JERRY ROBERTS. Will today’s Labor Government in Western Australia repeat the mistakes of 1983?

Dec 18, 2017

Dominating the front page of Wednesday’s West Australian newspaper (6 December) was a picture of the State’s Premier, Mark McGowan, striking a tough-guy pose.  Ghosted over the photo of the Premier was a big headline saying “Fat Cat Cull.”  The fat cats are public service chiefs and the story revived memories of Premier Brian Burke in the days following Labor’s election victory in 1983.  The difference lies in what happened to the public service between then and now. 

The spectacular front page was the media’s educational method of informing the West Australian public about changes recommended for their public service in the Service Priority Review, a lengthy study conducted for the government by New Zealand bureaucrat Iain Rennie.  As in any Western story, there have to be good guys and bad guys.  The newspaper report informed us that more than 100 highly-paid bureaucrats will be “bundled out” of their positions by the end of March. More alarmingly, the government’s “blueprint for reform and cultural change in the public service” will recommend a “digital transformation” of government services.  We learned on the front page that “public service delivery costs $16.90 for each face-to-face interaction compared with 40 cents online”. This is music to the ears of a cash-strapped government.

Having read the newspaper report, I turned to the Premier’s press release, then read the entire report which is available on with a link to Service Priority Review.  It is worth reading and I hope Terry Moran and Michael Keating will have time to look it over.  In a stroke of genius, the New Zealand author opens his report and introduces themes of innovation and change by quoting the voice of Australia, Henry Lawson: “Oh my ways are strange ways and new ways and old ways, and deep ways and steep ways and low. I’m at home and at ease on a track that I know not and restless and lost on a track that I know.”

The Australian Labor Party, of which I am a member, has an unhappy history with the public service and I’m hoping this report will not be used as ammunition to write another chapter in that story. It was federal Labor that gave us the ideological destruction of the public service with Bastille Day 1987 a key date. Michael Pusey’s “Economic Rationalism in Canberra” described this onslaught.  The 1980s by-passing of the public service by Labor in Perth was not ideological.  It was more about the arrogance and insecurities of young men and longstanding suspicion of the permanent public service by a political party that had spent more time in opposition than government.

Iain Rennie commenced his review of the WA service in May and concluded the report on 17 October. In his 6 December statement the WA Premier said the government supported the overall direction of the report which he called “a strong blueprint to drive cultural change and create a more efficient public sector”.  Rennie’s report gives the government room to move, with a section describing the State’s budget problems and reference to the cyclical nature of the West Australian resource-based economy. “It has been made clear to us that the community wants higher quality services and greater involvement in service design. The challenge of tackling the State’s budget deficit means, however, that better services must be delivered at a lower cost.”  The report notes that the public sector is the State’s biggest employer with 140,103 employees of whom more than 70 per cent are engaged in the provision of health, education and police services.

The WA Government has recently announced significant cuts in the police budget just when Perth is witnessing a burst of violent crime and Education Minister Sue Ellery has apologised for savage cuts to schools. The education cuts are drastic and people in the health services must be shuddering at the thought of what lies ahead for them. The previous Labor government in WA had a crack at closing down Royal Perth Hospital.  Surely they won’t try that again.

The Labor government elected on 11 March has gone past the point where it can go on blaming the previous Barnett government for its problems.  John Menadue forecast exactly this predicament in Pearls and Irritations on 14 March: “In six months’ time the Labor Government will own everything broken, including the ballooning debt.  At that point McGowan will be either working for the miners or working for the public. If he wants to do the latter he needs to move fast” (to increase revenue from mining).

What we the public want, and what we are entitled to, is a generously-staffed public service consisting of people who are decent and honest and speak to us in polite, kindly voices.  People who are there to help us and who do not cost out every minute of their time like corporate lawyers.  This is why we have governments.  We are also entitled to expect our elected governments and our public servants to work harmoniously for a common cause – namely our welfare.

New Zealand has moved on since Iain Rennie came West and he might struggle to get his old job back. New Zealand’s elder statesman and king-maker, Winston Peters, anointed the Labor leader Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister.  He explained the decision thus: “Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism not as their friend but as their foe and they are not all wrong.  That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible, its human face.  That perception has influenced our negotiations … The truth is that after 32 years of the neoliberal experiment the character and the quality of our country has changed dramatically and much of it for the worse.”

Terry Moran (29 and 30 November) appears to have been thinking along similar lines to the New Zealander and he has drawn an over-arching conclusion – political policies have been dominated by ideas derived from macro and micro economics.  “We still have an unhealthy reliance on microeconomic reform and outsourced services,” says Terry, drawing attention to the free ride given to proponents of Public-Private partnerships (PPPs). He calls for more involvement in policy from sociology, psychology and anthropology as well as a better understanding of history.  Public service is not the same as private industry.  I think that is what Winston Peters means when he uses the word “responsible”.  Governments have handed over responsibility for providing services to privatised and corporatized organisations and now they are talking about performance indicators and management goals, as if government is just another business.  Government is an enduring commitment.

If we want to call a spade a spade, public service “reforms” are policies of austerity caused by shortfalls in government revenue. Unfortunately, WA Labor was not prepared to play tough guy with the real fat cats – BHP and Rio Tinto – during the election campaign.  They left the tough stuff to Brendon Grylls and the National Party.  It was a lost opportunity to improve Western Australia’s budgetary position.  The three major political parties in West Perth should have put their heads together instead of being divided and conquered, as usual, by the City of London.

Commentators on Pearls and Irritations, including John Menadue, Paul Cleary and this correspondent, have had plenty to say on mining taxes so I will quote Brendon Grylls at the time of his heroic effort:

“Huge gains through technology and innovation resulting in more production with fewer employees mean one of the key reasons for government support of mining activity – the creation of jobs and associated payroll tax revenue — is declining. Adding to this, Singapore trading hubs, favourable tax treatments, international outsourcing of worksite administration and automation of all aspects of the industry have fundamentally changed the resource sector’s contribution to the State….How different the negotiations with Sir Charles Court might have been over the original State Agreements if the discussions centred on having more workers in Asia than the Pilbara, driverless trucks, robot drill rigs and trains and FIFO (Fly-in, Fly-out) camps in the North West?”

In 1983, soon after Labor’s State election win, I met up with new Premier Brian Burke in his electoral office in Princess Street, Balga, the meeting having been arranged by our mutual friend, Darcy Farrell. In the formative decades of Western Australia’s television industry, the 60s and 70’s, Darcy was generally acknowledged as Perth’s top TV news man.  He was news editor at Channel 7 when Brian was reporting on State politics and both men were able to study at close quarters the media savvy of the master propagandist, Sir Charles Court, in his days as Minister for Industrial Development and Premier.  When Labor took office the media strategies of Brian and Darcy were a sight to behold.   They took the game to a new level.

Darcy wanted me to talk to Brian about the government’s media office.  I wanted to talk to Brian about the incoming government’s relationship with the West Australian public service, from which I had recently departed.  In particular, I thought it might be possible to set up some sort of interface between the Labor ministers and the mid-ranking public servants who were looking forward to the change of government and had so much to contribute.  These were the people on the ground who knew how the government and the State worked.  A ship can stay afloat without the poop deck but will not last long if it loses the petty officers in the engine room. Unfortunately, Labor’s distrust of the public service ran so deep that the new ministry brought with it an advisory network consisting largely of the Ministers’ friends and contacts from university days.  The effect was to cut off the government from practical and experienced officers who, among other matters, could have, should have and would have advised the young Ministers to be more cautious in their dealings with the entrepreneurial businessmen and financiers who breed like rabbits over here on the West coast.

Reading an obituary for Ed Gorham reminded me of those days.  Ed was director of the Department of Industrial Development when I worked there in the 1970’s.  His title was “Co-ordinator” and it was appropriate.  The structure of the Department reflected the make-up of the State’s economy.  There was a resources division and an industries division.  When a mining project was shaping up the resources division informed the industries officers who hit the road to ensure a maximum involvement by local workshops and factories.  Without such government commitment Australia becomes a mere quarry.  One of Ed’s deputies was Des Kelly who went over to run the Mines Department before returning to Development.  On his retirement Des warned against privatisation because it broke off “the corporate memory” of government.  Terry Moran noted that successive governments have not nurtured the Australian Public Service – “they have gutted it.” Geoff Edwards wrote of “a loss of intelligence at the centre.”  As Terry admits, there is no quick fix.  Once lost, these qualities are not easily rebuilt.

A feature of West Australian politics in recent years was the visceral antagonism between the two leaders, Mark McGowan and Colin Barnett.  They gave the impression they would happily punch each other to a pulp.  In such an eventuality I would not bet against the bull-necked Barnett, despite young Mark’s age advantage. I went to school with Colin.  He is a few years younger. One of my young brothers was in the same class.  There has never been any question about Colin’s intelligence, application and commitment to Western Australia.  Colin, who has just announced his retirement, was the most experienced and capable member of Parliament in WA, in Canberra or in any of the other States, to my knowledge. Yet the government he led took a disastrous beating at this year’s State election, giving Labor a massive majority in WA’s Legislative Assembly.  Colin’s government was a one-man band, a point he has unwisely made in public recently.  Some of the team indulged themselves in public disloyalty to their leader approaching election time and the Treasurer and now Opposition leader, Mike Nahan, is an economist who maintained enthusiasm for privatisation of public utilities long after such policies had become electoral poison, a point picked up by WA Labor and by Colin after Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen campaigned so effectively on Medicare.

The two issues on which Colin’s government copped the most flak were major projects in Perth – a new football stadium and the foreshore development known as Elizabeth Quay.  For as long as most of us can remember the West Australian football community has campaigned for a new stadium to replace Subiaco Oval.  Every government until Colin took office has kicked the idea down the road and tarted up Subiaco to last a little longer.  The only argument among the football public was where to locate the new stadium.  Football writer Geoff Christian favoured the Wellington Street central city site and I agreed with him but I wouldn’t quarrel with the Burswood location.  We see evidence every day of how significant professional sport has become in the modern economy and Colin will receive a lot of credit for this project before he gets much older.

Acceptance of Elizabeth Quay may take longer but Labor criticism should be tempered by the more extravagant plan for Perth Water put forward by former Labor Premier Alan Carpenter.  West Australian politicians can’t leave the Swan River alone.  The villain of this story is Governor Stirling who disobeyed orders to locate the new settlement overlooking the broad expanse of Melville water on what is now the suburb of Applecross.  Instead he went further upstream and started building on the northern shore of a shallow, muddy section of the river we know as Perth Water.  The river was the main transport artery but Perth built a land transport route to the south-eastern side in 1843 via a causeway that straddled Heirisson Island.  Residents in the sleepy suburb of South Perth could cross to the city by ferry.  They still can and it is a delightful start to the day.

Perth was a small, beautiful city but that all changed for ever in 1957 when construction of the Narrows Bridge commenced to link the northern and southern shores of the city at the western end of Perth Water.  The problem was not the bridge itself, a handsome design built in pre-stressed concrete, but the massive filling-in of Perth Water for the road interchange and of the South Perth and Como foreshores for the Kwinana Freeway.  This was one of the most spectacular acts of public vandalism to be visited upon a city’s natural environment during the age of the motor car.  It was the decisive battle between the West Australian conservationists and their deadly enemy, the Main Roads Department.  The photograph of pioneering conservationist and feminist Bessie Rischbieth holding her umbrella and standing in front of a bulldozer remains the icon of the State’s conservation movement.  You guessed it.  I was on the side of the conservationists and I had a “No Freeways on Foreshores” sticker on my ute.

In a poignant article published in The Bulletin magazine, Vincent Serventy described the three elements that gave Perth its natural beauty.  They were Mount Eliza on Kings Park, the reflecting pond of the Swan River beneath the park, filled in for the bridge and freeway, and the backdrop of the Darling Range escarpment to the east. Serventy concluded with the hope that future generations would dig up the freeways and restore the reflecting pond.  The excavation of Elizabeth Quay may not be what he envisaged but there is legitimacy in the government’s claim that the project reconnects the city with its river.

In the modern era Perth has expanded on its east-west axis.  The New Heart for Perth Society decades ago campaigned for lowering the railway line that runs along the space between Wellington and Roe Streets and has always blocked northward expansion of the city.  This is now happening and future growth of Perth will be northerly.  Elizabeth Quay book-ends the north-south axis of the city and I think it will become accepted as a significant part of the new Perth that will never have the natural beauty of the older, smaller city but will, we hope, eventually come together as a fine city on modern lines.

A couple of spectacular disasters in public works in the West can be blamed on ideology gone mad.  It is hoped that one day the new Children’s Hospital will have some patients.  Apart from providing state of the art facilities for doctors, nurses and their patients, the object of major public works like new hospital construction is to boost employment and industrial development.  To build such a project with imported building products is a moonbeam from the larger lunacy of globalisation.  In the case of this hospital it was the ultimate in false economies.  I wonder if we will ever know how much it has cost.  On a smaller scale, the building of an entire footbridge to cross the Swan River in the vicinity of the new football stadium was undertaken in Malaysia.  Presumably the entire bridge was due to be transported to Fremantle as deck cargo on a ship – a big ship.  That project was cancelled by the incoming government and construction of the bridge is giving local workshops much needed work.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter.


Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!