Thursday, June 05, 2008

Some people want to keep Ken Henry silent

They are in the Coalition.

Maybe he needs a support group, like Paul Krugman's.

Australia’s most powerful bureaucrat has vowed not to stay silent in the face of an attack from the Opposition which has accused him of meddling in party politics.

In comments reported in the Canberra Times last month the Treasury Secretary Ken Henry was critical of his previous political masters, accusing the Coalition of using “Soviet style” methods to allocate water in the driest inhabited continent on earth.

He also said that the day after the May Budget the Opposition used its majority in the Senate to block a regulation that would have increased the diesel excise to properly charge trucks for the damage they do to roads.

“The road user charge for heavy vehicles is not the most important structural policy matter likely to confront the nation's parliaments this year,” he said.

“But it would be one of the easiest.”

“If this terms-of-trade boom is going to have a happy ending, we are going to have to do better than this – a lot better.”

Confronted at yesterday’s Senate Estimates Committee over his remarks he was asked by the National Party Senator Ron Boswell whether his duties as Treasury Secretary included “making public statements about your opinions of government or opposition policy”...

The Treasury Secretary replied: “Not often”.

Shown newspaper headlines reporting his criticism of the Coalition he was asked whether “opinionated criticism is part of your job description?”

He Henry replied “I didn’t write the headlines Senator”.

Senator Boswell told him that a predecessor his as Treasury Secretary, John Stone had the courage to enter Parliament because he wanted the freedom to exercise his views.

“I had to admire his courage because he wanted to get in the game and he was prepared to stand out of Treasury and come over this side of the table.”

“Now, would you like to earn $127,000 and come and sit here?”

Senator Boswell withdrew the remark and the Treasury Secretary replied that with his job did come “an opportunity to inform people about economic matters of public significance”.

“I don’t go out of my way to make comments that are overly critical of governments or oppositions but I cannot give a guarantee that I will never at some future time make a comment about the future performance of the Australian economy.”

“That is a part of my role and I might say Senator that I take it very seriously. I try to play that role responsibly and I will continue to do so”.

Dr Henry was appointed to the top job in Treasury by the previous Coalition Treasurer Peter Costello in 2001.

He had earlier worked with Mr Costello on designing Australia’s new tax system.

Mr Costello expressed confidence in him by reappointing him Treasury Secretary in 2006.

During the last half of the 1980’s Dr Henry worked on the staff of the Labor Treasurer Paul Keating.

He often speaks publicly on matters of economic policy, delivering around four speeches a year including the annual post-budget address in which he criticised the Opposition policies.

In a private speech to Treasury officials last year he warned his officers that they would find themselves under greater than usual pressure in the lead up to the election to approve policy proposals that were “frankly, bad”.