The Coalition has sent two signals lately around its approach to public administration if it wins government.
The first, which received greater attention, related to the warm welcome extended to UK “Big Society” advocate Phillip Blond when he visited two weeks ago. Blond visited last year as well, and on both occasions met with senior Liberals.
Blond’s “Big Society” centres around the notion of empowering local communities to deliver services, rather than government. The problem is, it’s been taken up with gusto by David Cameron’s Coalition government in the UK and used as the pretext for extensive cuts to services in the aid of meeting George Osborne’s austerity targets. Blond’s defenders argue it’s not his fault his thinking has been exploited to justify cuts in services, and his ideas merit evaluation outside the context of Cameron’s government.
Blond’s thinking appeared to inform Tony Abbott’s “Plan for Stronger Communities“ released in June, in which he emphasised “empowered communities” over “empowered government”.
The second related but separate signal came from Andrew Robb last week when he spoke about shifting oversight and administration of Commonwealth programs to the states. He spoke of a gradual process, working with co-operative state governments to hand responsibility for programs using Commonwealth money to the states, freeing up the Commonwealth to significantly reduce the number of public servants dedicated to running and overseeing programs.
This is significantly at odds with Abbott’s most strident position in Battlelines, in which he argued the federal government should override the states and take direct control of every area it turns its collective mind to, aided by a constitutional amendment that would remove any fetter on Commonwealth power. Then again, Battlelines was written while every state government was Labor and had frustrated the Howard government in areas like Abbott’s health portfolio. With all the major state governments now conservative and Abbott looking like the next Prime Minister, Abbott’s centralism has conveniently vanished.
But the Coalition, at least, appears to be thinking about public service delivery with less resources, at a point where, according to today’s Australian Financial Review, Labor is gearing up for yet another additional efficiency dividend on the public service to spare its fiscal blushes.
Apart from the obvious issue that Robb’s devolution of management and oversight is dependent on a co-operative relationship between federal and state governments, and thus prone to being overturned the moment an election changes a government, there’s a more substantial problem or two with it.
Imagine a devolved Commonwealth program, being managed by a state — or even one of Abbott’s “little platoons” of community-based service deliverers — which goes bad: say there’s a 3% complaint rate about it, or some shonky private contractor cuts corners, resulting in people being injured or killed.
In what world does anyone think it will be politically acceptable for the relevant federal minister to stand up in question time and say: “don’t look at me, it’s an issue for the XXX state government or the YYY volunteers’ association”? Or to plead they don’t have information about the scandal because state bureaucrats — who have no interest in assisting a minister in another jurisdiction unless their own minister’s office is breathing down their necks — haven’t yet provided it to her?
If it’s federal money, it’s federal responsibility, regardless of who is administering it. Federal ministers will be expected to be accountable.
That’s why, as Robb says, much of the existing Commonwealth public service primarily functions to “leave a paper trail, to cover backsides”. What he omits is that it’s political backsides being covered, not bureaucrats’, who don’t have to get up in question time or face the media when programs go awry.
Robb’s proposal thus needs a different type of politician, and a more mature public debate, in which we can talk sensibly about program implementation and accountability and politicians can resist the urge to exercise complete control over anything that may come back to bite them.
It may also afford the pretext for governments to abandon key regulatory functions that they wouldn’t necessarily want to publicly repeal. Imagine the Commonwealth handing environmental regulation to Campbell Newman after he has cut several hundred jobs from the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines. Environmental protection, while legislated at the Commonwealth and state level, would be a dead letter due to a dearth of anyone to enforce it.
But the Coalition, which normally talks the talk on “small government” but finds walking the walk politically inconvenient, at least is looking at the problem that 22 million Australians are hideously overgoverned and that key areas of public spending that are shared between levels of government — education and health, most significantly — are accompanied by elaborate bureaucratic structures designed to cover arses both in Canberra and in the relevant state capital.
In lieu of abolishing the states, there can only ever be partial, and temporary, fixes. But there are potentially significant rewards, especially given health is a priority area for identifying greater efficiencies.
Labor’s approach, meanwhile, seems to be to simply slap another cut on the public service.