Saturday, 22 September 2012

Julia Gillard embroiled in another row

Row over Labor's 'bullies' escalates

Ben Hubbard
Julia Gillard's chief of staff Ben Hubbard. Picture: Kym Smith Source: The Australian
JULIA Gillard's chief of staff Ben Hubbard has taken the extraordinary step of wading into a row with business over ministerial advisers, branding claims that Labor staffers bully top public servants as "shallow, lazy and unsubstantiated". 

Mr Hubbard leapt to the defence of the Gillard government's ranks of advisers after Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott called for the public service to be revitalised by cutting political staff numbers and bringing back civil servants who could provide "frank and fearless" advice.

The Weekend Australian understands the Prime Minister is furious about Ms Westacott's comments. Senior government figures said yesterday the relationship between the government and the BCA had been damaged by her comments on Thursday. Mr Hubbard emailed Labor staffers yesterday to express his disappointment with Ms Westacott's comments "regarding both ministerial staff and the reform performance of this government". "I am proud of the high professional standards and behaviour of our ministerial staff. The shallow, lazy and unsubstantiated claims made yesterday were an insult to both our colleagues and to the once high standards of evidence and policy of the BCA," Mr Hubbard said in the email obtained by The Weekend Australian.

The speech by Ms Westacott, a former senior public servant, has reverberated through Canberra, with former mandarins including Terry Moran backing her push to overhaul the public service but current and former ministerial advisers slamming the plan.

Former advisers from both political camps defended ministerial staffers, saying Canberra public servants operated inside cocoons and had little real world and political experience. At a time when Labor's relationship with business is strained on multiple fronts, Ms Westacott's comments have sparked a spirited debate over the quality of government policy as she outlined on Thursday proposals that would halve the number of personal advisers in ministerial offices.

She said a "culture of intimidation and bullying" had pervaded ministerial offices in part because of the dominance of political advisers over civil servants. In his email, Mr Hubbard said his disappointment was shared by staff across ministerial offices, "particularly given the professional and attentive relationship we have had with the Business Council". He said he had raised his concerns over Ms Westacott's comments with the head of the public service, Ian Watt. Dr Watt and the Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick would contact Ms Westacott to ask for any specific claims of "bullying" or inappropriate behaviour that Ms Westacott referred to, Mr Hubbard said.

Mr Hubbard wrote that the Special Minister of State, Gary Gray, had raised the issues "in the strongest possible terms" with the BCA yesterday. He attached a link to a statement by the Community and Public Sector Union supporting ministerial staff and criticising the BCA for its "slur".

Government sources said Ms Westacott had not raised her concerns with Mr Hubbard or Mr Gray before her speech, and the first the government became aware of them was when her speech was sent to the Prime Minister's office just prior to delivery. Ms Gillard said there were fewer ministerial staffers in her government than under John Howard, and accused opposition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey of " negative political carry-on" for complaining Labor was misusing the public service.

"In terms of ministerial staffers and advisers, there are less under this government than there was under the former Howard government," Ms Gillard said. "There's also a clear code of conduct for ministerial advisers, something that this government created." Mr Gray attacked Ms Westacott for making "scapegoats of dedicated public servants with inaccurate and unfair comments." "Australia has one of the best public administrations in the world and it does not deserve the ill-informed and inaccurate criticisms made by the Business Council of Australia," Mr Gray said.

Tony Abbott said it was not the number of advisers that was the problem, but the way they were used by the government.The Opposition Leader said the Coalition would review the entire bureaucracy but "I think it's the misuse to which political staffers have been put, with dirt units and so on, rather than the fact that there are political staffers as such". He praised the quality of advice provided by the bureaucracy.

A former adviser to ex-prime minister Kevin Rudd yesterday warned of the dangers of insulated public servants."Canberra public servants operate in a cocoon, there is little to no fluidity between academia, NGOs and business," the adviser said. "It's fine for a dynamic public service to exert more control, but only if we aren't talking about graduates who move straight to Canberra and spend decades on the treadmill doing nothing else to broaden their perspective. That's worse than having political staffers exerting influence." John Howard's former chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos, was not aware of ministerial offices bullying the public service.

John Menadue, a former secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet under Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser as well as Immigration Department secretary, said the problem confronting good government was "the power of vested interests" such as the BCA, Minerals Council of Australia, and Pharmacy Guild "with their hundreds of lobbyists who corrupt" the political processes.

One senior government ministerial adviser said the idea that unelected public servants should be given tenure and be free to act without interference from an elected administration was extraordinary.
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