best political analysts and thinkers — all of whom sought to come to terms, in different ways, with the question of what is wrong with our politics.

Fixing the System has attracted considerable interest — our contributors have done lots of media and public events since it was released, which confirmed to us that we had struck a chord. The issue went to print in late November 2015. It seems a long time ago now, but this was:

  • When Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity was at record highs following his successful defeat of Tony Abbott for the prime ministership in September;
  • Before Donald Trump seized the Republican nomination to contest the presidential election;
  • Well before the tumultuous Brexit campaign and vote in the United Kingdom.

But it was after:

  • The bitter and divisive minority parliament of 2010–13. Tony Abbott had won a resounding election victory, but was struggling to make the transition from campaigning to governing.
  • One-term governments had been defeated in Victoria (November 2014) and Queensland (2015).
  • Volatility, the commentators asserted, was becoming the ‘new normal’.

It’s politics, stupid

The prevailing environment of political complexity and volatility is very familiar to IPAA members. Its drivers have been extensively canvassed — in some of the books and articles that I have mentioned, in valedictory and other speeches going back to 2006 and, of course, in an extensive international literature. Intellectually, we all understand their impact and implications for both the business of governing and relations between elected and unelected officials.

What I don’t think is yet clear is whether what we’re witnessing and experiencing represents a continuation of forces of change that have reshaped our economy and society; or whether, like at other ‘critical junctures’ in history, the rise of populism and nativism represents a permanent disruption.

I’ll confess to having become quite bored with endlessly diagnosing and describing of what ails our politics and policy processes. I’m interested in what, if anything can be done about it. I’m worried that many of the institutions, principles and traditions that have underpinned Australia’s prosperity and social cohesion, are at risk. I am concerned we may be sleepwalking into a future that none of us wants.

I’ve been arguing the need to shift the focus of debates about public sector reform — from a primary focus on the public service to what needs to change about politics. Baldly, and in the interests of having more impact than my obviously too polite previous efforts, the political class is the ‘elephant in the room’; the missing link of public sector reform.

Understandably, a focus on politics makes public servants extremely nervous. Academics have more licence here, so let me use it. It’s appropriate to do so at an IPAA National Conference, because IPAA has always provided the platform for tough, but necessary debates about the continuing health and wellbeing of our institutions, our system and processes of governance.

Like the tough, but necessary debates of the past, I hope my remarks today might provoke a wider discussion about both what can be done and who should do it. My own view is that IPAA, including and perhaps especially its academic members, have a special responsibility to ensure the Australian community understands just what is at stake.

I particularly want to challenge the prevailing view that nothing can be done. Clare Wright’s Fixing the System essay shows that is simply not the Australian experience.

My own essay in Fixing the System is entitled ‘Beyond the Nadir of Political Leadership’. In it, I outline the structural factors that I consider to be responsible for recent political failures and the persistent failure of the political class to learn from experience. Nothing in the period since has done anything to shake my conviction about the validity of my analysis.

Briefly, my essay identifies structural factors at two levels that inhibit the capacity for learning by political partisans. The first is in the pathway to attaining government. This encompasses the career backgrounds and experiences of political leaders and their (now many more numerous) fellow travellers, the nature of Opposition and how transitions of government are managed. The second impediment is embedded in the hybrid advisory model that has evolved to support political leaders. It deprives them of institutional memory and the capacity to learn. At the same time it enables, or at least does not inhibit, a leader like Tony Abbott, Campbell Newman or Kevin Rudd from developing relatively insular and self-reinforcing networks of advice and support until, inevitably, the party-room revolts.

Recent experience encourages me to add a third structural factor that is, or may be, becoming intrinsic to contemporary politics. This is the rise of careerists and extremists within political parties — whose only raison d’etre is to gain and maintain power. Independent MP Tony Windsor often says ‘the world is run by those who turn up’. Well, this group turns up — consistently — from when they entered student politics as teenagers. For many of them it’s not about values, or a vision of the kind of nation, state or territory we might want to build. Instead, it is about the tribe.

It may be too soon to assert this, but I think the era of leader predominance may have passed. How else to explain the constraints on, indeed the weakness of leaders like Malcolm Turnbull and David Cameron, whose primary opponents are internal. Winning an election (albeit narrowly in Turnbull’s case) conferred none of the authority that might have been the case in the past.

Reforming the political parties — pre-selection processes and the hollowing out of their capacity for ideas generation and policy development is the rational response to the fact that 22 per cent of Australians voted for someone other than the major parties on 2 July. But we know from bitter experience how stubbornly power-brokers on both sides resist efforts to ‘reform’ and ‘democratise’ their processes.

The public service has no capacity to influence this, but it does need to understand its implications and consequences for public administration. For their part, journalists need to do more than record the battle to win the daily news cycle. They need to look deeper, as do academics, despite the formidable disincentives to studying Australian politics, particularly at state and territory level.

The cover story of the July-August issue of The AtlanticHow American Politics Went Insane’ by Jonathan Raunch, captures this brilliantly. It’s a depressing but weirdly compelling meditation on the crisis of legitimacy in the US. Let me share with you one of my favourite quotes:

In their various ways, Trump, Cruz, and Sanders are demonstrating a new principle: The political parties no longer have either intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms, and, as a result, renegade political behavior pays.

Trump, however, didn’t cause the chaos. The chaos caused Trump. What we are seeing is not a temporary spasm of chaos but a chaos syndrome.

Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers — political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees — that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal — both in campaigns and in the government itself.

Like many disorders, chaos syndrome is self-reinforcing. It causes governmental dysfunction, which fuels public anger, which incites political disruption, which causes yet more governmental dysfunction.

Raunch laments these political insurgents’ lack of respect for the ‘unwritten’ aspects of America’s Constitution — conventions as they are known in our system. These are the principles, traditions and norms, the beliefs and practices that provide the framework for governance. They endured because they were respected; all sides accepted their legitimacy and value.

I found local resonance in Raunch’s analysis. I’m not suggesting Australia is at a comparable point, but political volatility and the policy instability that it engenders, is cause for concern. So is the frankly flagrant, disregard that some members of the political class show for the traditions and conventions of Westminster governance.

Among a lost list of possibilities, I include the conventions of Cabinet confidentiality, collective responsibility, the merit principle, the Caretaker conventions and the Westminster tradition of treating the Opposition as an executive in waiting and as part of the regime.

The ongoing dispute between Attorney-General George Brandis and the Solicitor-General is merely the most recent example of the kind of executive overreach that has become commonplace in all of our jurisdictions. Hyper-partisans, it seems, cannot resist the lure of short-term tactical advantage, whatever the longer-term costs. In their Fixing the System essay, Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen describe this as ‘ruling, not governing’.

I have watched the selective trashing of traditions and conventions at all levels of Australian government with increasing alarm. Is it willful or ignorant? Hard to say. But I associate it with the rise of career politics, the demise of the parliamentary apprenticeship and a more distant, less respectful relationship between political professionals and career officials.

Institutional Thinking

Rules matter. Institutions matter. American political scientist Hugh Heclo defines ‘institutional thinking’ in terms of this respect for the rules and traditions of something that is bigger than ourselves, that will go on long after we are gone.

Respect for traditions and conventions is what has enabled our system of government to evolve and adapt over time. I argue the progressive but inexorable diminution of respect for the ‘rules of the game’ accounts for the anxieties of Australian democracy expressed in recent election results.

Peter Varghese emphasized the importance, but also the frailty of institutions in his Valedictory speech. He reflected that ‘institutions are fragile living organisms, easily weakened and very hard to repair. Governments forget this to the long-term peril of their nations’. Arthur Tange said something eerily similar in his 1981 Garran Lecture. He urged reformers to focus on ‘the total fabric and process of government’, including the role of ministers.

An expert, professional and neutral career public service remains a defining feature of Westminster-style governance. We know from history, from the searing experience of the past decade, and the worrying future that lies ahead if we don’t act, how critical that stewardship role remains. But the research suggests there is no agreement on either the stewardship role of the public service, or what now constitutes a ‘proper’ relationship between ministers and public service.

Rod Rhodes and my research, which will be published next year, has highlighted five analytic themes that are common across the six jurisdictions under study. Perhaps only the fifth one will surprise you. They include:

  1. The problem of fragmentation and coordination, which arguably is more acute at the sub-national level because states are responsible for service delivery.
  2. A tendency to play reactive politics and issue management, which undermines coherence and efforts to focus on key priorities.
  3. The primacy of coping and survival in the calculus of political-administrative elites.
  4. A tendency for a besieged leader to rely on a diminishing circle of close advisers, who by virtue of their close relationship with, and loyalty to, the leader are unable or unwilling to offer alternative advice.
  5. That the courts no longer regard the public service as central or essential to decision-making.

Each of these presents a challenge to Westminster norms. None of them is within the province of the public service to influence. Instead, we need to focus on politics — on considering whether and the ways by which the currently self-defeating model might be rehabilitated.

If that seems impossible or unlikely, I invite you to contemplate the alternative — a vicious cycle of poorly considered and badly executed policy that erodes trust in the ways that we have seen in the US and Europe. Christine Wallace’s FTS essay challenges us to stop being ‘audience democrats’ who sit on the sidelines, to embrace our civic responsibilities and to get involved.

If representative politics is bridge too far, what about your professional association? Peter Varghese argues that the current challenge is comparable to the post-war reconstruction, or the reform era of the 1990s that George Megalogenis has written so eloquently about. If that is so, what role are we each going to play? What vision or model are we working to develop through our shared commitment to good public administration in this country?

How we work together across the scholarly and practice divides and with commentators and opinion leaders, will be, I think, as critical as it was in an earlier reform era. Now as then, IPAA needs to be that platform. We need to find ways of extending it to include politicians and their advisers.



Professor Anne Tiernan is Director of the Policy Innovation Hub at Griffith University, Australia.

Professor Tiernan’s research focuses on the work of governing. Her scholarly interests include: Australian politics and governance, policy advice, executive studies, policy capacity, federalism and intergovernmental coordination. She has written extensively on the political-administrative interface, caretaker conventions, governmental transitions and the work of policy advising.

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