Public servants contemplating abolition of the people

Apr 4, 2023
Female activist protesting with megaphone.

For a public servant of my acquaintance, the new and emerging problem of public administration is dealing with what she called activists and advocates.

Apparently, it was not a problem, or as much of a problem, before as it is now. Now it threatens good government. And she’s not talking about the unnatural influence on government and bureaucrats of rich and powerful corporations and business. She’s worried instead about the obstacles placed in their way by busybodies, small community organisations, and people with no particular right to be heard on particular subjects. Like animal rights activists on agricultural practices, trade unionists on banking culture, or non-warriors on war memorials. The best efforts of politicians – including the reining-in of rights once granted – have not stopped troublemakers meddling in the domains of others, including the bureaucracy.

It’s something, apparently, politicians and public officials must do something about. So as by stripping legal and social appeal rights. By killing off bodies once established to promote and protect private interests. Reducing public expectations of the right of people to be involved in decision making. By removing “unnecessary” regulation, process and potential blockages open to abuse by naysayers to projects creating employment, facilities and economic opportunities for the community.

She’s typical of a new breed of public servant impatient and dismissive of consultation – seeing it at most as being a public relations gesture before doing what has already been determined and decided. Suspicious of the self-interest of citizens, but amazingly willing to take as read the obvious self-interest of the people she calls stakeholders. Stakeholders are businesses and big vested interests of whose needs one must be aware. Stakeholders are never, of course, ordinary citizens. Not the unemployed, the sick, the disabled, single mothers or students. Stakeholders are employers, (sometimes) unions, healthcare lobbies, service providers and educational establishments.

The Albanese government has the right to claim that it is running a far more regular and accountable government than its predecessor. Most of its ministers are well educated in the needs of the community and the needs of the stakeholders. They may be trying to reduce the government’s dependence on external consultants. And its ministers, particularly its Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, are given to setting up at least one new fresh inquiry or review into the protection of some public interest or another every day. One might almost think that we were back to a time when the law and the courts were in favour of the little guy. Against big government, as over robo-debt. Or centralised bossy government, as over welfare benefits or pre-Voice Indigenous affairs. Or corrupted review processes, as with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Or protecting people who expose abuses of public power or even murder. Or government departments who actively and consciously abuse the human rights of vulnerable people.

Yet somehow there’s a lot more talk than action when it comes to citizen participation in government. Or accountable government. Or the rights of activists and advocates – now, for the purpose of the exercise tending to be regarded as Greens, or Teals, or other people who might hold back the government from what it wants to do.

The FOI Act is being abused by ministers and bureaucrats, from the prime minister and his department down, as much as it was by the Morrison government. Despite talk of reviewing the FOI Act, Dreyfus, by depriving the Information Commissioner of resources has ensured that there is no effective appeal against refusal. The Information Commissioner has resigned from frustration. Despite the talk of stronger whistle-blower legislation, Dreyfus is too timid to protect two clear public heroes who have exposed abuses of government power – in one case over war crimes, in another over improper tactics by the Tax office. And the champion of universal human rights is astonishingly indifferent to the official and consciously cruel maltreatment of boat people.

Other ministers and their bureaucrats have proven far keener on their own, often well-intentioned, views of the best thing to do than asking the public, or the “clients” what they think. They may not be enthusiastically doling out jobs and money to their mates, cronies, and party donors in the manner of some Morrison-era ministers. But they are no more inclined to listen to the public, or to groups with developed criticisms of past policies and ideas about how things could be improved. While selling the virtues of the Voice they are making cogent criticisms of decades in which ministers and bureaucrats knew what was best for Indigenous Australians. But they have no more reformed their current consultation and delivery systems in Aboriginal affairs (which is to say prime minister and cabinet) than they have reformed the philosophy of public consultation, citizen participation, or transparent government in any of the other million functions of government. For too many ministers, minders, and administrators, “activist” is still a term of abuse.

Top administrators are very attentive to their stakeholders. But they run a mile from ordinary citizens.

This new breed is very efficient and professional in dealing with “stakeholders” – the big operators getting the money, the rights, or the attention to their needs. They are experts on the provider groups, often knowing their industries so well they can easily move later into being consultants to them, or lobbyists for them. It’s not necessarily the prospect of that future that guides them: It’s often absorbing where they are now, seeing the action as from a nearby hill, rather than in the smoke of battle. She is not their creature and has robust views about where the public interest lies. But she’s not keen on taking external advice about it, or of being accused of governing in their interests. You must trust her.

But she admits she finds it difficult to deal with busybodies, and doesn’t see why she should. Or journalists and outside “pressure groups” demanding information about the relationships between government and the stakeholders – sometimes indeed intrinsically confidential financial or contractual information with the capacity to embarrass both buyers and sellers. These people do not have entrée into the inner sanctum. The sworn common enemy of both the departmental manager and the stakeholder is the sort of person, or group, who thinks that the business of government can or should be conducted in a goldfish bowl, without mutual confidence or trust between parties, and without that room for discretion so often essential for win-win arrangements.

Activists are seen as usually hostile to the project in view, as often as not from some oblique angle. They are not engaged in a legitimate search for the best place to conduct mining or situate a railway line. They just don’t want mining, or the railway at all. They are not interested in the best place to locate public housing or a jail, except from the perspective of having it as far away from their homes as possible. They have no personal interests or property rights needing to be taken into account in relation to the treatment of asylum seekers, or prisoners, the conservation of some threatened species, or the threat from climate change. Their intellectual, aesthetic, cultural or emotional opinions can be acknowledged, even up to a point respected. But their having a point of view does not give them the right to interfere, to frustrate worthy projects, or to diminish or limit the value of assets of other taxpaying citizens or companies. Their assertions about the relevant facts, the weight and importance of the relevant considerations, and about facts they insisted should be taken into account were often contestable. And self-interested. But they act as if their interests are legal rights and in fact as important as those who were investing money, or making choices about the best disposition of public resources. Often too they were insisting on attention to “evidence” when the real decision was one of principle.

Likewise with the expectations that some people had that they would be consulted about every proposal for action which could affect them, with any decision or action suspended or forbidden until those being consulted agreed with what was proposed. Consultation might serve some purposes, such as getting at least the grudging assent of the neighbours or some recognition of public policy choices being made. But a commitment to consultation was not a commitment to endless public meetings, let alone discussions in which the experience, professionalism and integrity of officials was put in contest, or in which the sensible and objective working assumptions of impartial experts were questioned and disputed. All that was necessary for consultation was a right to make a submission, which might not even be read. The fact that some proposals might cause some inconvenience or pain to a small group of people without real legal rights should not be allowed to stand in the way of achieving the greater good for the greater number of interests in the community.

To such people the practical merits of “rights” such as Freedom of Information legislation are much exaggerated. Particularly when one takes account of the time and the energy, and the distraction caused to officials by processing claims. Since many claims, including by journalists, are filed by people without any legal interest in the outcome of whatever decision was involved, and others come from groups with an active agenda of frustrating the policy, proposal or program in question, one can hardly be surprised that officials would resist disclosure, which was bound to cause trouble.

Ministers and senior officials might pay rhetorical lip service to the benefits of open government, transparency and accountability. But they rarely criticise a slow, grudging and highly legalistic approach to processing claims, and the refusal of as much information as possible. And, given the designed slowness of the appeal system, one could at the least postpone the provision of information until it was old news, no longer controversial or where the major players were now off the scene. It was much the same in estimates committees, where senior officials played games with senators (wink wink) about how little information could be disclosed, and how little help or explanation volunteered. But those inclined to purse their lips should understand that the whole system of estimates was an unnecessary farce, without any sort of parallels in modern industry, and that preparing for and appearing in estimates was a major distraction from more important matters of state. Indeed, all too often for no purpose, since senators would often have all the senior officials waiting around for hours before sending them home without having asked a question of any significance or importance, particularly by comparison with the budget an agency controlled or managed.

Their feeling that a good many of the processes of government are cumbersome and inefficient is real enough. And widely held in the public service. There are, indeed, people and groups adept at playing the system against itself to slow or defeat proposed government action. But they under-estimate the value and importance of the consent of the governed, and the costs of not getting it. Yet all too often, those expressing frustration at the delays caused by process and consultation tend to regard the obstruction and resistance of the powerful lobbies as legitimate and natural – even sometimes admirable even when there are clear social costs. By contrast, the legitimacy of consumer, citizen or social objection, even one advanced by politicians, is seen as representing a defeat for their system, perhaps for being emotional and not strictly economically rational.

‘Activist’ has become a modern term of abuse. Modern government is about freezing them out and denying them platforms.

The very word “activist” is now a term of abuse in government. It was once somewhat of a badge of honour, suggesting citizens who took an active and public-spirited interest in the welfare of their communities by joining worthy groups and associations seeking improved services and outcomes for the broader community. It was community activism – as someone reminded a public meeting I attended the other day – that gave us the National Trust, heritage legislation, and most of our general environmental protections. It was citizen activism – including the unwelcome ideas of busybodies – that saw the abolition of slavery and, in Australia, the abolition of transportation, women’s suffrage, the eight-hour day, and human rights for homosexuals. It was, usually, just the same citizens active on political fronts and seeking to advance (or frustrate) personal rights and public freedoms and rights, who were also the most active in community social, cultural, sporting, and welfare groups. They were the backbone of the community and the engine-room of much of its economic activity. It was simply too easy to describe them as NIMBYs, NOTEs, or BANANAs, or to see their concern for the general welfare as malign and destructive of personal property rights.

Many of the major reforms of government grew from popular movements and the activism of ordinary Australians. Does anyone imagine that the development in the rights of women from the 1970s came because of public service initiatives? Actually, up to a point they did, but only because a generation of able and dedicated women entered government and public administration from outside, with the active encouragement of people such as Gough Whitlam, Susan Ryan and others, to promote a rights agenda. Most law reform, including the Ombudsman, judicial and administrative review and FOI, occurred against the resistance of an old bureaucracy which distrusted innovation and accountability. Successive Attorneys-General, such as Lionel Murphy, Kep Enderby and Peter Durack were associated with enormous law reform. But the then head of Attorney-General’s, Sir Clarry Harders, running a far more talented department than today, often boasted that no policy ideas ever came from his bureaucrats. His department, he said, was merely the empty vessel into which policy was poured by ministers. Their genius was in implementing the ideas of their ministers.

Those were days, moreover, in which genuine and well-thought ideas often came to government from work inside branches of political parties. Australian political parties, on all sides, have always been centres of intrigue, faction and mindless ideology. But there was a time in which members had power within their party, and where ideas were raised, debated and converted into party programs and policy. Now that work, on both sides of politics, has been taken over by a professional party bureaucracy and minders, most of whom have never worked outside politics, and party conferences are choreographed so as to avoid any actual debate. Active participative membership of parties is at an all-time low.

The funny thing is that ICT developments over the past 50 years have made the business of interchange between the governed and the governors far more easy. But for all of the theoretical capacities of the new toys, the practical effect has been to widen the differences and make mutual understanding less likely. Many of our communications are into the ether, shouting at each other, rather than discussions with particular people. Business might have adopted online meetings but this does not happen so much in the development of public policy.

For many, the world is now a more hostile place from the moment one walks out the front door. People are less likely to join clubs and associations, whether for sport, politics, culture or recreation. People, rightly, distrust the media and other forms of public information-sharing, including social media and the spin of politicians. The number of real journalists is about a fifth of what it was forty years ago; the numbers of paid public relations people, marketeers, “spokespeople” and other professional spin-doctors and liars has increased by about 600 per cent.

It is into this vacuum, this abyss, that self-confident politicians, bureaucrats and consultants come to know and believe that they know more about what people really want or need than the people themselves. That’s one of the reasons why they are especially resistant to the idea of listening to ordinary folk with an active interest in the subject. If these new professionals ever need to check their sense of reality, a short opinion poll, as often as not slanted, will save them the bother of actually asking ordinary people. Or listening. Or negotiating. Pretty soon, I expect, our best and our brightest public servants will be as alienated from the community – and the community from them — as in the US.

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