If my memory serves me correctly Peter Shergold, now the most powerful Commonwealth public servant in the country once starred in a public service pantomime as Peter Pan.
The memory popped into my head as I absorbed Shergold’s first reactions to the rampant public debate that followed his decision to dispatch the Australian Federal Police to raid the National Indigenous Times on Remembrance Day, to recover a number of sensitive Federal Cabinet documents. Mr Pan was not a happy man.
The Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet delivered his message in a speech to the Australian Graduate School of Management and Harvard Club of Australia at the National Press Club in Canberra last week. The address was titled: A State of the Unit and delivered, according to the good doctor, to a “large gathering of people who have a professional interest, training and considerable experience in project management”.
It was all about “joined-up”, or whole-of-government approaches: the latest Commonwealth public service buzz-words, along with “horizontal integration”. Well into the speech he accused NIT and others of democratic sabotage. This is what he said:
... A whole of Government approach relies on the sharing of confidential and sensitive material between the relevant central, line and operational agencies. It depends on trust. Sadly, too often in recent times, that trust has been misplaced.
The focus on implementation is essentially the fulfillment of an implicit contract between the elected representatives of the Australian people in government and their agents in the public service. The ability of Ministers and their advisors to have a robust and constructive dialogue in which options and strategies can be freely represented and debated is an essential element of that contract.
The theft of the documents through which that debate is conducted is not just a criminal offence, it is also democratic sabotage.
Leaking blows apart the Westminster tradition of confidentiality upon which the provision of frank and fearless advice depends. So if some people seem surprised that I have called in the police to deal with leaks, they shouldn’t be - I always have and I always will ...
Democratic sabotage? Turn it up. The leaked documents he was referring to - and duly reported in a series of articles in this newspaper - documented the political and bureaucratic sabotage of a democratically elected body: ATSIC.
In the process Cabinet was misled and seriously underfed on the frank and fearless front. Those submissions helped consign the notion of a democratically elected body for Aboriginal people to a Coalition "Never Never Land".
It was at this point the memory cells kicked up the pantomime Peter Pan and his immortal line “... all you need is faith and trust... and a little bit of pixie dust”.
It probably sprung from my reaction to the good doctor’s view of a secret public service. It’s the stuff of fantasy. One assumes it was delivered to appease Shergold’s political masters. He can’t really believe it? Can he? Thankfully, others share my incredulity.
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