Seasoned mandarin reflects on qualities good political leaders possess

A healthy culture of ‘frank and fearless advice’ in which public servants courageously offer their political masters a way forward for the good of the nation is something the robo-debt royal commission has exposed as sorely lacking in recent weeks.

But optimal conditions for this dynamic to exist also depend on politicians who make space to receive and hear that advice from the bureaucracy. Someone with a respected take on what a desirable version of the latter should look like is former APS head Martin Parkinson.

Speaking to The Mandarin in anticipation of the 2022 McKinnon Political Leadership Prize being announced (
impact-this-is-what-leadership-looks-like/), Parkinson said there were examples in Australian history of outstanding leaders.

“Whether you’re talking about the Hawke-Keating economic reform era, or whether you’re talking about Howard standing up after the Port Arthur [mass shooting tragedy] — you see similar sorts of behaviour,” Parkinson said.

“One: there’s a vision of where they want to go. Some sense of what’s ‘true north’, and then that can be very different, depending on context and circumstances.” Parkinson (, an economist who was a former adviser to treasurer John Dawkins and went on to serve as Treasury secretary from 2011-2014 ( and Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) boss from 2016-2019, said good politicians were open to testing their ideas in a healthy democracy.

He said these leaders had a clear sense of what their objective was, and why. But they were also prepared to subject their vision to scrutiny and also the means by which to achieve it.
In the case of former prime minister Bob Hawke and his then-treasurer Paul Keating, for example, Parkinson said the vision was to transform Australia’s economy and develop it into a high-wage, high-productivity, innovative, competitive nation.

“They knew it was the way in which you delivered sustainable and sustained growth and living standards, and made the world a better place for citizens and residents of the country. “One of the things you see good public servants do is understand where a minister is coming from — what they’re trying to achieve, and then using that to frame up better ways to help them achieve it,” Parkinson added, outlining how the balance between deft public administrators and democratically elected politicians ideally worked.

Parkinson explained that one of the most challenging things in public policy was defining a problem. This often meant robust discussions with ministers were required ( about whether the problem that had been identified was actually the right one to address. The process of good public policy development was a collaboration between ministers, bureaucrats and stakeholders ( such as community groups, businesses and unions, he added. The efficacy of this collaborative process was also contingent on relationships of trust between the governments of the day and the public service.

“If you’ve defined the problem the right way, you have to have an open mind on what’s the best way to skin that cat,” Parkinson said. “Sometimes you can say to a minister, ‘This is your vision, but I actually don’t think that this particular problem is central to it. I think the first thing you need to tackle is something else.’ That could be one pathway.

“[Or you could say]: ‘Yep, I understand your vision, and I agree with you that this is the right problem for us to be considering. But you thought you might go this way to get there; we’ve done some work on this, and we think we can actually go in this direction and get to the outcome you want, or to get to a better place more easily, more quickly, with less angst, or whatever the metric is.’,” he said.

Alluding to the recent challenge the APS faced deploying frank and fearless advice under the former Coalition government led by Scott Morrison, Parkinson said amore authoritarian style of political leadership — where a minister had decided the ‘what’ and ‘how’ in the absence of consultation and collaboration — would invariably see “things go off the rails”.

“The advantage of engaging, [as a political leader], is you help persuade people, and get them to understand where you’re coming from so they don’t impute motives to you that aren’t correct,” Parkinson said. “It also lets you understand their position, and [allows] you to work out how to get them to cooperate with you. Or, if the gap cannot be bridged, understand the arguments they’re going to use against you so you can actually be prepared for that,” he said.

The former mandarin went on to reflect that policy solutions were often derived from grassroots ideas that were better than anything the bureaucracy could come
up with. But the reactive climate of the 24-hour news cycle and public furore swelling on social media platforms such as Twitter also had a tendency to railroad a genuine contest of ideas that were previously easier to facilitate in consultation protests, Parkinson said. “If you go back, for example, to the 1980s tax reforms, we had months where we were able to think about options, test them, work them up, model them.

“Now, the problem is that if you raise an issue, if it’s not handled well, it can be shot down within a couple of hours. Because social media has created this capacity for coalitions to come together, bound only by their opposition to an idea — not because of what they might want there instead of it.

“I think it’s really hard for politicians to have blue sky-type conversations in the way they would have had in the past,” Parkinson said. The problem for public servants in this modern environment was less latitude for ‘blue sky’ thinking out loud, which also had implications for how co-design processes were run.

“If you start to have a blue sky conversation with somebody, they immediately say ‘Well that’s what they’re up to – they’re gonna do A, B, and C.’ And then, before you know it, there’s going to be a head of steam about that. It’s hard to get the thinking time in that environment,” Parkinson said.

On Monday foreign minister senator Penny Wong and Independent MP Helen Haines were named McKinnon’s political leader and emerging political leader of the year respectively.
Annual prize-winners of the non-partisan gong ( are chosen by a distinguished selection panel (Parkinson was among this year’s judges ( diluting-and-improving-power-structures/) against five criteria ( including vision, collaboration, ethical behaviour, courage and impact.