ROSS GITTINS. Morrison is perfecting the seal on his own personal Canberra bubble. (SMH 11.12.2019)

For instance, I wouldn’t expect you to have taken much interest in the reshuffle of government departments he announced on Friday. But I’ve been reading up on it and been amazed – or appalled – by what I’ve learnt.

Scott Morrison has revealed four departments will go and five secretaries will lose their jobs in a shake up of the public service.

It’s said to be the most dramatic overhaul of the federal public service since 1987, cutting the number of departments from 18 to 14 while creating four new mega-departments and removing five departmental secretaries, three of them women.

Morrison said it was not a cost-saving measure, but had been done to “better align and bring together functions within the public service so they can all do their jobs more effectively and help more Australians”.

So be very clear on that: it’s been done to ensure you and I get better service from the public service. Specifically, the number of departments was shrunk so as to “ensure the services that Australians rely on are delivered more efficiently and effectively”.

I just have one problem: that’s what they all say. If Morrison had increased rather than decreased the number of departments, he would still have assured us it would make the public service more efficient and effective.

This is hardly the first time departmental arrangements have been changed. They’re changed after every election and often several times more. Changes are so common bureaucrats have a name for them: MoG – changes in the “machinery of government”.

According to calculations by Bob McMullan, former Labor minister turned academic, more than 200 changes have been made since 1993-94. “In 2015-16, machinery of government changes involved the movement of 8000 staff in 21 separate changes. Changes following the 2013 election, which involved the movement of 12,000 staff, cost an average of $14 million per agency.”

Governments everywhere do it, but research by academics at UNSW’s Canberra campus suggests Australian governments do it far more than others. “Even governments with an emphasis on ‘cutting red tape’ [such as this one] have undertaken extreme and costly MoG changes,” they say.

So why are the latest changes said to be the biggest since 1987? Because that’s when the Hawke government introduced the idea of merging departments into mega-departments. Paul Keating reversed some of those changes and John Howard undid much of the rest. Get it? It’s time to mega up again.

When the changes cause the name of some function to drop out of the ever-longer titles of departments, the interest group invariably sees red. A few years ago it was the scientists, this time it’s the arts. Actually, the arts have never had their own department, but have been shunted from one department to another.

Since Bob Hawke’s day they’ve gone from Environment to Communications, back to Environment, then Regional Development, Prime Minister and Cabinet, back to Regional Development, then Attorney-General’s, back to Communications and now to the new mega Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

So many MoG changes involve moving functions from one department to another that McMullan has christened them “merry-go-round decisions”. “Responsibility for childcare, aged care and Indigenous affairs (to name a few) have all been the subject of multiple shifts in the past decade. In some cases, the functions have moved out of one department only to return to their original home a few years later,” he says.

He adds that “disentangling financial structures, IT support structures, property responsibilities and HR systems from old organisations and reintegrating them into new ones takes considerable time and effort”.

Former boss of Prime Minister’s Terry Moran’s comment on the latest changes is blunter: “There’ll be turmoil in many departments for a significant period.”

So why do the changes keep happening? Partly to create the appearance of progress – “reform”. Sometimes I think the pollies are trying to convince themselves as much as us. But mainly to indulge the preferences, prejudices and professed priorities of the prime minister and his or her ministers.

It’s notable that these extensive changes to the bureaucracy – including the sacking of five department heads – involve no changes to the ministry. The new mega Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment will now contain three Cabinet ministers, co-equal in power and glory.

What particular preferences and prejudices of Morrison do the latest changes reveal? I think it reveals this government’s disdain for public servants. It’s the revenge of the ministerial staffers (which many ministers started their political careers as). Who needs public servants giving ministers advice when it’s the staffers who understand the politics of the matter?

This is Morrison surrounding himself with the top public servants he knows and likes, replacing the ones who want to keep talking about policy with can-do men and women who don’t argue.

Morrison has repeatedly expressed his belief that he doesn’t need policy advice from public servants. They should just be getting on with implementing the policies the government gives them.
I think this is Morrison perfecting the hermetic seal of his personal Canberra bubble. He already knows what’s on his to-do list and he doesn’t want news from the outside world delaying or deterring him from his purpose.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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8 Responses to ROSS GITTINS. Morrison is perfecting the seal on his own personal Canberra bubble. (SMH 11.12.2019)

  1. Jerry Roberts says:

    Imagine how much worse it is going to get with the confidence Morrison and co will take from Boris Johnson’s win.

  2. William Collins says:

    I remember an airline commercial for an overseas ‘cheapie’ airline. “We have included more seats in our aircraft – to give you more room”.
    To pun… sort of flies in the face of physics. Now Morrison is adding to the ‘wait time’ on phone calls to public services – to better the service?

  3. Stephen Saunders says:

    I was dismayed by the severe downgrade to the Environment and Climate functions, even as the east coast is burning.

    So how does Labor react? They double down on Big Coal. Go figure.

  4. Peter Chapman says:

    I think this is spot on. Further, I fear that Morrison’s emphasis on ‘service delivery’ portends the running down of the policy advice functions of the public service to an extent that will threaten the very function of that service, as it has done in the USA. Without head-office layers of public servants analysing policy proposals, evaluating impacts and calculating costs and benefits — and providing ‘frank and fearless’ advice when things go wrong (etc.) — the service delivery echelons will be more open to direct political direction, intervention and interference. This may be ‘the revenge of the ministerial advisors’, yes, but it is not just a game; like Dominic Cummings in the UK and some of Donald Trump’s henchmen and fellow-travellers, darker forces may be at work (whether explicit or otherwise). Consider the attempt by Campbell Newman to eviscerate the Queensland State public service: not only did he sack thousands of public servants, but he also carried out a ‘scorched earth’ policy with regard to a range of government agencies and functions. Newman’s effort lasted but one term of government, but the lessons have not been learned and assimilated. So the public service continues to be seen, or to be portrayed, as at the whim and gift of the party in power.

    • Charles Lowe says:

      I admire your reasoning. I’m inclined to agree with you.

      Yet is Morrison so incredibly stupid as to not accept the meaning of that primary title – public SERVANT?

      If he is, we can so look forward to a change of Government within 2.5 years.

  5. Meryl JOYCE says:

    Morrison might know what his plans are for the country but when does he plan to let the country know?

  6. Jim KABLE says:

    Ross Gittins – no retirement for you, mate! We need you – the country needs you – the public or civil service needs you!

    Maybe it’s too well known already to quote an ancient Roman Petronius or Gaius Petronius Arbiter or Titus Petronius – the author of the Satyricon – of around 60 CE – or was it Charlton Ogburn (1957) (and thereafter referenced in various magazines/journals –
    but whoever he was – he has perfectly encapsulated the sleight-off-hand smoke-and-mirrors (and on-water-matters) Scott Morrison – such a rascally happy-clapper and devious if not deviant politician that he is… (the Judas in the House):

    From Harper’s Magazine – January 1957: Charlton Ogburn Jr – “Merrill’s Marauders: The Truth about an Incredible Adventure” (Burma Campaign WII):

    “We trained hard but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. Presumable the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organising, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation. During our reorganisations, several commanding officers were tried out on us, which added to the discontinuity.”

  7. Felix MacNeill says:

    I thought “policy” came from divine revelation.

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