Turkeys or the right stuff?

Are all public servants turkeys? Or is it just the ones that Bob Brown disagrees with, asks political columnist MICHAEL MOORE?

GREENS leader Senator Bob Brown has lambasted all of Canberra’s Federal public servants out of frustration with the secretary of the Department of Immigration.

He effectively demanded the dismissal of senior Immigration Department bureaucrats after a briefing was provided for the Leader of the Opposition.

These senior bureaucrats are purported to have suggested onshore processing of asylum seekers will “lead to social unrest similar to those of Paris or London”. There has been further speculation that the briefing also suggested that should offshore processing be dumped, Australian detention centres would be quickly overwhelmed by a flood of people.

This is hardly news as the Coalition and Labor in government have followed almost identical policies on offshore processing. However, the final straw for Senator Brown seemed to be the warning that if asylum seekers were then placed in the community it would risk social disharmony.

Brown has been a Federal senator since 1996 and is not known for attacks on the public service. His frustration was palpable. The trouble with the senator’s comments is that they bring into question the “frank and fearless” advice that is the mark of an effective public service under the Westminster system of government.

When he argued that it was a major error “when some of them were kept on from the Howard era” he was making it very clear that he believed the public service has lost this basic tenet.

His comments were scathing: “As far as the bureaucrats, these turkeys, out of the bureaucracy in Canberra who are prognosticating somehow or other about Australia becoming Paris or London burning – they should be out on their ears. We believe their point of view is alien to the thinking of the majority of decent Australians. They should be removed from that position and put into something where they can twiddle their pencils without causing so much harm to the integrity and decency of Australia’s projection in dealing with asylum seekers.”

Ironically, the comments allowed a further demonstration of the stiffening spine of the Prime Minister.

Of recent times she has demonstrated just how tough she is at defending the underdog. First it was refusing to accept the Opposition attacks on her backbencher Craig Thompson regarding the prostitute credit card scandal.

It was a difficult stance to maintain.

However, Gillard has been somewhat vindicated in demanding respect for the two principles of “presumption of innocence” and “the separation of powers” when NSW police dropped the investigation for lack of evidence.

She could have ignored Bob Brown’s attack on public servants, or left it to Chris Bowen, her Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. Instead, she vigorously defended her public servants by attacking one of her key supporters – the leader with the balance of power in the Senate.  “Senator Brown’s completely wrong. It’s the wrong thing to do to criticise officials,” Gillard said. “They are giving the best of their advice and experience and I ask them to give the best of their advice and experience to the Leader of the Opposition as well as me in circumstances where our nation needs to respond to last week’s High Court case.”

It is not quite clear what the secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Andrew Metcalfe, actually said in the briefing.
The chances are very high that a public servant of his experience would have been much more circumspect and the furore has grown out of what he is purported to have said in a private briefing.

The difficulty with the situation is that it is in the community interest for public servants to be able to brief opposition members and cross-benchers so that debate on such topics can move beyond the 15-second grab and the assertion and counter-assertion. With the last, it is appropriate to ask who really is the turkey?

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and was an independent minister for health in the Carnell government.

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