Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s homily to the Australian Public Service at the Institute of Public Administration this week was a most damnable piece of organisational victim blaming.
He urged public servants to serve the public, the “quiet Australians. He called on them to be innovative. He called on them to be apolitical and dutiful.
He was clearly blaming them for not being so.
He also seemed to blame them for the fact that the majority of Australians had lost faith in the public sector.
Yet it has been the actions of the political arm of government that has turned the public service from the romantic selfless, apolitical partner of an earlier time to the compliant servers of the political interests of their political masters that it is today.
Specifically: politicisation, corporatisation, privatisation, out-sourcing, deregulation, self-regulation, performance pay, pay freezes, salami-slicing imposed savings, removal of job security, ever larger and more powerful ministerial staffs, preference for lobbyists’ views and views of “independent” inquirers who will provide the answers ministers want over public-service views, and politically inspired decentralisation.
It started in a mild way during the Hawke-Keating Government. But the first big bashing by the political partner of its public service partner came in 1996 after the election of the Howard Government. Howard sacked six heads of department. He cited reorganisation, but he wanted to get rid of people he thought were too close to the former Labor Government.
He appointed business-friendly people from outside, such as Paul Barratt, who had been Executive Director of the Business Council of Australia since 1992, as Secretary to the Department of Primary Industries and Energy.
Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tried to depoliticise the Public Service by keeping all heads of department when taking office in 2007. But when Liberal Tony Abbott took office in 2013 the politicisation continued with the sacking of three departmental heads and pressure for two others to go.
The trouble with politicisation is that it makes senior public servants risk averse, to keep their heads down lest they it get chopped off. Once bashed, twice shy.
Or is makes them accept that their tenure is going to end with the government’s so they may as well actively side with the government so as not to incur the Minister’s or Prime Minister’s displeasure. Typically, they begin to market rather than explain government policy. Fear of bashing causes active compliance.
Performance pay and pay freezes have been a form of financial abuse against the public service. It used to be that public servants served the broad public interest, not the narrow interests of profit-pursuing business. In return, they got greater security and better retirement benefits. Now that bargain has been broken by the political partner.
In his address at Parliament House Morrison had the temerity to ask the public service to re-focus on “Middle Australia”, instead of the “highly organised and well-resourced interests” who stay at the Hyatt or “kick back in the Chairman’s Lounge at Canberra Airport”.
“I want the APS to have a laser-like focus on serving these quiet Australians,” he said.
But public servants, aside from some political appointees at the top, have never wanted to listen to “the people who kick-back at the Chairman’s lounge”. Those “highly organised and well-resourced interests” only come to Canberra for secret special pleading with ministers in the hope that the ministers will direct the public servants to do their bidding against the broad public interest.
Examples abound: financial institutions watering down regulation at the expense of small investors; the grocery industry forming Mickey Mouse labelling laws at the expense of children’s healthy diets; big agriculture sucking the lifeblood out of the Murray-Darling at the expense of small farmers, the environment and small communities; hotel and gaming industries given open slather with poker machines at the expense of helpless gambling addicits; big subsidies for mining at the expense of the environment and small farmers; big pharma’s restrictive trade practices at the expense of the sick; the legislative black-mailing leg up to make people take up mostly for-profit private health insurance at the expense of the overall health of Australians; the privatisation of aged care, child care and vocational training with terrible effects on the old and young, and so on.
The reason public servants do not have “a laser-like focus on serving quiet Australians” is because successive governments have time and time again bashed them into doing exactly the opposite: doing ministers’ bidding to help special interests prevail over the public interest because those special interests are donating so much to political parties.
The public service is not the problem; it is the political arm of government.
If the Prime Minister wants the public service to serve the quiet Australians he should:
Ban all political donations from corporations.
Limit all individual donations to $1000 a year in total and reportable online in real time.
Open official ministerial diaries so people can find out online in real time who visited the minister and within, say, a week what they asked for or proposed, and what response they got. Most of them, by the way, stayed at the Hyatt and supped in the Qantas lounges and were not in Canberra to suborn the public service, but to suborn the minister.
And stop costly political decentralisations under which public servants face the choice of moving themselves and their families to rural backwaters at the whim of a minister or getting a new job.
Have an independent body scrutinise government appointments.
The public service has had too much change under the guise of “reform” in the past 25 years.
The public service can only serve the public, the “quiet Australians”, if the Government lets it. If, however, the Government undermines the whole process of government by continuing to pander to special interests and continuing public service bashing, the “quiet Australians” will not be served and will not have faith in the public sector.
They don’t have faith in the public sector because of the actions of government, not the public service.
The worst of it is that my colleague Kirsten Lawson in reporting the event at which the audience was mostly public servants wrote: “Morrison’s message was one that somehow found a supportive audience.”
When the victim accepts blame, it is the ultimate brainwashing, and quite scary.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other media outlets on 24 August 2019.