The Mal and Marty tech show

Andrew Ryan

It is one year since the launch of Malcolm Turnbull’s signature policy, the National Science and Innovation Agenda, a policy area that continues to kick goals. But the unfortunate thing for the Prime Minister is that it stands almost alone as a significant achievement both in policy and leadership.

Putting aside the loneliness of this success, let us focus instead on the remarkable double act between Mr Turnbull and his chief public servant Martin Parkinson, which has seen this policy piece play out so well initially.

There is perhaps no clearer illustration of this partnership’s success than in the area of technology, science and innovation. It has been a neat two-step between the political end of tech, science and industry policy and the dramatic amping-up of a comprehensive digital government strategy.

The Mal and Marty tech show

The Mal and Marty Show, if you like.

The position of the Secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has always had a political tinge, despite the bureaucracy’s own, increasingly thin public relations spin that its remains steeped in the (lost) Westminster tradition of senior bureaucrats being able to offer frank and fearless advice.

Since John Howard brought in Max ‘the Axe’ Moore-Wilton soon after his 1996 election and who served for a record eight years, the job has become pointedly more politicized.

Since Mr Moore-Wilton and the man who replaced him in 2003 Peter Shergold, each new Prime Minister has promptly booted out the incumbent and put in their own man.

After Susan Keifel’s excellent appointment as Chief Justice of the High Court recently, it’s a glass significant glass ceiling in Australia that has yet to be broken. The latest bloke in the job is Mr Parkinson, the one-time highly regarded Treasury Secretary.

Never, in this job, has the holder owed quite so much to his boss.

Mr Parkinson was given what is effectively the No 2 job in the Australian Public Service by Julia Gillard and her Treasurer Wayne Swan in March 2011. But his days were done when Tony Abbott won the 2013 election.

He was dumped for a rare outside appointment, Morgan Stanley banker John Fraser who, on the available evidence, had not impressed.

Mr Parkinson’s sin apart from being tainted by Labor, was to be a supporter of strong action by Australia against climate change – an untenable position in the Abbott-Credlin government.

Mr Abbott convinced Michael Thawley, former senior Howard adviser and his Australian Ambassador to the United States at a time to return as his public service chief.

But Mr Turnbull, in the all-to-brief halcyon, early days resuscitated Parkinson’s career installing him in Mr Thawley’s place. Since, then the pair have been singing each line together from the same song in the same songbook in prefect harmony.

Mr Turnbull’s self-assessment of NISA in a press statement, is a much laundry list of $1.1 billion of initiatives, on this noteworthy anniversary is reasonably fair:

“The Turnbull Government is investing in culture and capital, to help businesses embrace risk and encourage investment in startups and early stage ventures, “it said.

“We’ve made a number of changes to our tax laws to incentivise investment in promising Australian companies. We’re also having a direct impact by co-investing in significant innovations with real commercial potential.”

“We’re placing an emphasis on collaboration, to increase the level of engagement between businesses, universities and the research sector to commercialise ideas and solve problems.

There would be little argument that these days Mr Parkinson has got more credibility than Mr Turnbull. So it is fitting that as Australia’s No. 1 mandarin Mr Parkinson was the one to make the big speech at the anniversary of NISA.

“The Prime Minister has been forthright in his belief that the generation of ideas is the key to Australia’s economic success—that we must make innovation and disruption our friend if we are to keep pace with the world,” Mr Parkinson told the Institute of Public Administration Australia last week.

He kicked off the core of his speech by delivering a broadside at the Australian Public Service.

“Disruptive forces – like the fundamental shift in public expectations of government, consumer-directed demand for government services and the ever-changing capacity of technology to support and improve service delivery – are certainly not unique to the public sector. Indeed they impact on our work just as much as they impact on the private sector.

“But despite this, it seems to be that in the APS we think that disruption is something happening to other people. And, conversely, we seem to regard innovation as a buzzword or something that’s ‘nice to have’.”

“I want to be clear – this is a false reality. And a dangerous one at that. And it feeds into my concern that the APS is at risk of the fatal combination of arrogance and ignorance.”

If ever there was a man delivering his boss’ message – and one in which he clearly deeply believes too – then it was on clear display here.

Mr Parkinson laid out the key challenges for the bureaucracy in 2017:

  • Be bold and creative in your thinking—but do the work to back it up
  • Take a wider view of the world around you—look at what policy or programs are working well in the states or overseas
  • Create a working environment where colleagues feel valued and safe bringing different ideas to the table, and which promotes collaboration

“It is the Prime Minister’s expectation – it is my expectation – that the APS will lead on innovation. I have every confidence that, given the opportunity, we will,” he concluded.

The startling contrast between the politician’s self-congratulation and the bureaucrat’s self-criticism, while a neat balance, an apposite lesson for the former.

Still, Mr Turnbull may get mocked gently by supporters – and derisively by the visionless, promise-breaking, wrecking ball that is Tony Abbott – for the buzzwords of agile and innovative because as PM he has proven himself neither.

But the NISA has, to deploy and over-used buzz-phrase, “changed the conversation.” And in many ways that is the hardest piece of policy to execute.

That is good news for Australia and it has been, very much, a team effort and a rare but important success for the wannabe dynamic duo.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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