So we have the long-anticipated reform of the federal public service in Australia. Sort of. There are fewer departments, but they are bigger. They will most likely still employ the same total number of bureaucrats.
What will be new is six to 12 months of administrative chaos in the merged departments as people and facilities move around and try to gel together their different ethoses and IT systems.
“Having fewer departments will allow us to bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision-making and ultimately deliver better services for the Australian people,” says the PM. I wish I had his faith. Because what we’ve really seen is 18 basset hounds replaced by 14 cavoodles — and like bureaucrats, neither breed is known for its enthusiasm for much other than lounging around and getting through the tins of Pal.
Instead, let me humbly offer the patented Arthur Chrenkof plan for a genuine overhaul of the federal government overhaul and reform and restoration of federalism.
It’s simple. We drown a few puppies, put up a few for adoption, and replace them with a few lean, mean German shepherds.
Let’s face it, only five federal government departments are really justifiable:
- The Attorney-General’s to handle the legal side of government;
- The Department of Defence to, well, defend us;
- The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to talk to them foreign folk;
- The Department of Home Affairs to handle immigration and internal security; and
- The Department of the Treasury to decide how to divvy up the little tax it will collect.
Education, health and welfare in all forms should all be properly handled on the state level, without any duplications, overlaps or the Canberra sugar daddy being constantly hit for more money. Veterans’ affairs is mostly welfare, which should also go to the states, with the more symbolic and commemorative aspects of the portfolio to be given to Defence.
Other departments, like Agriculture and Industry, are essentially middle class and business welfare, which government should simply not be involved in the first place. Stay away from all the myriads of exemptions, concessions, grants and other vehicles of special treatment and have lower taxes across the board instead to stimulate the economic activity and make people’s lives easier. The same applies to Employment.
I remain to be convinced that there is any point to the federal involvement in areas like Infrastructure, Transport, Communications, Environment, Employment, Energy, Resources or Regional Development. Again, these are areas where the states are in a better position to operate, if at all. There is no need here for any overarching Commonwealth narratives, and we could do with some competitive federalism, where states actually experiment in the best ways of facilitating their own economic development and infrastructure. When there is a need, they can get together and agree on the topics that affect them all or some of them, then call the private sector in to get the job done efficiently.
Many people will no doubt say that I’m grossly overestimating the states’ ability to run things. Maybe. But maybe with more revenues on hand and with the action switching from Canberra back to the capitals, state politics will be able to attract better talent, which currently tends to gravitate to Club Fed, leaving very much the B teams blundering back home.
I think it would be worth a try.
After all, when in doubt: don’t mend it, end it.
Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk, where an earlier version of this piece appears.
Illustration: Rimfire Films/Hoyts Distribution.
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