Morrison on song
The PM set some markers for the public service … but can he be trusted?
On the face of it, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s speech to senior federal public servants this morning was encouraging – a genuine attempt to set some direction for the Coalition’s third term of government, with little trace of the “burn for you” evangelical fervour of the election campaign. Governing for middle Australia could mean anything, but it is better than governing for the top end of town, which was the natural inclination of Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull. If Morrison were to follow the six “guideposts” he set down today, he could turn out to be an effective prime minister – given the time and unity his predecessors were denied. With this government’s track record, however, Morrison’s speech cannot be taken at face value: the wage caps and efficiency dividends imposed on the public service; the increasing reliance on external consultants, such as McKinsey, which charges senior partners out at $16,000 [$] a day; and the general drift towards politicised advice, including on economic management, as Ross Gittins argued in this powerful column. All of this undercuts the finer sentiments expressed by Morrison today.
The prime minister was getting ahead of the release of David Thodey’s review of the public service, and sending a few signals to his own ministers as well as the bureaucrats assembled at Parliament House in Canberra this morning. The PM’s speech was full of rugby analogies, but was not boof-headed (Michelle Grattan provides a good summary in The Conversation). Because it was billed as a significant speech by Morrison – and there haven’t been many of those – it is worth analysing in a little detail.
Morrison’s six guideposts were not trivial or vacuous. One, his motto that ministers should “respect and expect” from the public service – respect the bureaucrat’s advice but then expect them to get on with government policy – has been covered before. It reflects Morrison’s view of the primacy of the elected and accountable politician over the unelected bureaucratic expert. It is undermined by the relentless decline in standards of ministerial accountability, with a litany of examples in the last term of parliament.
Two – “it’s about the implementation” (a bastardisation of the Clinton-era saying “it’s the economy, stupid”) is a commendable effort to focus the public service on getting service delivery right after a string of stuff-ups, from pink batts to robodebt, that have eroded confidence in the competence of the public service.
Three, “look at the scoreboard”, was an encouragement to appraise public-service programs in terms of measurable real-world outcomes by asking: “What are you trying to do? How do you know you’re on track to get there? What does it look like when you’ve got there?” Uncontroversial.
Four, Morrison outlined his paean to the quiet Australians, his call to “look beyond the bubble”, and here he was borderline inspiring. “The vast majority of Australians will never come to Canberra to lobby government. They won’t stay at the Hyatt. They won’t have lunch at the Ottoman. They won’t kick back at the Chairman’s Lounge at Canberra airport after a day of meetings. And what these Australians who don’t do those things do every day is work hard. They pay their taxes. They put their kids through school. They look after their families. They give back to their communities and they are the centre of my focus as PM and my government. These are your stakeholders, not the myriad of vested and organised interests that parade through this place.” Hear, hear.
Five was for public servants to observe what Morrison called the “Ray Price principle”, after the legendary Paramatta rugby league forward dubbed “Mr Perpetual Motion”. “Ray was everywhere,” said the PM. “His work rate was unmatched. The conditions, his opponents, never fazed him. He could read the play and always stay ahead of the game.” What that meant for bureaucrats, the PM said, was to be more open to outsiders, break down the bureaucratic silos, and embrace the greater use of digital technology. The PM’s favourite example was the all-points, pan-agency response to the North Queensland floods, which saved lives and livelihoods. Who could disagree?
Six and last, the PM called on his audience to “honour the code” of public service integrity. All good stuff.
There were some bum notes, however. As Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy tweeted: “There’s a central contradiction in Morrison’s public service speech. 1. Implement our agenda, don’t think you are in charge; 2. Be everywhere, be innovative, be agile, be responsive.” Precisely that contradiction was reflected in the PM’s up-front comment – the only time he sounded preachy – that the most important thing was “You need a clear line of sight between what you are doing every day, every decision you’re making every day, every contribution you’re making every day, straight through to the Australian public. It’s not about impressing your boss or impressing your minister … we’re just people along the way.” So is the public servant entitled to put the quiet Australian above the minister?
The PM said nothing about job cuts, but if the Thodey review does lead to widespread redundancies in an already-diminished federal public service, it will be a fundamental betrayal of the philosophy Morrison outlined today.
“If I was going to be investing in an apartment, I’d buy an older one … I wouldn’t buy a newly built apartment … Probably the prevalence of noncompliance has been particularly bad, I would say in the last say 15 to 20 years. It’s gotten worse over that period. And that means there’s a lot of existing building stock that has defects in it … So there’ll be legacy issues for some time and I suspect there’ll be legacy issues that we’re not even fully aware of yet.”
“I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive. They will continue to survive, there’s no question they’ll continue to survive and they’ll continue to survive on large aid assistance from Australia. They’ll continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit, pick our fruit grown with hard Australian enterprise and endeavour and we welcome them and we always will.”
Australia’s world ranking in terms of emissions from extractive fossil fuel industries – behind only China, the US, Russia and Saudi Arabia – if exports and what is burned at home are combined, according to the Australia Institute.
“Excluding the reviews that are to be conducted in 2022, under the Implementation Roadmap: by the end of this year, more than 20 commitments, around one third of the Government’s commitments, will have been implemented or have legislation before the Parliament; by mid-2020, more than 50 commitments, close to 90 per cent of commitments, will have been implemented or have legislation before the Parliament; and by the end of 2020, remaining Royal Commission recommendations requiring legislation will have been introduced.”
“The Conservative Political Action Conference held in Sydney earlier this month should not be dismissed lightly. It must be dismissed heavily, so here goes. The elite reactionaries gathered in their four-star hotel not to celebrate but to moan. The parade of paranoid plutocrats complained that their traditional privileges were being challenged – their hitherto untrammelled power was under threat.”
“Western Victoria is one of the most cleared and degraded landscapes in Australia. The fact that the Djab Wurrung people have survived is one of the most extraordinary stories of resistance and survival anywhere that European colonisation has been inflicted on indigenous peoples. This struggle for survival continues to this day – exemplified by the current fight to protect our sacred cultural sites from a new freeway.”
“While we are regularly told that retirees who live in their own home need at least $50,000 per year to live “with dignity”, apparently young people, who may be raising kids and saving for a house on an income well below that, need to start repaying a debt that older citizens never had to repay in the first place.”
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
On the face of it, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s speech to senior federal public servants this morning was encouraging – a genuine attempt to set some direction for the Coalition’s third term of government, with little trace of the “burn for you” evangelical fervour of the election campaign. Governing for middle Australia could mean anything, but it is better than governing for the top end of town, which was the natural inclination of Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull. If Morrison were to follow the six “guideposts” he set down today, he could turn out to be an effective prime minister – given the time and unity his predecessors were denied. With this government’s track record, however, Morrison’s speech cannot be taken at face value: the wage caps and efficiency dividends imposed on the public...