Morrison like a salesman talking through a screen door.

Aug 27, 2019

Scott Morrison’s gee-up to the public service last week was, as usual, that of a dodgy marketeer trying to assure a sceptical customer that he and only he could be trusted to deliver the goods.

The corporate cliches flowed like sullage: respect and expect, agile and responsive, clear lines of accountability, seamless and efficient, emphasis on outcomes, with a few wildly inappropriate and in one case incomprehensible references to the footie thrown in for light relief.

But underneath the meaningless pollywaffle, there was the guts of message. You’re working for me, and don’t you forget it.

Morrison’s view of the bureaucracy is apparently based on TV satire, the British Yes Minister and the Australian Utopia. Both portray the relationship between the executive’s agenda and those charged with implementing it as a battle between gormless ministers and ambitious public servants determined to frustrate the will of what they call their political masters – a term clearly coined more in ironic contempt than reverential awe.

Hence our prime minister sees the shiny bums as corruptible freeloaders, bludging meals, drinks and God knows what else from the self-interested lobbyists who constantly duchess them around the fleshpots of the national capital.

This is, of course, nonsense, although it may provide an insight in Morrison’s own method of operating when he was a spruiker for the NSW tourist industry, a position from which his own minister sacked him.

In fact, in Canberra almost all the serious duchessing takes place within Parliament House, where hundreds of carpetbaggers enjoy free and unrestricted access to the corridors of power and ambitious ministers lobby them for lucrative retirement jobs.

The bureaucrats have already been warned off by the draconian penalties they risk by incurring the wrath of their ministers, and in any case, as Morrison says correctly (for once) they are not the decision makers. The cabinet calls the tune, as it should and it must: public servants are called servants for a reason, and they must always defer to the wishes of the elected government.

To that extent Morrison is right but in practice the reality is rather more complex and subtle than the bald demand: do as I say. The way it should work – the way it once used to work – is best illustrated by a story from back in the 1950s.

Not long after Robert Menzies became Prime Minister for the second time he decided to make a major economic statement, so he called his top economic bureaucrats into his office to inform them of his intentions. Richard Randall, Roland Wilson and H C (Nugget) Coombs obediently listened in silence as he outlined his plan.

There was a brief pause, until one of them responded: “Prime Minister, you have just told us what you wish to do. Now let us to tell you what you are able to do.” And they did, and this time he listened and amended his program accordingly, after which the mandarins went back to their bureaus and instructed their departments to implement the revised version promptly and meticulously.

The point of this story is not only that the system worked, but that the three econocrats had not been Menzies’s selections; he inherited them from his predecessors, John Curtin and Ben Chifley. They were three of the legendary Seven Dwarves who had devised the great reforms that produced post war reconstruction, much of what Menzies had opposed at the time.

And they were anything but Menzies Liberals; Coombs, for example was a lifelong socialist for whom much of the new government’s  policy was anathema. But he, like the others, was a man of unquestioned integrity, and Menzies knew it. He trusted them and they never let him down – indeed, a good measure of his early political success could be attributed to their efforts on his behalf.

He did not have to warn them to keep their noses clean, to stick to the straight and narrow; these were givens. And the idea that he would harangue the bureaucracy about its role would never have occurred to him.

Even when Gough Whitlam came to power after 23 years of conservative rule, he accepted the independence of the permanent heads whom most of his colleagues saw as enemies to be purged. A couple of incoming minister insisted on changes, but almost all the incumbents were given the benefit of the doubt: innocent until proved guilty.

In retrospect, Whitlam was perhaps naïve – he did not receive the co-operation for which he had hoped. But for most of his stormy three years there was little if any deliberate sabotage; that only set in during the traumatic events known as the loans affair.

But there was always tension, and the rot really set in as the guiding principle of permanency of tenure was eroded. When John Howard came to office in 1996, he sacked a full third of what were still called the permanent secretaries; it became known as the night of the long knives. And it meant that the entire service was effectively on notice. This of course meant that the old mantra of frank and fearless advice no longer applied. The bureaucrats did not morph into yes men overnight, but they were severely constrained. The policy options offered to their ministers became, in many cases, an attempt to second guess (or in some instances simply follow) what were known to be the ministers’ preferences, which were, and are, inevitably more about political self interest than the national good.

This  is the kind of subservience for which our authoritarian leader yearns. But it is unlikely to bring the results he would like to boast, as the last few years have so lamentably shown. So one more instructive parable, this one from the 1952 Communist Party Congress of the USSR.

Nikita Khrushchev, the new general secretary, was addressing the delegates on the iniquities of the dictatorship of Josef Stalin. As he detailed the atrocities, a voice rang out from the audience:  “ And what did you do about it?” Khrushchev thundered back: “Who said that?” There was dead silence, and after it had dragged on for a little while, Khrushchev continued. “yes, comrade, and that was what I did too.”

Such intimidation may be beyond Morrison – yet. But we can fairly say that his formula to keep the bastards in check is unlikely to produce good government for his quiet Australians, or for anyone else. Silence may be consent, but it will never entail the approval he craves.

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