There was a time when I thought that the best argument for Australia having a public service that could attract the best and brightest men and women was the need to have the best brains at the side of politicians while they worked together to make a better Australia. That's still a laudable goal, but it may be a task less urgent than having the most clever, practical and cunning to undo the damage done to the nation over the past 25 years, including systematic looting of the public purse over the past 10.
One wants the two, of course. Women and men with a steady eye on the future and on the public interest, knowing where, in part from political guidance and public debate, they want Australia to be in the decades ahead. The biggest challenge will be climate change, and that may well have, if some of our national security hawks get their way, a serious national security dimension.
But the marshalling of the resources Australia will need to deal with these challenges may well need to confront, and to reverse, some of the major reappropriations of public goods from the public purse to rich individuals, most of whom are coalition party donors, cronies and mates of the government, and some of whom are former political and party figures who have left open politics in the hope of sharing in the distribution of the new loot.
Some of the redistribution has occurred under the banner of smaller government and the pretence that greater efficiency and results are to be found by contracting out the management of public resources to the private sector. In the course of establishing a justification for this, politicians have long been seeking to create new realities, including a public service whose capacity to give good independent advice, based on the best research, has been compromised by a deliberate starvation of staff and resources. And as the disasters of Covid vaccination have amply demonstrated, they have compounded this by deliberately running down even the resources capable of efficiently managing programs.
No doubt the Morrison government is embarrassed, to a point, by the narrative that the modern Commonwealth and state public services can no longer efficiently manage public health programs, of a sort and complexity they have done since federation. In this they may be dicing with political retribution. But even so, they have lent weight to the idea that the public sector can no longer do anything much - certainly not reliably, efficiently or quickly. They have thus created the circumstances whereby it can both deal with instant problems by throwing money at them, as well as redoubling efforts to give most of the money involved to favoured consultancies, provider services, and spivs with little background, experience and qualifications, other than relationships with individuals in the government.
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Normally such a wholesale transfer of public wealth to private hands might be expected to elicit a strong public reaction. But the background of the pandemic is helping conceal the scale of the exercise, as is the fact that many of the transactions occurring are not happening by conventional open appropriation by parliament, but by secret and unaccountable delegations under government regulations and by-laws. This is happening without the usual (and once legislatively prescribed) system of open, public tenders, selection of winners by professional public services at arm's length from ministers, and systems of requiring those getting the contracts, and those giving them, to be held to public account, not least of all by FOI legislation, or by returns to estimates committees.
Instead, a significant number of government contracts are being determined by ministers, in some cases from a limited sample of mates, and in other cases without any process of tendering at all. If and when the contracts are announced, the public is not informed in any detail of what the contract is for, what is expected of the contractor, and how the public will know, at the end of the contract, whether what was achieved was good value for money at all. It appears, from the meagre details senators have been able to extract from question in estimates, that in many cases the contracts have been deliberately framed with very loose expectations, and there have been major unexplained extensions, often at up to 150 per cent of the original contract price, without its being clear why.
Many of these contracts have been with just the sorts of consultants and alternative government advisers who have been used in the past to call for tight standards of administration and accountability, and which have berated the public service for supposed failures to achieve such standards. Not a few of the consultancies have been given to firms for which current ministers have worked in the past, and for whom they may well hope to work in the future. Ministers are not known for declaring such potential appearances of conflict or favouritism.
Some of the major consultancies have become academies into which ambitious Liberal suits, before and after spells as political minders, work, in much the same way that research and advocacy in the trade union movement is part of a process of training Labor apparatchiks, and, during periods of opposition, the semblance of a government-in-waiting. This creates issues about their independence, expertise and detachment - as well as their willingness to submit their work to public review. Public service advice is at least contestable.
McKinsey's putrid international reputation
McKinsey is one of the major consultancies along with Boston Consulting (another favourite of the government) and big accounting and legal firms. It is notoriously difficult to join, and those who work for it consider themselves part of an elite. It is a world-wide partnership, whose world-wide deeds have invited questions about the firm's ethics, essential decency and honesty of purpose.
In recent times it has been involved in a major bribery and corruption scandal in South Africa and been criticised for advising murderous authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia. It has recently paid a $US$600 million negotiated fine for its role in helping Oxycontin to "turbo-charge" sales to the opioid addict population. It advised private jail contractors in New York to make more use of Tasers, shotguns and patrol dogs on prisoners.
It played a significant role in causing the 2008 global financial crisis by promoting the securitisation of high-risk mortgages. It advised a top American insurer to make low-offers to clients with a strategy, according to one commentator, of making claims so expensive and time consuming that lawyers would start refusing to help clients.
In spite of this putrid record, its prestige in Canberra has not suffered. Nor, apparently, has the money it makes from the taxpayer, not least in advising about the smooth "management" if that is the word of the vaccination program. It seems that one can be sure that it will not suffer from its poor advice. For McKinsey and others, these seem to be regarded as mere PR problems, to be countered by some work claimed to be pro bono.
Australia has moved to a deeply corrupted system of doling out consultancy contracts to mates by pure discretion, in circumstances which in the classic Morrison style are compulsively secretive, and vague in sums and contract terms. Typically, government claims complete exemption from producing reports on the grounds that they were prepared for cabinet or are "commercial-in-confidence." It's a reversion to the 19th century, with all of its risks of jobbery, bribery, fraud, nepotism and extortion, in a ministry not obviously beyond temptation, especially given the low chances of being held to account.
Note the resemblance to the sports rorts affair, whereby the prime minister's office helped and assisted a hapless sports minister to give out extensive sports grants to marginal electorates the government was hoping to retain, or to win from Labor. Though the PMO used spreadsheets colour-coded by electorate, the head of prime minister and cabinet was unable to see political influences at work. Ministers involved in this, and other schemes rorted to reward friends and punish enemies, have not seemed in the least embarrassed. Some Nationals are quite truculent about thinking the spoils of office include the right to hand over money to whomever it likes. Few, however, have been as shameless as the apparent cleanskin, Gladys Berejiklian, Premier of NSW, who admits that it is wrong but says that "everyone does it." It is wrong; too many politicians on both sides of the fence do it; and it is to be hoped that ICAC in NSW will soon judge whether such blatantly partisan administration amounts to the ICAC definition of corruption.
Not that one could, or would expect the AFP to investigate if it suspected this was happening at the Commonwealth level. First, it is impossible to conceive of a senior AFP officer entertaining such a notion. Second, the AFP cannot, or will not, investigate such matters of its own motion. It must get a reference from government, as with a leaking complaint, or with an allegation of criminal fraud on the Commonwealth. It goes without saying that no senior public servant or minister has ever sent a reference. The AFP has not uncovered a case of high-level corruption, even in its own ranks, since its establishment in 1979. It's the cleanest police force in the world - never once made the subject of genuinely independent critical review.
Money handed over to consultants for tame consultancy advice is not the only problem. With JobKeeper, hundreds of millions were given to businesses with little in the way of accountability requirements, even the prospect of repayments when money was not spent. The spot of PR bother in which Harvey Norman, among others, has found itself, after pocketing $21 million it turned out not to need is a good example of the lack of controls, as is the shameless and spiteful attitude of the major shareholder about criticism. Some Coalition members have accused those who make anything of it guilty of the politics of envy and fomenting class hatred. These are, frequently, just the same people who work themselves into lathers about whether unemployed or sick people are getting anything more than their entitlement.
It is not that the service lacks good people, but the message they are getting from their superiors is that there are no rewards for standing out, for standing up, or standing against.
In one sense, one cannot criticise the public service for this shift away from accountability or for policies of deliberately starving most public sector programs and contracting out to the private sector. It is, simply, just doing what it is told, and, most likely, would be doing the exact opposite were this government, or a future Labor government to ask. It is also carrying out government policy in stonewalling FOI requests, cutting back on the disclosure of information, and loyally implementing deeply partisan policy.
Most departmental secretaries are virtually unknown to the public. Few have strong personalities, in private as much as in public. Many have no particular expertise or background in the policy or programs administered by their departments, and have little appetite for personally exercising the independent functions imposed on them by legislation. They do not foster any public debate, nor do they work to make their agencies academies where good policy and program ideas - including ones that might be necessary to serve a future government - are nurtured and developed. Nor do they foster any sort of robust debate about public sector ethics or fundamental principles of good government. Most secretaries give every impression of being cowed and compliant, even when they are well aware of significant legal doubts about the way the government is going about business. In some cases, as for example in attorney-generals, Home Affairs and social security, senior public servants are promoting their own sectarian institutional agendas with the same zeal, and lack of regard for a wider public interest, as for doing whatever ministerial officers want.
One of Australia's greatest public servants, the late Tony Ayers, used constantly to tell his staff that one of the most important jobs they had to do involved the careful selection of staff. Good leaders picked good staff. People wanted to work alongside or under good staff. Bums appointed bums - usually people in their own image, he said.
It is rot from the head down. Scott Morrison, like Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd before him, has rotten judgment in selecting people. Those they have selected dilute the quality down the line.
Perhaps this is at the core of the problem. With few good leaders, and few managers who led by example in good management, we are not selecting and advancing the best people. Too many are advancing who are clones of secretaries, or who will not rock the boat, or attract the animosity of the prime minister, the minister or minders. It is not that the service lacks good people, but the message they are getting from their superiors is that there are no rewards for standing out, for standing up, or standing against. The premium is for moral vacuums who are enthusiasts for government policy, as well as enthusiasts for the way of thinking of the secretary.
That's not going to attract the best and the brightest. Indeed it will drive them away, in just the same way that the blandness and lack of moral character or imagination does. Nor is money the answer. It's other rewards that matter most. An interesting job. An academy of ideas in competition with each other, with heretics as welcome as traditionalists. A sense of achieving something for the public good. Even when the result of a political decision is disappointing, a belief that contrary ideas were discussed and given due weight, rather than dismissed out of hand. A sense that one is working as much for the long term and the public interest as for the government's re-election or popularity as measured by the latest public opinion poll. A sense that there is something noble, valuable and worthwhile in helping governments decide what is in the public interest, rather than in mere scratching for a profit or the highest material rewards. Respect. A sense of power. A sense of being valued. A sense that one can actually make a difference.
These are not values fostered by the modern machinery of ministerial government, or by the regiments of minders. As often as not, even the opposition fails to appreciate what an engine room of progress and good government a good public service can be - all too often being obsessed, as the Morrison government is, with using power to benefit particular constituencies. If we are going to have any sort of revolution in honest and creative government it is going to have to come from example, exhortation and practical leadership.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org