leadership spill Scott Morrison

While Australians are now well accustomed to the political chaos wrought by a leadership change, few really know what that chaos looks like within government departments. From the Department of Foreign Affairs (aka “Gareth’s gazebo”) to the behemoth Department of Defence, the latest Libspill has created a trying time for Canberra’s public servants. And, nearly a month later, the dust is yet to settle.

Crikey has heard reports that cabinet meetings to discuss policy, months in the making, were postponed during the chaos. This derails the development of initiatives, with policy advisers having to patiently wait for a future date when they have an available minister — likely not the same one.

The optics were not good on the world stage either. The signing of a trade deal, years of negotiations in the making, between Indonesia and Australia was delayed. To foreign leaders and international companies our economy and our government appeared unstable and, unsurprisingly, the Australian dollar was affected, dropping as low as 72.4 US cents.

From cancellations to complete absence, the mass resignation of ministers made a mess of communications and threw deals into the dustbin — some temporarily, some permanently. The scrapping of the National Energy Guarantee, for instance, involved junking the work of countless individuals. It’s a move that has frustrated many in an industry fed up with a lack of stability and inconsistent policy. In departments missing a minister, the secretaries were left to run things.

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[MPs’ offices remain potentially toxic workplaces]

Even with a new prime minister and cabinet sworn in, it was not as the government keeps saying, “business as usual”. Things are still messy for the departments. One public servant told Crikey that there has been a lot of extra work preparing background information because “the new minister had to be brought up to speed on a lot of things”. “It seems like they’re just learning how to use a printer,” another public servant said. 

A leadership shakeup is not only bad for policy, it’s a nightmare for productivity too. Like staring at a car crash, public servants find it hard to look away from Twitter when “it’s on”. Across departments, people were reportedly told to “stop watching the fucking TV”.

Spare a thought for public servants who took any form of leave during the leadership crisis. Crikey spoke to a few employees who left work with one prime minister and returned to a completely different one.

It’s common knowledge these events erode public trust in politicians and democracy, but what’s lesser known is the actual monetary cost to taxpayers. Thousands of dollars go into installing new signs, relocating offices, shredding documents, wiping devices, and redesigning websites to reflect the changing of the guard. All these costs and collateral damage are incurred every time Australia has a leadership spill — which, at the current rate, is about every three years. One former public servant told Crikey it is “so much money for so little real difference”.

With an election looming, some departments are now in limbo as they plan for caretaker mode. Meaningful progress in some areas has been halted as politicians hold onto policy announcements to save them for election ammunition.

The public servants Crikey spoke to were very hesitant in sharing these anecdotes, even though they were doing so anonymously. Despite the bureaucratic nightmare this clusterfuck — and all the spills before it — have created, they were still more worried about being a “good public servant” than revealing the impact of the spill on their work.

What does it say about Australian politics when it’s easier to knife a sitting prime minister than talk about the waste this action creates?