Inside the public service shakeup: what it really says about Morrisons Government

THIS is so true … we have heard them …their fellow travellers talk of …

The bias of the ABC – that’s code for I hate the ABC because:

.they seek the truth
.they ask difficult questions

We have heard them talk with hatred in their voice about:

-the bureaucracy
-Regulations, and of course, the good old reliable animosity to
.Red Tape

These antagonists are typified by:

-more than a passing interest in the share market
-property ownership(plural)

IT is all about self-interest … on and on they bark about how the system is all wrong, their entitlements etc, etc …

.ALL must be swept aside unless it’s about making money and personal gain

Scott Morrison is seen from a low angle while he is speaking.


Inside the public service shakeup: what it really says about Morrison’s Government


By Laura Tingle

PHOTO: It is important to go beyond just the symbolism of what the Prime Minister announced this week. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)

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Shortly after the federal election, I had a conversation with a figure at the very centre of the Government.

As we raked over where the election had left the political conversation, I noted the Prime Minister’s repeated emphasis on getting on with delivering services to Australians in his public statements.

Did this suggest that a politician so driven by marketing memes had detected a weariness with the ideological wars of politics among disconnected voters, and recognised political self-interest in shaping both the Government’s message, and its agenda, around the basics of government service delivery?

Did this mean the Government might abandon some of its ideological warfare against institutions?

“Don’t be ridiculous,” this person snorted. “If anything, this Government is more ideologically driven than Abbott.

They want to win the culture wars they see in education, in the public service, in all of our institutions, and they’ll come for the ABC too, of course. There will be a big cleanout at the top of the public service, but Morrison will wait for a while to do that. They believe the Left has been winning the war for the last 20 years and are determined to turn the tables.

Morrison will just be craftier about the way he goes about it.

Go beyond the symbolism

There have been many occasions to remember this conversation — and its rather extraordinary reflection on who seems to have been winning the ideological battle — over the intervening six months.

For Morrison, electoral triumph has brought a shrunken field of vision
Scott Morrison has been in the historically unusual position, as leader of the Liberal Party, of being able to confidently order his stationery in bulk. And it’s helped him deliver in spades.

No more so than amid the anger expressed about the Government’s move on Thursday to slash the number of government departments and sack five departmental secretaries.

The arts community, in particular, are angry and alarmed that there won’t be a department with “arts” in the title.

But it is important to go beyond just the symbolism of what the Prime Minister announced this week, and also to put it in the context of the contempt for accountability that he and his ministers have shown since their re-election, particularly in the Angus Taylor affair.

The public service is being sidelined

First, a bit of boring old process. The Government commissioned a comprehensive review of the public service last year, headed by former Telstra boss David Thodey.

The Government received the review’s final report in September. It hasn’t yet gone to Cabinet.

Yet, this week, the Government embarked on a major overhaul of the structure, personnel and purpose of the public service which it says “hits the theme” of the review. No, no-one mentioned the vibe of the thing.

Politicians keep shifting the goal posts
A question for students of bad bits of history has always been: how did people let such a thing happen? Now it feels like we are getting a very real answer in the way the world is moving.

So having spent a great deal of experts’ time, and taxpayer money, the Government announces huge changes in the public service without linking them directly to recommendations from the body it established itself.

Oh, except, sorry, it was the same Government that started the review but, you guessed it, a different prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

Among the many contributions made to, and by, the Thodey review was a paper on the relationship between the public service and ministers and their advisers.

And while people have talked about the growing role of ministerial offices and advisers for decades, this week’s announcement really crystallises a trend to the sidelining of the public service as a frontline provider of policy advice.

Are ‘silos’ in the ‘Canberra bubble’ really the problem?

Listen to the language of Scott Morrison from Thursday’s press conference.

The Prime Minister reflected on how he had told public servants soon after the election “about having a very strong focus on the delivery of services because that’s what Government is there to do”.

I want a public service that’s very much focussed on implementation….Whether… they’re preparing research, the policy they’re developing, services they’re delivering on the ground and ensuring that could be done efficiently and keep Australians connected to them in the work they do each day.”

VIDEO: PM announces changes to public service departments (ABC News)

Now, there are references to the development of policy in his words. But the clear message was really about improving the way services are delivered to the public.

This is an admirable goal. And, of itself, merging different parts of the bureaucracy isn’t a bad idea.

But it is really unclear that “silos” in the “Canberra bubble” are necessarily the real issue here.

And the fact that the number of departments was slashed from 18 to 14, with five department heads losing their jobs while the number of ministers remains unchanged is very telling, and not just because of the bad optics.

How do we know who’s making the decisions?

The underlying message from the Prime Minister is really a reflection of the fact that policy is largely driven by ministers and their offices these days, rather than a clear line of process that involves public servants, and/or the people who have been commissioned by the Government itself to advise it. The Thodey Review itself is a stunning example of this.

The determination to protect Angus Taylor defies self-interest
Scott Morrison has spent the week defending the indefensible behaviour of his minister. So much political capital expended and so little return, writes Laura Tingle.

Once things are decided in a minister’s office, the scope for even the parliament to find out what has happened is immediately constrained, particularly in an administration that thinks it is okay for one minister to decline to be interviewed by the police, or for another minister to retain his job while unable to explain how he appears to have spectacularly misled parliament, and is subject to a police investigation into forged documents.

Or for the role of ministerial advisers in various scandals to remain unclear, while they hold on to their jobs.

If these new changes mean even less policy flows out of the public service, what hope have we of knowing who is making the decisions, and on what rationale, in areas that the Government doesn’t feel like talking about or prioritising, like the arts? It is hard to see any discussion coming up in Estimates, for starters.

Public servants are now supposed to be the facilitators of policy rather than its authors, but, in fact, particularly under Coalition governments, they have often become little more than post boxes for the outsourcing of contracts to the private sector.

There’s too little transparency

But think of all the bad contractual arrangements that have been exposed just this year — from the Paladin contracts in Papua New Guinea to (yet another) case of a minister distributing regional grants out of their office, outside the guidelines of the grants program — and how little transparency there is about what goes on.

A telling remark from an unnamed “senior government source” in The Australian on Friday was that “there is also a big wake-up call coming for the IT and tech public servants who have spent 20 years making contractors and IT companies rich by signing up for fragmented, sub-scale tech systems”.

A man frowns in front of a tree

PHOTO: The institutional memory of how systems had previously been set up to try to do exactly what the Prime Minister says he wants the public service to do has never recovered. (ABC News: Mark Moore)

For those of us with any memory, it’s hard not to laugh out loud here.

It was the Howard government who oversaw the disastrous outsourcing of the government’s IT program — which was scathingly reviewed by the Auditor-General.

The institutional memory of how systems had previously been set up to try to do exactly what the Prime Minister says he wants the public service to do has never recovered.

Thank goodness there is the public service to blame for this, rather than actually considering what impact slogan-driven policy, lacking in any real idea or interest in how to run a government, may be playing.

Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.