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Public servants stay focussed in Trump era

Emma Macdonald

Trump and Brexit will distract our political leaders warns Australian businesswoman Catherine Livingstone.

One of Australia’s most senior businesswomen has urged the public service to stay focussed while governments become increasingly “distracted” by the repercussions of a Trump presidency and the fall-out from Brexit.

The outgoing president of the Business Council of Australia, Catherine Livingstone, delivered her final speech in the role to the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) ACT Division’s Public Service Thinking Big conference on Thursday.

Addressing more than 350 attendees, Ms Livingstone said her comments may be “a bit feisty and a bit direct today, it’s my last public speech as President of the BCA…so it’s my last chance to get everything off my chest.”

She said the “disruption in real time” of the Trump election result and Brexit was changing the world order and would prove to be “very distracting for our political leaders”.

It was therefore crucial that government policy be informed by sound and evidence-based advice.

“The implications for your business model as policy makers are quite profound.

“The public service, now more than ever, needs to be the custodians of the strategic policy agenda for the country.”

Ms Livingstone, who rose from a chartered accountant to her appointment last month as chair of the Commonwealth Bank, warned that innovation in government services was particularly at risk every time the political and policy framework was disrupted.

“We destroy economic value every time there is a discontinuity in the policy framework. Policy volatility is an anathema to business and has a significant opportunity cost.”

She added that “the very real possibility now of the United States and United Kingdom tax rates being reduced…does not bode well for investment in Australia.”

Ms Livingston, a former chair of both the CSIRO and Telstra, urged bureaucrats to think boldly and globally when delivering advice.

“In discharging your policy custodian role you also need to be the conduit for a deep understanding of global, social and economic trends and you must also be in a position to convey that knowledge convincingly to our political masters.

“Your role is to both defend the continuity of policy and autonomously generate ideas for reform. It is not playing politics but rather acting in the national interest.”

She also condemned the practice of government advisory bodies calling in advice from external experts – such as herself – to various review committees, only to then disregard that considerable input.

“The disappointing part… is the amount of time people like me give (we don’t get paid for it) in working on reviews, helping with papers, just trying to contribute into the system the experience we have and the knowledge so it can go into the mix, and the number of times even before the ink is dry on the report, it’s gone. It’s just been killed for political reasons, or things have moved on or it’s all too hard.

“It comes back to a trust issue. If you’re giving of your time, and there’s no financial consequence, does that mean your time is not valued and what you are saying is not valued? The next time you think…I’ve said all I’ve got to say.”

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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