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"A New Environment in the Australian Public Service"

The opening address to the
Victorian Commonwealth Executive Forum Annual Conference

by the
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon Robert Hill Lancefield
August 30, 2000

It is an honour to open the Victorian Commonwealth Executive Forum Annual Conference.

When my office was first approached about this conference it was suggested that I may like to attend as an after dinner speaker. As it turned out, a change to parliamentary sittings meant this would not be possible . But my office did speculate, however, on what a conference of public servants would have on the menu for a dinner with a minister of the crown. The popular choice for openers was leak soup. After the leak soup, the minister would no doubt be waiting expectantly for the public servants to serve up some sacrificial lamb. And it would be lamb, not beef because the chef would be a member of the CPSU and therefore would not touch any sacred cows. And usually by the end of such proceedings someone ends up eating humble pie.

I have been asked to speak today about the relationship between a minister and his department and, more broadly, about what a minister expects of today's public service.

Some of you may be aware that I recently became Australia's longest serving Federal Minister for the Environment - despite my sense of humour. From that perspective, I feel it would be useful to talk about the significant changes which have been made within the working structures of my own portfolio and in doing so pass comment on some of the broader issues affecting the Australian Public Service.

As you know, the Howard Government came to office in March of 1996 and I took up the role of Environment Minister in the first Howard Ministry. Just over 12 months later the Sydney Morning Herald ran a headline "Howard Puts Clamp on Green Policies".

The article claimed that the Government had signalled a dramatic change of direction for the environment department - which at this time had recently been renamed Environment Australia. The article further reported the government's plans had sparked an outcry among scientists and conservationists.

The Australian Democrats said the change was "frightening" and vowed to oppose it.

An academic said the change ran counter to the 1996 State of the Environment Report and would put the environment second to the economy. The green group quoted - and it was one of the more reasonable ones - said the change would work against effective environmental protection and mean that Environment Australia was no longer an advocate for the environment.

As always, there were the un-named senior departmental officials condemning the change.

The cause of this sudden outpouring of outrage was the leaking of a draft copy of Environment Australia's new corporate plan. This included a statement of the department's new vision for "a natural and cultural environment, valued, enhanced and protected in harmony with the nation's social and economic goals." Furthermore, the article breathtakingly reported, the draft plan called for the "ecologically sustainable management of Australia's coastal and marine resources."

If I could deal with the second point first, ecological sustainability was a concept, which had been around since the 1980s and had been central to the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. It basically means using our resources in a way that does not run down the natural asset - ensuring that the resource and the environment are managed sustainably for future generations to enjoy.

Today you will constantly hear green groups, academics and the Democrats calling for ecologically sustainable practices in everything from farming in the Murray Darling Basin to prawn trawling off the Queensland coast. And yet just three years ago they considered it an outrage for the Howard Government to be saying our marine resources should be managed in exactly this way. I would note that in those three years we have moved ahead with a world-leading strategy for the protection and sustainable management of our marine environment with the release of Australia's first National Oceans Policy and the opening of a National Oceans Office in Hobart. I take a fair degree of pride in knowing that we were, in fact, so far ahead of the game.

The reaction at the time to the broader issue of the new vision statement was also illustrative of the inability of some, both inside and outside of the bureaucracy, to move with changing times. The melding of economic, social and environmental goals in the vision statement was seen by the critics as being an attack on the importance of the environment. Yet today's new wave of environmental thinking actually calls on industry and policy makers to consider what is known as the triple-bottom line impact of their actions - that is, the combined social, environmental and economic value added by their actions. Today's environmentalists are telling us we can't consider the economic benefits of a decision without also considering the social and environmental ramifications. This is entirely consistent with the approach we advocated, and were condemned for, three years ago.

Prior to 1996, we had an environment bureaucracy which saw environmental issues as being separate and distinct from the core economic and social decision making processes of government. As a result, the environment portfolio often suffered in policy debates at the hands of economic portfolios aimed at delivering the government's core political objectives of economic and employment growth.

What our government has sought to do through its restructuring of the environment portfolio is to make environmental issues central to this process, not continue to be seen as an optional add-on. Obviously, this process has taken more than the redrafting of a departmental corporate statement. Before I briefly discuss the changes we made, I should dispel any misconception that the word restructuring is, in fact, code for job cuts. The environment portfolio actually employs more people now than it did in June 1996 - although I'd appreciate you not mentioning that to any of my colleagues on Cabinet's Expenditure Review Committee.

Prior to 1996 the portfolio consisted of

Each of these bodies had its own headquarters, its own corporate service functions and its own information systems - what some might refer to as a classic case study of empire building.

While this duplication had obvious cost implications, it also impacted on the portfolio's ability to effectively contribute to whole-of-government policy decisions. Territorial rivalry and competition between these sections would often see the portfolio represented at inter-departmental committee meetings by several people - each with differing opinions.

The acrimonious forests debates which gripped the ALP Government in the early 1990s provided an example of how this problem could manifest itself. The AHC, ANCA, EPA and Environment Strategies section all were represented in the forest debate but did not have a united front. I am advised that on occasions these representatives of the environment portfolio would spend more time arguing with each other than arguing with the representatives of the industry and economic portfolios. Considerable damage was done to the portfolio's reputation within the government and the bureaucracy during this time.

By October of 1996 we had restructured the portfolio into 5 major functional groupings: Australian and World Heritage, Biodiversity, Environment Protection, Portfolio Marine, and Environment Priorities and Coordination.

The aim of the restructure was to streamline program coordination and provide for integrated policy development. The restructure was driven in part by a policy imperative of the government. We had come to office promising to create a $1 billion fund for environment and sustainable agriculture projects to be funded through the one-third sale of Telstra. This represented the largest ever investment in the environment by a Federal government. We needed a bureaucracy which was focussed and capable of delivering programs under the Trust is an effective and efficient manner. As the Trust sought to integrate multiple environmental outcomes, coordination across the portfolio was essential. The old fractured structure simply could not have coped with the enormity of the task.

The title Environment Australia was adopted to help symbolise the common objectives of the portfolio. Just as importantly, plans were put in place to bring the different sections of the portfolio under the one roof. This was eventually achieved in January of last year when the department moved to the old Administrative Services building, renamed the John Gorton Building. The move had the dual benefits of saving the portfolio some $12 million over a 10-year lease period while also supporting a significant upgrade of an important heritage building. The environmental aspects incorporated into the refurbished building are considered to be best practice within Commonwealth buildings.

We made a conscious decision to beef-up the economic expertise within the portfolio in line with the new vision statement. Environmental issues such as forests and greenhouse have inextricable economic and social dimensions. The current debate on landclearing in Queensland, for example, requires the Commonwealth to make detailed assessments of the economic costs involved in both taking action and not taking action. Economic expertise will also play a central role in determining the direction of the government's natural resource management strategy.

Initially, there was some mistrust within the portfolio about the direction we were taking and there was some resistance to change. I'm sure the anonymous senior officers quoted in the article I mentioned previously were not alone in their condemnation of what we were proposing.

But now that the dust has settled, I am confident that any objective observer would applaud the results we have achieved.

I've already mentioned the historic National Oceans Policy, a policy area of vital importance to our nation's economic future. The environment portfolio has been given the lead role in coordinating the government's efforts in implementing this policy which reaches across several portfolios.

The Natural Heritage Trust has now invested some $870 million in more than 9,000 projects across Australia - an administrative task which would previously have been beyond the portfolio.

The forests process which caused such controversy during Labor's term in office has now been largely implemented through the Regional Forest Agreement process. The environment portfolio can take considerable pride in knowing that it played a major role in a process which has seen more than 2.5 million hectares of forests added to reserves, an increase of almost 40 per cent, and which also ensured that commercial forests are harvested in an ecologically sustainable way as well as an economically sustainable way - and of course you can't have one without the other.

And I could also point to the issue of climate change - a policy issue with closely inter-connected environmental, social and economic ramifications for the nation. The environment portfolio played a central role in providing advice to the government in the development of its package of actions in the lead-up to the Kyoto Summit of 1997. As we face the post-Kyoto challenge of meeting our greenhouse gas target, the environment portfolio has been given the lead role in implementing Commonwealth actions. The Australian Greenhouse Office, established within the environment portfolio, brings together a range of Commonwealth efforts across several portfolios, including Primary Industries and Energy, and Industry, Science and Tourism. The AGO is responsible for programs worth almost $1 billion. It is further recognition of the newfound respect for the environment portfolio within the federal bureaucracy. It also reflects our government's key aim to ensure that the environment is at the centre table in all Commonwealth decisions.

The process of reform continues within the environment portfolio, as it does within the wider public service. The move to an accrual budgeting framework, outsourcing of information technology, market testing of functions such as public relations, and the implementation of the new Public Service Act are all challenges you would be aware of from your own portfolio areas.

Our political opponents, of course, would describe these moves as attempts by the Howard Government to run down the public service and the importance of its role as the provider of advice to the government of the day. The Canberra Times went even further claiming that the changes were an attempt by the government to rule the public service through "fear and loathing."

This sort of view makes for a cheap headline but does not stand up to scrutiny of any degree.

Outsourcing is not, as has been alleged by some, an ideological obsession of the government.

In my portfolio, for example, our core business is the environment and ensuring that it is central to government decision making processes. If someone from outside of the portfolio can provide information technology services at a lower price and that leaves funds to be directed toward our core business of the environment, it would be irresponsible not to pursue such an option. Similarly, if the outsourcing of other functions provides greater flexibility for the department to focus on its key objectives, then why wouldn't we explore the alternatives?

To take it a step further, if the government identifies a source of advice from outside of the existing bureaucracy which can provide the specialist expertise required for specific issues, why shouldn't it make use of this source?

Our portfolio has advanced significantly in a relatively short period of time through understanding what its key purpose is and focussing its attention toward achieving this. The environment portfolio has been largely transformed from a disparate collection of agencies more interested in administering the granting of permits and managing parks, to a professional, integrated operation capable of providing the level of advice required to meet the government's environmental objectives.

None of this would have been possible if the government had not shown the political will to force through changes to the portfolio's structure and if the Public Service had not been prepared to accept the challenge.

Finally I would like to touch on two inter-related issues - the apolitical nature of the public service and the provision of what has become known as "frank and fearless" advice.

The changes we have implemented have led to the predictable criticism that the government has politicised the public service. This is an old, cheap shot usually fired by Oppositions in the hope of grabbing some media attention. I'm sure if you checked the Parliamentary Hansard database you'd find a former Senate Opposition Leader by the name Hill levelling the same allegation at the Hawke and Keating governments.

The reality is that while the public service is apolitical it remains a servant to a government of the day which is of a particular political persuasion. And governments of different persuasions have different policy objectives and different views on how those objectives should be achieved. In adapting to any change of political direction from the government of the day, the public service actually confirms its apolitical nature - that is, it is willing to serve the government regardless of its political approach to policy issues.

Professor Richard Mulgan from the Australian National University recently addressed this issue in the Australian Senate Occasional Public Lecture series. Professor Mulgan noted,

"A change of political direction, for instance associated with a change of government, affects only a small proportion of government activity. But at those points where elected governments do wish to change direction, then the duty of public servants is clear: they must faithfully and efficiently implement such changes."

I have already spoken about my own experiences in this regard. The election of the Howard government brought a change in political direction on environmental issues. This was, as you would expect, attacked by our political opponents. But individuals within the public service also chose to resist the will of the democratically elected government in implementing its policy program and there were a number of deliberate leaks aimed at damaging the government.

The question must be asked, which posed the greater risk to the apolitical image of the public service: the duly elected government of the day seeking to implement its mandate, or the small minority of public servants who chose to resist?

I eagerly await the day that a newspaper or the Opposition accuses a leaker of politicising the public service.

What we have been able to achieve in reshaping the environment portfolio and making it more relevant to government decision making is a great credit to the majority of public servants who maintained their professionalism and ethics and, despite their doubts, worked with the government.

The provision of frank and fearless advice has been one of the cornerstones of the Australian Public Service. I was interested to see Professor Mulgan again provide a different perspective when he noted;

"It is a distraction to keep harping on about frank and fearless advice. If we want to stress the qualities that a professional public service can offer, why not emphasise other qualities such as flexible, informed, experienced, politically savvy, honest, hard-working and so on? Frank and fearless is part of the mix but it is not the main element and certainly not the defining element. The great strength of a professional public service is not its capacity to stand up to a government but rather its capacity to give effect to public policy."

This view may be anathema to Public Service purists but it deserves serious consideration. I believe all governments benefit from the provision of frank and fearless advice but that's regardless of whether it comes from the Public Service, political staff, academia or the private sector. To be frank, my own perspective as a minister is that I'm more concerned about the quality and timeliness of the advice.

I would like to put forward a simpler construct to that of Professor Mulgan for you to consider: advice from an apolitical public service may be frank and fearless, but at the end of the day it is only advice. Ultimately, it is the minister on behalf of the government of the day who decides whether to accept or reject that advice. An apolitical public service respects the right of the minister to make that political judgement and gets on with the job of implementing the minister's decision. And I'm more concerned about the need for a public service that can implement policy decisions in a demanding and often competitive administrative environment - again in an efficient and timely way.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the work of those responsible for this on-going series of conferences. As Australia seeks to maintain its place in an increasingly competitive global community, the provision of timely, quality advice to our policy makers and the capability to administer the programs that flow from these decisions will be of ever-increasing importance. The Australian Public Service must continue to keep pace with these rapidly changing demands and the continued commitment to the professional development of its members is the obvious starting point. I wish you well in your deliberations during this conference.

Commonwealth of Australia