Government rorting is now the Australian way of doing business

Jun 8, 2021
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Australia has moved to a deeply corrupted system of doling out consultancy contracts to mates by pure discretion, in circumstances which in the classic Morrison style are compulsively secretive, and vague in sums and contract terms.

Typically, government claims complete exemption from producing reports on the grounds that they were prepared for Cabinet or are “commercial-in-confidence.” It’s a reversion to the 19th century, with all of its risks of jobbery, bribery, fraud, nepotism and extortion, in a ministry not obviously beyond temptation, especially given the low chances of being held to account.

Note the resemblance to the sports rorts affair, whereby the prime minister’s office helped and assisted a hapless sports minister to give out extensive sports grants to marginal electorates the government was hoping to retain or to win from Labor. Though the PMO used spreadsheets colour-coded by electorate, the head of prime minister and cabinet was unable to see political influences at work. Ministers involved in this, and other schemes rorted to reward friends and punish enemies, have not seemed in the least embarrassed. Some Nationals are quite truculent about thinking the spoils of office include the right to hand over money to whomever it likes.  Few, however, have been as shameless as the apparent cleanskin, Gladys Berejiklian, premier of NSW, who admits that it is wrong but says that “everyone does it.” It is wrong; too many politicians on both sides of the fence do it, and it is to be hoped that ICAC in NSW will soon judge whether such blatantly partisan administration amounts to the ICAC definition of corruption.

Not that one could, or would expect the AFP to investigate if it suspected this was happening at the Commonwealth level. First, it is impossible to conceive of a senior AFP officer entertaining such a notion. Second, the AFP cannot, or will not, investigate such matters of its own motion. It must get a reference from government, as with a leaking complaint, or with an allegation of criminal fraud on the Commonwealth.  It goes without saying that no senior public servant or minister has ever sent a reference. The AFP has not uncovered a case of high-level corruption, even in its own ranks, since its establishment in 1979. It’s the cleanest police force in the world – never once made the subject of genuinely independent critical review.

Money handed over to consultants for tame consultancy advice is not the only problem. With Jobkeeper, hundreds of millions were given to businesses with little in the way of accountability requirements, even the prospect of repayments when money was not spent. The spot of PR bother in which Harvey-Norman, among others, has found itself, after pocketing $21 million it turned out not to need is a good example of the lack of controls, as is the shameless and spiteful attitude of the major shareholder about criticism. Some coalition members have accused those who make anything of it guilty of the politics of envy and fomenting class hatred. These are, frequently, just the same people who work themselves into lathers about whether unemployed or sick people are getting anything more than their entitlement.

In one sense, one cannot criticise the public service for this shift away from accountability or for policies of deliberately starving most public sector programs and contracting out to the private sector. It is, simply, just doing what it is told, and, most likely, would be doing the exact opposite were this government, or a future Labor government to ask. It is also carrying out government policy in stonewalling FOI requests, cutting back on the disclosure of information, and loyally implementing deeply partisan policy.

Public administration is a pretty spineless show, and the public deserves better. The quality of leadership – and example – in the public service is at a low ebb.

Most departmental secretaries are virtually unknown to the public. Few have strong personalities, in private as much as in public. Many have no particular expertise or background in the policy or programs administered by their departments and have little appetite for personally exercising the independent functions imposed on them by legislation. They do not foster any public debate, nor do they work to make their agencies academies where good policy and program ideas – including ones that might be necessary to serve a future government – are nurtured and developed. Nor do they foster any sort of robust debate about public sector ethics or fundamental principles of good government. Most secretaries give every impression of being cowed and compliant, even when they are well aware of significant legal doubts about the way the government is going about business. In some cases, as for example in Attorney-Generals, Home Affairs and Social Security, senior public servants are promoting their own sectarian institutional agendas with the same zeal, and lack of regard for a wider public interest, as for doing whatever ministerial officers want.

One of Australia’s greatest public servants, the late Tony Ayers, used constantly to tell his staff that one of the most important jobs they had to do involved the careful selection of staff. Good leaders picked good staff. People wanted to work alongside or under good staff. Bums appointed bums – usually people in their own image, he said.

It is rot from the head down. Scott Morrison, like Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbot and Kevin Rudd before him, has rotten judgment in selecting people. Those they have selected dilute the quality down the line.

Perhaps this is at the core of the problem. With few good leaders and few managers who led by example in good management, we are not selecting and advancing the best people. Too many are advancing who are clones of secretaries, or who will not rock the boat, or attract the animosity of the prime minister, the minister or minders. It is not that the service lacks good people, but the message they are getting from their superiors is that there are no rewards for standing out, for standing up or standing against. The premium is for moral vacuums who are enthusiasts for government policy, as well as enthusiasts for the way of thinking of the secretary.

That’s not going to attract the best and the brightest. Indeed it will drive them away, in just the same way that the blandness and lack of moral character or imagination does. Nor is money the answer. It’s other rewards that matter most. An interesting job. An academy of ideas in competition with each other, with heretics as welcome as traditionalists. A sense of achieving something for the public good. Even when the result of a political decision is disappointing, a belief that contrary ideas were discussed and given due weight, rather than dismissed out of hand. A sense that one is working as much for the long term and the public interest as for the government’s re-election or popularity as measured by the latest public opinion poll. A sense that there is something noble, valuable and worthwhile in helping governments decide what is in the public interest, rather than in mere scratching for a profit or the highest material rewards. Respect. A sense of power. A sense of being valued. A sense that one can actually make a difference.

These are not values fostered by the modern machinery of ministerial government, or by the regiments of minders. As often as not, even the opposition fails to appreciate what an engine room of progress and good government a good public service can be – all too often being obsessed, as the Morrison government is, with using power to benefit particular constituencies. If we are going to have any sort of revolution in honest and creative government it is going to have to come from example, exhortation and practical leadership.

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