LAURIE PATTON. Catch 22.0 – We wouldn’t need inquiries if public administration wasn’t so broken – UPDATED

Jan 8, 2020

Predictably, we are seeing calls for a Royal Commission into the bushfires that have Australia in crisis mode right now – either in the genuine hope of finding answers or finding someone to blame.

However, this is just the latest example of a systematic failure in public administration. Nobody is ever held accountable when things go wrong and seldom do formal inquiries lead to anything fundamentally worthwhile. That needs to change.

On ABC Insiders late last year host Fran Kelly asked health minister Greg Hunt why the Government didn’t have an immediate response ready on the aged care Royal Commission report just released. “It wasn’t a surprise to anyone, was it”, Ms Kelly observed with obvious frustration.No, it wasn’t. Not to anyone whose parents or friends have ended up in an aged care facility. Not to any politicians who have had their eyes open. And most certainly not to the highly paid bureaucrats in our federal and state health departments. Mr Hunt admitted that the Royal Commission had uncovered a culture in the aged care sector that “went beyond anything” he had anticipated. I’m literally frightened and frankly astounded that a health minister could be so out of touch.

So why do we need to keep having formal inquiries before anything is done about known problems in government administration and abject market failures? Problems that so dramatically impact on the lives of the most disadvantaged among us.

Widespread problems in aged care revealed in the Royal Commission have further exposed how ineffective our governments and their agencies have become. Any inquiry into the failure by federal and state governments to adequately prepare for this season’s bushfires will be pointless unless we demand that it lead to fundamental changes in how we are governed. Failing this it will be déjà vu all over again next time we face a national emergency!

These are just some of the areas and issues covered by recent government inquiries. I’ll leave it to others to determine what outcomes resulted from all the time, money and effort that went into them.

Age Pension Disability / NDIS Finance Sector
Banking Decriminalising Drugs Flammable Cladding
Building Industry Domestic Violence Mental Health
Child Care Education Murray-Darling River
Child Sexual Abuse Drought Management Religious Discrimination
Closing the Gap Emissions Reduction Uluru Statement
Corruption Family Court Water Management

As I’ve observed before, people died as a result of the so-called ‘Pink Batts’ scheme. Not because the concept was flawed but because state government agencies responsible for OH&S failed to ensure that proper safety standards were being applied by the companies well-paid to do the installations. And because nobody in the federal bureaucracy made sure this issue was being dealt with by the states.

In 2010 I was a member of an expert panel that carried out a review of the federal government’s investment in the Indigenous broadcasting and media sector. This review was headed by former senior public servant Neville Stevens. We undertook extensive consultations with Aboriginal communities across the country and delivered around 30 recommendations. The report called for a range of changes, including many that simply required administrative action and did not involve the appropriation of new funding. Bugger all happened. The public servant in charge of this policy area was later promoted and now heads up a major government authority.

The problem isn’t new of course. As a young public servant fresh out of university I was given some career advice by an old hand with decades of experience. The message was simple. You’ll never get into strife for not making a decision. But make the wrong one and you might. Proceed with caution (AKA, don’t rock the boat).

Former Prime Minister and Cabinet department head Terry Moran has opined that the public service is so lacking in expertise these days he wouldn’t trust it “with organising a collection of funds to build the local church”. The stuff flows downhill, as the saying goes, so we need to ponder how we’ve ended up with a bunch of politicians so many of whom seem to have little idea about the lives of the people they are elected to represent and even less interest in finding out.

Making other people’s lives better is what politicians and bureaucrats are ultimately there for surely? It’s not called the public service for nothing.

Laurie Patton is a former public servant, ministerial advisor, journalist and media executive. This article, since updated, first appeared in The Lucky General.

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