Prime minister Scott Morrison has set out his expectation of the public service and said it needs to look beyond the "highly organised and well-resourced interests in our democracy" when it comes to stakeholder engagement.
Mr Morrison delivered the speech to the Institute of Public Administration in Canberra yesterday. The audience included a range of senior public servants and health minister Greg Hunt. Mr Hunt is also the minister assisting the prime minister for the public service and cabinet.
According to Mr Morrison, his approach is to respect the experience, professionalism and capability of the public service, but it is his expectation that ministers will set policy.
"Now this imposes an important responsibility, I think, on Ministers," he said. "And I’ve made this very clear to my Ministers. They must be clear in what they are asking of the public service. They must not allow a policy leadership vacuum to be created, and expect the public service to fill it and do effectively the job of Ministers.
"One of the worst criticisms I can tell you, in the locker room of politicians, that one politician can make of another, is that they’ve become a captive of their department as a Minister. Now that is not a reflection on the department, not at all, not at all, but indeed on the Minister. It speaks to a Minister not driving their policy agenda."
The prime minister said the public service provide advice based on "all due diligence and professional care".
"But ultimately it is the Minister who must decide, whether approve or not approve, to provide comment, feedback, as they appreciate, because ultimately it is the Minister who will be held accountable by the public. And that’s how it should be.
"Only those who have put their name on a ballot can really understand the significance of that accountability. As much as you might appreciate the Westminster system, until you put your name on a ballot, that changes everything."
Mr Morrison described the public service as the government's "professional partners" in implementing its policy agenda.
The prime minister also urged the audience to “look beyond the bubble”.
"There are many highly organised and well-resourced interests in our democracy. They come to Canberra often. They are on the airwaves, they’re on the news channels. They meet regularly with politicians, advisers and departments to advance the policy ideas and causes on behalf of those who they represent.
"Some will be corporate interests. Some will be advocating for more welfare spending or bigger social programs. Many will be looking for a bigger slice of government resources.
"Yet the vast majority of Australians will never come to Canberra to lobby government. They won’t stay at the Hyatt. They won’t have lunch at the Ottoman. They won’t kick back at the Chairman’s Lounge at Canberra airport after a day of meetings.
"And what these Australians who don’t do those things do every day is work hard. They pay their taxes. They put their kids through school. They look after their families. They give back to their communities and they are the centre of my focus as PM and my Government.
"These are your stakeholders, not the myriad of vested and organised interests that parade through this place," he added.