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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Marginal seat impacts not a matter for public service advice

I have no idea about the merits or otherwise of a $450 million NSW Government investment in the Tillega dam in the Hunter Valley, now subject to a Legislative Council inquiry. But the Sydney Morning Herald report of disclosure of documents including a draft briefing note to the Minister from the principal policy officer in the Department of Water and Energy, confirms other anecdotal evidence that the distinction between policy and political advice in the NSW system is long gone. And of the absence of clear professional standards to be observed by the public service in carrying out their duties. The briefing note from a senior public servant included this comment:
''Newcastle is a marginal seat after the last election and many of the people I talk to would vote for an independent who opposed the dam. I can't see what political benefit there is to the Government in the dam.''
Beyond the station of an apolitical, professional public service to my mind. And a bit like like the following disclosure in the Ombudsman's Annual report concerning the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority's Freedom of Information practices - now said to have stopped:
"Our investigation revealed that the RTA had a longstanding practice of sending draft FOI determinations to the Minister’s office and then waiting for their endorsement. RTA staff felt unable to finalise applications without this endorsement. They were also not inclined to make determinations that might be contrary to the views they understood the Minister’s office to hold, whether or not those views were directly communicated by the Minister’s staff or indirectly intimated....

The appropriateness of involving the Minister’s office in agency FOI applications is of relevance to the entire public sector. For this reason, we recommended that the Department of Premier and Cabinet develop a Code of Conduct to clarify the role and relationship of a Minister’s staff with agency staff. A draft Code of Conduct has been prepared, but not yet finalised.'

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