Tale of 3 Treasury heads

It’s not a fun time to be a public servant in Canberra. Mounting pressures from an ill-considered hiring freeze paired with squabbles over the merging of different departmental workplace agreements and office space are making it difficult for bureaucrats to keep a clear head, let alone give frank and fearless advice.

Yet three former (or soon to be former) heads of the federal Treasury have reminded us in the past week what a valuable public service bureaucrats can make when they dare to be forthright and bold.

Wombat fancier and tax reform aficionado Ken Henry attracted most of the media spotlight, speaking nearly a fortnight ago to a low-key gathering on competition policy reform at the ANU and then leveraging that engagement into broadsheet column inches and an appearance on the ABC’s flagship current affairs program 730.

Henry’s intervention was considered to be a big deal. Aside from being the Treasury secretary that helped PM Rudd and Treasurer Swann guide Australia through the global financial crisis, Henry worked in different capacities for PMs Keating and Howard with an eye constantly fixed on the changes needed to repair and modernise Australia’s dilapidated taxation system.

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