Reflections of a public service reformer

During his long and often controversial public service career Ken Baxter has survived stoushes with ministers, lost friends and even had a police guard stationed outside his house.

But the man once known as ‘Ken “Slasher” Baxter’ for implementing massive cuts to the public service across two states during the 1990s is now Ken Baxter AM,  after being appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours for significant service to public administration.

As Secretary in the Victorian DPMC in 1992-95 and Director General in NSW in 1995-96, Mr Baxter was a key mover in public sector reform and privatisation who oversaw sweeping government reforms in both states.

“To shake the trees and get rid of the gremlins that were pushing pens and writing memos without delivering anything … that was the greatest achievement.”

He admits his actions didn’t always win him friends, but maintains they paid off.

“We had these amorphous, large institutions that had been there for years and years in traditional public service roles, but without the emphasis on service,” he told Government News.

“(What we did) was to really energise and reorganise the services sectors in those states.  Once Victoria and NSW started to do it, Tasmania and the other states followed suit.

“I think that was one of the greatest achievements. It was very hard and it didn’t win me a lot of friends. But we started to reap the benefits in the early 2000s and we never looked back.”

He also takes pride in breaking down the barriers between the Commonwealth and state public services and “shaking the trees and getting rid of the gremlins that were pushing pens and writing memos without delivering anything”.

Threats to family members

The toughest time, Mr Baxter says, was during his stint as managing director of the NSW Egg Corporation in the 1980s. At the height of the corporation’s so-called “egg wars” with producers, armed guards were placed outside his home.

His children were also threatened as he took them to school one day.

“A woman walked up … and said you need to know that these kids mightn’t come home again,” he said.

Mr Baxter also counts his efforts to get government out of the agriculture sector in the 1970s; his work to reform PNG’s public service as a Principal Policy Adviser to the Chief Secretary to Government and Cabinet in 1998-2006; and his contribution to infrastructure  in South East Asia and India as chair of Infraco Asia Development as career highlights.

He paid tribute to his “loyal” wife Annabel and his “enduring family” who stood by his side through his career.

Taking the APS into the future

Now retired from the public sector, although he remains a part-time commissioner on the Productivity Commission, Mr Baxter says the independent review of the Australian Public Service led by David Thodey has failed to come to grips with some aspects of Commonealth-state relationships as it seeks to make the APS future-fit.

“It’s almost worked in isolation of the necessary relationship between a lot of services delivery agencies in the Commonwealth and states – health roads, all the bread and butter stuff that the person in the street really judges government,” he says.

He also admits to not being fan of US President Donald Trump, whom he says has been unhelpful for Australia’s trade and foreign relationships.

“We’ve got to put up with him, the influence of the Americans still very large. I don’t think it’s making easy roads for our prime minister and other ministers.”

Read about other Australia Day Honours here and view the full list here.

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at  

Sign up to the Government News newsletter

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required