Why the de-separation of political careers matters

Bob Hawke with Yes Prime Minister star Paul Eddington, 1989

Bob Hawke with Yes Prime Minister star Paul Eddington, 1989.
(c) Trove, National Library of Australia

It is hard to keep up with the number of scandals swirling around the Morrison government. In the last year, we’ve had Robo-debtgrass-gate, the allegedly doctored document emerging from Angus Taylor’s officerevelations of blatant political bias in grant spending in the sports-rorts affair, the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream among other schemes.   

The government’s reaction to the public’s outrage has been denial and deflection, even shock when Eric Abetz was contradicted by the Auditor General in a Senate Inquiry. At the heart of these scandals—these failures of public policy—lies the relationship between ministers in the executive, their political offices and the bureaucracy.   

This nexus is neatly demonstrated by the commissioning of the Gaetjens report into handling of the ‘sports-rorts’ by the former Minster for Sport, Senator Bridget McKenzie’s, handling of the ‘sports-rorts leading up to the 2019 Federal electionAs Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and CabinetPhilip Gaetjens is the chief public servantHe used to be Secretary of the Treasury, a job he transitioned to after working as Scott Morrison’s Chief of Staff. Indeed, Gaetjens has had a celebrated career, moving between the public sector and the political offices of both Morrison and former Treasurer Peter Costello.  

In light of Gaetjens past working in partisan offices, and the delicate political context facing embattled minister, Bridget McKenzie, the validity of the whole process was questioned, then critiquedThe air of political expediency surrounding the report was compounded by the decision to keep it secret because it was advice to cabinet, a claim undermined by revelations that few cabinet members had even seen the report.  

Whilst not unique, the whole affair highlights the expediency of politics over process and of political management over public integrity. The whole affair risks becoming ‘business as usual’. 

Changing career structures for political elites  

Political scientists have long discussed the rise of the ‘professional politician’ with the growth of industries surrounding politics, including political staff, lobbyists and think tanks. We know political elites are getting younger and are more likely to have worked as a political adviser, increasingly in the ministerial wing rather than the electorate, before entering politics. 

Public administration scholars note the growing ‘politicisation of the public service’. Changes across Westminster systems make it easier for politicians to appoint senior bureaucrats making them more responsive to the political needs of ministers than to the institutional, para-political needs of the department. This was a reaction to the power of mandarins like those portrayed by Sir Humphrey from Yes, MinisterBut has the balance swung too far in the other direction? 

We call this phenomena career de-separation  

Recently in Political Quarterly, we argued that where there was once two separate career paths for policy makers, one for public servants and one for politicians, increasingly these pathways have become blurredWhile politicisation of the public service and professionalisation of politics are both studied, not enough focus has been given to considering their dual role 

Westminster systems evolved to provide professional and clear policy formation.  Ministers would set aims and professional public servants would advise them about the best way to achieve them.    

Public servants were people working long-term in the public service, appointed through a competitive process and promoted on merit: they knew they were there for the long-term.  They would still be around years after policies were implemented and they would have deal with problems that might emerge.  Senior advisers, in their 50s or older, having served 30 years can bring experience to highlight potential problems and pitfalls in policy initiatives.   

Politicians came from many walks of life and brought experience from different fields.  They might be less conservative than public servants when it came to policy.  They entered politics for a reasonto make a difference. Committed to left or right ideas, they hoped, if not to transform society, at least change it for the better.  

These two career paths would play off against each other, and at times, each would find the other frustrating. ‘The civil service are too cautious’, railed the radical politicians; ‘the politicians do not understand the dangers inherent in this policy’, complained the civil servants. One side or the other might prevail, though ultimately decisive politicians could always win, if they were sure that they could ignore the cautious advice. 

That has changed.  

Consequences of de-separation  

There is growing evidence that we now have one set of political elites whose careers are intermingled.  The career public service has become more politicised as politicians override the merit system and bring people from outside the service 

While not necessarily all bad, since such moves can bring useful experience, it has altered the nature of career competition within the service and weakened promotion on merit.   

The rise of policy advisers or staffers to help ministers devise policy and keep on top of their brief takes policy advice away from professional public servants. Outside of competitive processes, staffers are essentially appointed by ministers. Politically appointed staff are recruited via electorate offices, party central office, policy institutes or from the private circle of the minster, sometimes straight from university. Often young, their average age is mid 30s, a good generation younger than the top public servants.  Theare unlikely to be around to see the consequences of the legislation they help produce. They will be off to some other policy job, or to parliament themselves.  Their ideal path is to ministry. 

The numbers of staffers in comparison to public servants is small, but their influence is far greater because of their proximity to executive government. In Australia, staff numbers have grown  from a handful of press secretaries and speech-writers in the 1960s to 450 at the national level today. In 2019, the New South Wales government employed 210 ministerial staff and the Victorian government 275.  

The reorganisation of the central administrative structures also makes the job of public servants providing expert advice more difficult. At the same time, careerism and the professionalisation of elected politicians makes them more interested in the game of politics rather than in running the country efficiently. 

These changing career paths impact on how we are governed.  

We can see the consequences in the attitude of politicians towards professional public servantsThe Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, recently emphasised the centrality of the public service’s role as implementers of policy rather than advisers to government  

Policy formation was once essentially a secretive exercise, with the ministers and senior civil servants working together until a policy was put together that would then be put to the cabinet and parliament.  Now, the policy advisers often float ideas anonymously to selected journalists to see how the ideas sail. The minister can always deny the policy if there is negative feedback.  And if advisers go too far, well the minister can claim to not know about it, so are not to blame. 

The problem is compounded by hiving off policy implementation to delivery agencies, allowing both politicians and civil servants to shift blame for implementation problems. The problem is further complicated by federalism: even the core civil service seem to worry less about implementation since they will not be directly responsible for it.  

A small, but telling, piece of evidence is that policy is becoming poorer, with an increasing number of policy blunders. Ministers, egged on by their policy advisers, reacting to events, taking greater risks and not listening to—or even getting to hear—the advice of risk-averse public servants. The end point, as we have seen, is to deny that there are facts, to assert that there are only opinions, and the only opinions that matter are those of ministers. 

De-separation is resulting in worse policy, politicians spending time scoring points and blatantly trying to further their careers with seemingly little interest in what that means for the country. Politics is increasingly focused on zero-sum calculations about short-term popularity, which increases the general public’s cynicism about our democracy. The de-separation of administrative and political careers at the heart of Westminster democracies is a burgeoning political and administrative disaster.   


Keith Dowding is Distinguished Professor of Politics and Philosophy and Marija Taflaga is a Lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University