Social Inclusion Commissioner David Cappo has unloaded on the “self-serving” South Australian government bureaucracy for being an unmovable obstacle against achieving real social reform.

“They perpetuate their own myths,” Monsignor Cappo told InDaily, in a heartfelt outburst after yesterday announcing his resignation come December. Cappo, the government-appointed chair of the SA Social Inclusion Board since it was established in 2002, said the bureaucrats had made it difficult for him to succeed in his role as a social reformer.

“It’s been tough, it’s been very tough, because at times I’ve had to make myself pretty unpopular, particularly with the bureaucracy and government,” he said. “Bureaucracy unfortunately takes over and puts people second.

“What I’ve been trying to do, sometimes with success, sometimes not, is say for God’s sake put people first in your systems. That’s pretty hard to do but I have tried. I think I’ve got somewhere on some issues. But always when you leave the position you have a sense of all the things that you really should have done.”

Cappo admitted that Aboriginal homelessness was one of his failures, again partly because of the system.

“I am not blaming … It has got nothing to do with the Aboriginal [affairs] minister because the housing covers so many different departments and structures. But for me, I haven’t been able to break through to really change the Aboriginal housing issue.”

He said what made the bureaucracy such a difficult system to turn around and implement meaningful change was its self-serving sense of priorities.

“It serves its own needs and unfortunately the people who get caught up in it, they become slaves to it,” he said. “They become defensive, so defensive of their position that they tune out to constructive ideas and different ways of looking at it and different ways of thinking. They perpetuate their own myths. I have found a lot of that, I’m afraid.

“I have tried to break through a fair bit of it, sometimes as I said with success. But quite often you think in the end the system is incredibly powerful.”

Cappo said the assumption that the bureaucracy was there to serve their political masters was not how it worked. The reality was that ministers could not achieve any substantial change unless they had the support of the bureaucracy.

“A good minister can lead and bring about some reform but it is very difficult to get major change, it really is,” he said. “How do you turn the Queen Mary around? So it’s a very, very tricky, long-term process.

“Some ministers are incredibly competent but my goodness I think even a struggle.”

In his public “stepping down” announcement yesterday, Cappo said it had been an honour to service as SA’s first Commissioner for Social Inclusion and he thanked Premier Mike Rann for the opportunity. But he told InDaily the pair of them often had discussions about  their frustration at having changes stymied by the bureaucracy.

“I would often say to him, look, I am going to have to be very confronting in particular departments. I am going to have to create a fair bit of tension,” he said. “He would always been very supportive because I think he himself knows how difficult the bureaucratic process is.

“I leave with a sense not of  giving up. I must say we’ve had some success, and as I said I think I’ve had some failures. But I sort of leave thinking, well, I’ve learnt a lot. Hopefully I can still use what I’ve learnt [but] it is time after nearly 10 years to really say it is over to someone else.”

Monsignor has been appointed by the federal government to chair Australia’s first National Mental Health Commission. He leaves his Social Inclusion roles in late December and will continue to live in Adelaide.

Cappo said he had a “strong relationship” with incoming Prmeier Jay Weatherill. “I am sure that we will continue to work together in the future on social policy issues,” he said.

At the same time, state opposition leader Isobel Redmond said Cappo’s resignation was another slap in the face to  Weatherill’s future leadership. She said in a statement:

“What we’re seeing is a number of people affiliated with Labor effectively announcing they can’t work with Mr Weatherill, deserting the sinking ship.

“Minister in charge of Olympic Dam negotiations Kevin Foley this week announced he couldn’t work with Mr Weatherill, so he’s jumping ship.

“Not only that, but former senior minister Paul Holloway announced his resignation only last month. The departure en masse of experienced Labor ministers and MPs is the last thing Mr Weatherill needs right now.

“Mr Weatherill and Labor are now in damage control — it’s quickly becoming a case of rats deserting the sinking ship.”

Redmond pointed out that Cappo’s part-time position as Social Inclusion Commissioner was for a reported $115,000 a year and that he had renewed the contract only last March for a further four years: “Monsignor Cappo should not have been acting as a human shield for the Labor government’s sustained failures on social inclusion.”

*This article was first published at InDaily