Labor’s weakness for little rorts

Sep 5, 2023
Sydney, Australia - Macquarie street with Guard House of NSW Parliament followed by the towers of Sydney Hospital. Street scene with people and cars under blue sky. Green foliage.

When Labor next loses state office in NSW, it will almost certainly be entirely its own fault. One might have expected that the party’s twelve years in the wilderness would have taught it something about restraint, and about the risks of reverting to its ancient, and traditional ways. Not a bit of it.

Not yet five months into government, it is already taking voters for granted and acting as if it held government on freehold rather than leasehold, to be treated as if it were a private possession. The Opposition is still somewhat shellshocked by defeat, and incapable yet of doing Christopher Minns and the Labor team much in the way of immediate damage. It’s lucky that NSW Labor and its culture of entitlement is more than capable, all by itself and at this stage even without much in the way of a hostile media, of producing its own adverse headlines, own-goals and question marks about its fitness for power.

The instant embarrassment has come from the determination of a minister for transport that the head of her transport bureaucracy be an old personal and political mate, one of the Labor tree people, rather than someone selected by an open, transparent and independent process. Formally, there was an open process, conducted externally at considerable cost to the taxpayer, but, alas, the mate didn’t get on the short list. Despite service as chief of staff in a former premier’s personal office, and a host of personal and political connections to various Labor folk, including the prime minister, he was not seen as being First XI material. That misconception was put right by the minister’s own chief of staff, another well connected political apparatchik, who demanded the panel interview the man the minister wanted to be independently, transparently and openly selected as the best. I doubt that the minister’s high opinion of the man she wanted advising her was actually influenced by the fact that the man had given a substantial donation, if one under the reportable threshold, and even a donation to the premier’s own campaign. That, instead, was no doubt merely an illustration of the high regard each had for each other’s capacity. Apparently, the original panel preferred not to be overruled in this manner, but a new panel was found to agree on the suitability of the minister’s personal candidate for the job.

In typical manner, both the premier and the minister had chosen to try to ride out any controversy, defending both the individual and the process. Their defence of their own conduct serves to reinforce comparisons of other bad appointments by bad processes, not least including the attempt to install National Party Deputy Premier John Barilaro to a trade position in New York, again with political and bureaucratic connivance. The refusal to admit error will only drag out the issue, handicap the person now installed in the job, and leave a continuing question about the judgment and the capacity of the minister, who, down the track, is likely to be best remembered primarily for this cameo of her style.

Those disposed to be critical, even myself, would readily agree that it is far from the worst thing that has been alleged of ministerial interference in bureaucratic appointments, and probably not even reaching the threshold of being able to be called corrupt in ICAC’s (and the Commonwealth National Anti-Corruption Commission’s) definition of corrupt conduct. There are many cases on the record – at state or Commonwealth level, and under Labor or coalition regimes – of ministers getting involved, or attempting to get involved in public service appointments, even (much more improperly), at levels below that of heads of an agency. Ministers certainly have a right to be heard, by the premier (or prime minister) at least, on the sort of person that they want as their principal adviser and head of the department. There are also processes in place, at both state and federal levels, if ministers believe that they cannot get on with the one that they have.

Robodebt shows us why a departmental head must not be a mere political creature of the minister or the party in office.

She or he is not like a political staffer or minder, able to be dismissed at whim. The departmental head, as a good public servant, will be anxious to help the minister achieve her or his policy ambitions, if they are lawful and proper. But that head is, or ought to be, also an important check or balance protecting the public interest. The Robodebt royal commission shows the problem of bureaucrats going too far to please and protect the minister, and the ultimate disgrace and dishonour into which any public servant will fall should it prove that they ignored the spirit or the letter of the law or sought to evade it or avoid it.

Sometimes the charge against obvious political appointments is that they fail to be detached and disinterested, and themselves become closely involved in selling the partisan politics of proposals to ministers when, if they were sensible, they might have been warning of the pitfalls, the dangers, and the risks. They are not, in short, independent advisers, even as transmitters of the advice coming up through the system. One can readily think of examples, including outsiders and others put into senior bureaucratic positions who are pure partisans for the government in power, incapable, sometimes, even of seeing the other argument or the necessity for discretion. In many cases, they depart of their own accord as soon as there is a change of government – even, sometimes, of a mere change of patron. Some others serve governments well, even when they have been accused of being politically engaged or partisan. This is because they have been recruited not so much for expected loyalty but for a background and personality giving them the capacity to challenge the government with new and original ideas. It is also now common for many senior career bureaucrats to have worked for a period in minister’s private offices, something that will often enhance their capacity to understand the political process and a government’s mindset. Most, if not all, of these have gone back into public service without being labelled as partisan of the party they were working with.

So, what’s the problem? In the case of NSW, perhaps NSW Labor in particular, the minister’s determination to get her own person is a definite sign of a slide into complacent ways. Short-cuts that fail the sniff test. Actions difficult to explain to estimates committees, or, these days, anti-corruption hearings. Signs of trouble ahead. One always knows it was crook and looks bad when someone insists that no electoral law disclosure rules were broken. That’s a mere proof that such laws are broken. The problem is made worse since the transport minister and the premier have decided to brazen it out. They think they have the credit in the bank, and that NSW punters, ignorant of the way of ministers having a lend of them, will give them the benefit of the doubt.

The past three generations of Labor coming back to power in NSW, and in many other jurisdictions, has been of originally fairly clean and popular administrations. Typically, re-elected two, three or four times, the average quality of ministers does not seem to improve. Some go native. Some go feral. When the music stops, some are in jail, others before ICAC, and some have enduring reputations for sleaze, incompetence or mismanagement. Typically, the loss of power is dramatic, and observers wonder if the disgraced party can ever win office or be trusted again. Typically, three or four elections pass, with Labor in the wilderness. But the new coalition government, after starting off self-consciously squeaky clean, soon seems to get into the same cycle of abuse of power, turnover of leaders, and intimate encounters with ICAC. Years of opposition make the Labor survivors or successors more pure-minded, less pragmatic about abuse of power (by the other side). From opposition, leaders promise higher and better standards, admit past failures, and promise rigorous adherence to the rules.

The professional minder class – and the many of them who become politicians – are rarely good at the sniff test. They should get out more.

On both sides of politics, at both federal and state levels there is a professional political class of insiders sometimes called the tree people. They work in ministerial offices, at party central, and in a hundred lobbies, advocacy groups, and think tanks. The government in power has the most of them – which is fair enough given that ministers need at least some of these helpers or minders to exercise power. But the other parties have minders, media officers and organisation people too. A change of government sees a major turnover – people falling from the trees from other administrations, from academia, the lobbies, unions and industry. In each party there are insider insiders – from the various party royal families, linked by faction, experience and previous patronage. In theory, these tree people live even more precarious lives than ministers, because they have no security of tenure, and can lose their job when the minister goes, even if the party stays in office. In fact, the minder class usually looks after its own. The work is hard, and long, and those with family commitments can only hack it when young. But many of those in it are exhilarated by their proximity to power, and their own capacity to pull on the hundreds of individual levers of the state.

The minder system is a significant weak link in modern government. Standards of office management differ, and, often, no one is knitting things together. The recording of advice and decisions is often slack, sometimes deliberately so, to avoid a paper trail that might be made the subject of an FOI request. Some minders are focused on policy responsibilities. Others concentrate on the purely political, including liaison and negotiation with other politically focused minders, with union heavies and party branches and the organisation. Some of the ambitious, while looking to their minister’s political interests are also making the contacts and doing the favours that will help them with their own. Some are busily branch-stacking, often with the aim of ultimately getting themselves pre-selection for a seat in parliament. It’s not difficult in such an environment to confuse self-interest with public interest, and to indulge in complacency and taking the electorate for granted. On both sides of politics, most representatives are former minders.

NSW is far from the only jurisdiction with little signs of trouble. The Queensland government had an enormous brain fart recently, legislating overnight for the right to put arrested juveniles, mostly Indigenous, into adult lockups instead of in special facilities. The questions that invited included whether time was up for the premier Anastasia Palaszczuk, and whether ministers, minders, party advisers and strategists, classically “pragmatic” about almost everything, had any moral bottom at all. Despite some polls, Queensland Labor could easily win re-election a year from now. Whether with Palaszczuk or someone else, because voters are not enamoured with National leadership. But some supporters will wonder what’s the point. They wonder that a lot these days.

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