Feb 17, 2017

Public service stuck in the hole Abbott dug for it

Nearly 18 months into the Turnbull era, the public service remains in a bad way, to the cost of the government.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Centrelink office

In February last year, we reflected on a rotten year for the Australian public service, the reputation of which had been badly damaged by a series of scandals and bungles, especially in Immigration -- actively engaged in attempts to cover up the rape and assault of asylum seekers in its care -- but also in other agencies, including Treasury. Would things improve under Malcolm Turnbull, who unlike his predecessor has a good understanding of the importance of a quality public service and whose first act was to bring back the excellent Martin Parkinson, whose services Tony Abbott so foolishly dispensed with?

A year on, the answer is clear: things have gotten worse.

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11 thoughts on “Public service stuck in the hole Abbott dug for it

  1. Sophie Pointer

    Pretty sure the head of the ABS will remain attached. His appointment is by parliament so presume his sacking would also need to go through parliament. Turnbull is stupid but not so stupid to open that can of worms again.

  2. old greybearded one

    Public Service agreements are actually not about the pay offer, but the withdrawal of sick leave and an attempt to change employment conditions. They have also been efficiency dividended to death for a decade, while a rapidly increasing population requires more people. The government are swindlers and liars.

  3. Will

    What all of the woes Bernard lists here have in common is their rootedness in the system steering worldview of trickle-down economics (aka neoliberalism). That’s what needs to change. Otherwise ‘reform’ will only ever address the symptoms, and then only patchily and unstably. So, addressing symptoms in one area (say, updating, managing and maintaining ATO, ABS and Centrelink IT systems for example, costing hundreds of millions – at a very bare minimum, I’d imagine) will just see new symptoms develop elsewhere, i.e. wherever those millions and related management skills are taken from elsewhere in government.

    If you want to escape this endless game of whack-a-mole, Bernard, you’ve got to turn your voice to the ideological cause of this game of failure, and help change the public’s mind on neoliberalism.

    1. JMNO

      Agree with Will. We have to get away from the idea that the private sector can do everything better and cheaper than Government, from treating competition as holy writ and from seeing public servants as a cost rather than a valuable contributor to effective Government. We are a society not a market, although markets have their place. If we had a professional, impartial and experienced APS we would probably find the costs of government went down – fewer useless and wildly expensive reports from the parasitic consultancy firms, fewer expensive stuff-ups with outsourced contracts, fewer rip-offs with programs such as family day care and the VET sector.

      The new symptoms to develop elsewhere will be in the consumer choice/competition approach to NDIS and community aged care, where as with the VET sector and family day care, anyone can set up and offer a service and claim taxpayer dollars for delivering it, rather than getting accredited, competent and ethical providers to deliver the service. Another example of where ‘choice’ is false as the ‘customer’ is not informed enough to choose between the shonky and the good.

      1. Dog's Breakfast

        All true Will and JMNO. The private sector is shite at providing public services, and frightfully expensive as well.

        There is an unstated but huge cost in not having a professional and non-partisan public service. The old ways had many faults, but surely you could get rid of the cardigan wearing culture while still having independent and fearless advice from the public sector. At the moment we get neither quality advice or private sector ‘efficiencies’.

  4. Barbara Gatter

    Bernard, as always you provide a rational, succinct analyses of recent/current events that have contributed to the poor performance of the Australian Public Service. However, the downhill path was irreversibly established years before Abbott and Credlin. The rise to power of the non mandated, highly politicised and largely unaccountable Ministerial Staffer , with political endorsement to bully and over ride even the most senior and portfolio expert Departmental officers, was the start of the downhill fly. Those whose ethics and commitment gave them the courage to hold out were removed over time and replaced with more compliant cardboard cut outs. Not far behind was the collateral damage of privatisation policies. Again, the advice of senior public servants who were ethical and highly qualified in their areas of expertise – scientists, engineers, architects, health professionals- was devalued and ignored. The private sector apparently knew it all. Except manifestly, it didn’t. The APS professionals gave up and left, taking all their expertise along with their Super. The days of an expert, independent APS are but a distant memory. And the country is a much poor one – in every respect . Keep up your good work, Australia needs you! Annieginoz

  5. Paul Munro

    The decline of the Australian Public Service as a high functioning arm of our governance is one of the more neglected disasters of the neo-con ascendancy in Australia. For more than a decade Federal and state public services have been subjected to managing with less, contracting out, outsourcing techniques of management. Both major parties have followed that pattern but the Coalition has been the most intensive outsourcer of work and destroyer of of quality standards within the services for which it has had responsibility. Perhaps the lowest point in the sorry story of the APS decline was the appointment of John Lloyd to head the Australian Public Service Commission. Mr Lloyd has been a zealous industrial warrior for market and small government causes; those familiar with his career will know that almost without exception he has served in roles for Kennett, Kierath, Reith and Abbott demanding a likeness of mind and moved on or pushed off once the policy climate changed.
    The APS, and the Australian nation, has fared best when the public service is administered in a way that respects and builds its capacity to serve the government of the day with integrity and and as much corporate memory, nous and know-how as can be mustered within whatever resource limits are set by the circumstances of the time. With due respect to Mr Lloyd, he has no form whatever to equip him for such a role.
    The blame for the erosion of quality public services does not lie with John Lloyd or with any particular Minister although he and some members of the Ministry are more to blame than others; Senator Brandis’ belittlement of the Solicitor-General role is an instance; Joe Hockey’s termination of Parkinson is another: Deputy Prime Minister Joyce’s boondoggling transfer of a specialist agency to Armidale is yet another.
    What is necessary is a renewal of commitment from all party leaders to the re-establishment of well resourced and well rewarded core public services as an essential element of good governance in Australia with leadership and establishment of it entrusted to people who have the vision and ethical values to bring about the gradual improvement that is necessary. Why does it seem unreal to still hope for that?

  6. Pedantic, Balwyn

    Other correspondents have appropriately listed issues including the often overlooked ministerial staffer behind the debilitation of the PS. However, in my opinion a worse factor is the constant criticism by politicians and usually the right wing media of the PS to groom the public for further cuts to the Service.

  7. AR

    The role model of the shift from CP Snow’s “Corridors of Power” started with Thatcher and we now have the Cabals of Incompetence.
    And they call it cost cutting efficiency.

  8. John Hall

    Cruise Liner – I suggest it’s the Titanic. Rapidly running out of serviceable Deck Chairs too. The smart ones have already taken to the Life Boats. The government should apply the cost saving process they apply to the APS to themselves & see how irrational the results are.

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