Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

What are the major challenges and pressures on the Australian public service in 2019? At a time when the APS faces major scandals like the links between Home Affairs and Crown, the maladministration of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, attacks on media freedom, systematic political interference in the agriculture portfolio, the OneSky debacle, the Paladin scandal, the failure of Closing The Gap, the failure of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility or the disastrous 2018 audit of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity — what should senior public servants do to improve the performance, integrity and the reputation of the APS?

According to Scott Morrison’s speech to them yesterday, keep right on doing what you’re doing, only make sure you know the minister is in charge, and make sure you don’t have anything to do with lobbyists.

The prime minister’s speech to public servants was riddled with the kind of managerialist pabulum to which public servants are endlessly exposed and which, eventually, they absorb into their DNA, but delivered with Morrison’s carefully-confected suburban dad persona. The prime minister reeled off six “guide posts” (I have no idea what a “guide post” is, but a quick search reveals it’s a Christian thing).

But for every managerialist cliché they were couched in — “agile and responsive “, “clear lines of accountability”, “services delivered seamlessly and efficiently”, “strong emphasis on delivering outcomes”, “evolve and adapt amidst constant change” (no one ever writes that shit, it’s only ever cut-and-pasted) — there was a clunky attempt to stick a World’s Best Dad BBQ apron on it. Ray Price — a rugby league player who retired more than thirty years ago — was invoked an example to emulate. The outcomes rubbish was rebranded as “look at the scoreboard”. There was a laboured metaphor about bacon and eggs that wasn’t entirely clear. Something else about Treasury staff eating pizza late at night. The speech reads like bumping into a New Public Management theorist in the toilets at the footy.

What was entirely absent, signally, was anything about transparency or integrity. “Transparency” is literally never mentioned by Morrison. “Integrity” is mentioned a few times en passant, but despite serious concerns about corruption, political interference and favouritism to vested interests across the public sector, and widespread calls for a federal independent commission against corruption, Morrison seems to think its a non-issue, sending a clear signal to public servants that it’s business-as-usual when it comes to maladministration, lack of transparency and soft and hard corruption.

What is an issue, he seems to think, is public servants being influenced by lobbyists. “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.” That vast majority of Australians “are the centre of my focus as PM and my government,” Morrison said. “These are your stakeholders.”

It’s evident that Morrison has never worked in the APS: he seems to think that what is normal for politicians — being lobbied by vested interests — is normal for public servants, and that the latter spend much of their time subject to the dark arts of influence-peddlers in transit between the Ottoman and the Hyatt. Morrison seems to think that such lobbyists, having luxuriated at Chairman’s Lounge, fly in to Canberra both to lobby for the wealthy and for the poor alike. “Some will be corporate interests. Some will be advocating for more welfare spending or bigger social programs.” Morrison laments the “perception that politics is very responsive to those at the top and those at the bottom, but not so much to those in the middle.”

I think I missed the bit where Australian politics was as responsive to the needs of Newstart recipients as it is to wealthy retirees or the Business Council. Not too many lobbyists bashing down the doors of ministers to urge the poor be looked after better, Scott. And the rich irony of his warning about lobbyists is that the Liberal Party’s business model is to take millions in donations from corporate interests and in exchange cut wages, cut taxes, cut regulation, cut funding for regulators, and interference in administration in favour of donors, not in favour of the electorate. If Morrison really wants a “laser-like focus” on middle Australia, he could always try taking stronger action on climate change (53% support), allowing euthanasia (90%) or an Indigenous voice to parliament (57%). Or perhaps what middle Australia wants is only worth the laser when it accords with your own ideological beliefs or your donors’ interests?

Peter Fray

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