Changing Fortunes by Paul Tilley

‘A History of The Australian Treasury’

Treasury was one of the seven government departments established at when the Commonwealth of Australia was formed in 1901.  Initially housed in Melbourne, Treasury had five staff.  It has grown a little since then, and its responsibilities have changed.

Mr Tilley writes:

‘This book is a public service history.  It explores the association between the public service and the government that lies at the heart of the Westminster systems and the processes of public policymaking —in particular how the public service influences government policy.’

Interesting, I thought, when I picked the book up.   My own Commonwealth Public Sector experience spans thirty years and encompasses the period from Malcolm Fraser to Kevin Rudd. During this period, the roles of many Commonwealth government agencies have evolved.  Back in 1901, Treasury was the government’s bookkeeper.  In the 1980s, Mr Tilley writes:

‘Treasury was at the peak of its influence, in partnership with a powerful and reform-minded Treasurer.’

Yes, many of us have fond memories of the Keating years. Back then, government and the public sector seemed (mostly) to work well together.  Advice was given to government.  And, while that advice was not always taken, differing views were considered and respected.  Mostly.

‘Treasury’s influence spectrum had ‘frank and fearless advice’ at one end and full ‘responsiveness to government’ at the other.’

A few things seem to have changed.  If ‘full responsiveness to government’ means only providing advice the government wants (or is likely to action) then the public sector seems to have become less relevant.  But who can blame senior public servants for their timidity?

I’ve digressed.  I was particularly interested in the discussion around the splitting of Treasury into two departments (Treasury and Finance) in 1976.  I was also very interested in the discussion around culture in Treasury: the competitive, ‘blokey’ culture, with long hours which were not family-friendly and particularly disadvantageous to many women.  I’ve never worked in Treasury, but I did spend some time in the Department of Finance, and it was the same culture. Being seen, putting in long hours (not necessarily with equivalent achievement) was of critical importance.  Times are apparently changing.

Another aspect of this book I found helpful was the list of Treasurers and Treasury secretaries.

In conclusion, Mr Tilley argues that to stay relevant and influential, ‘to preserve its capacity as the premier economic policy adviser to governments’, Treasury needs ‘to have the best ideas’.  Additionally, Treasury ‘has to find a better balance between having sufficient separation from the raw politics of government to enable it to develop strong economic policy advice, and having sufficient responsiveness to government to be listened to – a place of influence.’

Good luck with that.  Australia seems to be moving towards the USA’s presidential appointments system for senior public servants.  I’m not sure that ‘frank and fearless advice’ works well in that system.

Worth reading both for those interested in the history of the Australian Public Service as well as those seeking to understand the (evolving) functions and responsibilities of Treasury. The author worked as an economist in and around Treasury for thirty-two years until retiring in 2016.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith