John Lloyd's last words

The controversial Public Service Commissioner's final hour was his finest.

The Informant has probably published too many articles on soon-to-be-former Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd; this latest issue is no exception. However, it took me until late on Monday – two days before he retires – to find matters on which Lloyd and I agree so heartily we're practically soulmates.

In his valedictory speech, Lloyd reflected on his long Commonwealth career "in the department responsible for workplace relations identified under various titles, like Labour and National Service, Labour and Immigration, Labour, Industrial Relations, Employment and Workplace Relations, Fair Work something or other, and landing today as Jobs and Small Business. An odd name; I despise the tinkering with departmental names."

The Public Sector Informant, August 2018. Cartoon: David Pope

Indeed, Tony Abbott's best decision as prime minister was to establish departments with simple names and clear responsibilities (and Malcolm Turnbull's worst was to start undoing this).

Similarly, Lloyd dismissed the endless changes to machinery of government that "come and go as fashion and thinking dictate". "We have an enormous capacity to complicate things, sometimes it seems to a power of 10."

His speech, delivered to the Institute of Public Adminstration Australia, is online and worth reading in full, containing these nuggets and, well, more of the Lloyd you know.

The offence of listening

As I mentioned here last month, I asked ASIO recently what I thought was a simple question: is it allowed to monitor federal parliamentarians covertly? I doubted it was legally possible, I explained – a likely "offence against the House" – because the privilege of Parliament protects the work of parliamentarians from executive meddling. Unfortunately, the spy agency's response was encrypted with heavy layers of meaninglessness, and ultimately indecipherable.

Nonetheless, others stepped in to translate. Former Border Force commissioner and ACT police chief Roman Quaedvlieg, now free of the bureaucracy, is also free of bureaucratese: "It's not breaching privilege or law if the actions of the subject are unlawful and against national interest," he said.

The Australian Defence Association's Neil James agreed, noting privilege hasn't prevented NSW's ICAC from investigating dodgy politicians. "If an MP is reasonably suspected of unlawful acts, they are no different to any other citizen in terms of law-enforcement surveillance."

However, legal writer Stephen Murray points out that Parliament's privileges committee – which is, ultimately, the body that would decide on this matter – may disagree with them. Its report Parliamentary privilege and the use of intrusive powers found: "The lawful use of covert intrusive powers can have a chilling effect on the work of the Parliament. Any suggestion that privilege diminishes because a covert intrusive power is used to access material is inconsistent with the view that privilege should operate to protect against the chilling effects that the executive's exercise of its powers can have on the Parliament."

Esoteric? Yes. But answering this question is also crucial for our democracy; it cuts to the heart of the separation of powers. Especially in the context, raised here last month, of the Howard government allegedly eavesdropping on opposition MPs' conversations about Alexander Downer's efforts to screw East Timor. If you know more, drop me a line.

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