PM’s PS attack is victim blaming

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.

7 thoughts on “PM’s PS attack is victim blaming”

  1. Kristen Lawson’s reported observation that the message “somehow found a receptive audience” isn’t reflective of how the address was received by those I’ve heard from. The broader reception seems to be much closer to your observations and borders exasperation.

    Surely those present at the address in person represent the upper levels of the public service and whose ongoing employment is far more dependent on the politic of the day. After the stoush between former Agriculture secretary Paul Grimes and then minister Barnaby Joyce, and numerous senior public servants being pushed to ‘fall on their swords’ over the years simply because there needed to be a scapegoat, there wouldn’t seem to be much motivation to rock the boat.

  2. I blame some of it on that BBC sitcom “Yes Minister” where the public servant Sir Humphrey is eternally blocking the ideas of the bumbling but well-intentioned Minister and his naive but harmless adviser. Of course the show was written by a couple of MPs.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. Re “openess”, one thing that I haven’t seen commented on anywhere though is the “intimacy ” between pollies and lobbying companies and their staff by allowing lobbying company staff “pass access” to parliament house. By all means allow them to lobby – it is apparently a legitimate business – but why do they as basically private individuals, have greater rights than the all other private individuals in accessing parliament house and the people who work there? If anyone else turns up to see a pollie or their staff at the house – good luck. Turn up as an employee of a lobbying company – “welcome” – no questions asked.
    Oddly enough, I would have thought that it would be more advantageous for all lobbying meetings to be held outside of the house – all those “working lunches and dinners …” (at the lobbying firm’s expense of course).

  4. Bravo Crispin! Bravo! As I’m still working full time in the APS I have to say that I hope I have not stepped over the line in voicing support for what you have written. Sad, isn’t it.

  5. After Congestion Busting, and Respect & Expect, this is the third time he’s put the boot into the APS. We’ve seen nasty bully-pulpit Morrison sneer at unemployed people, gays, trans, public schools, pacific islanders, greenies, any other group he doesn’t think he needs.

    None of it matters, because at the margin, the Maccas & Coke PM is still closer to ordinary Australians than the gilded Dutton-hating Labor elite. Should cruise to 6 years.

  6. I agree entirely but would like to add that the following quote from Rod Glover and Beth Noveck (Canberra Times pg. 21, 14/08/19) helps to explain Kirsten Lawson’s observation. “The structures, incentives and cultures within the public sector are not set up to encourage innovation. In our interviews, middle management was pinpointed as the key blocker to innovation … “

    I spent about half my working life in the public service and in my experience public servants are no less innovative than their counterparts in private enterprise. But, experience teaches public servants that government ministers, contrary to what they assert, are in fact risk averse. Following is a hypothetical I gave to RAN Officers at The Australian Defence College in July 2002.

    “Imagine this newspaper headline.


    At the vessel’s commissioning the Minister for Navy said ‘I am proud to be associated with this vessel because it represents this nation’s ability to adopt world best practice in technological innovation. This puts us at the leading edge for this type of vessel and there will be spin-off effects for other industries in this country because of technology transfer, etc.

    Today, a year later and the vessel still experiencing what the Minister euphemistically called ‘teething problems’ he was not so complementary. He said that while he was confident the problems could be overcome; he was not aware at the commissioning that there were such technical risks as had now been exposed. He went on to say that despite his confidence he would ‘bring to account’ all those responsible for exposing the taxpayers to such significant costs.”

    Change details to suit any Ministry; not hard to imagine, is it.

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