Flat White

Public administration in New South Wales and Victoria has failed us

19 August 2020

8:11 AM

19 August 2020

8:11 AM

Between them nearly three-quarters of a million people earn their living from the public purse in Australia’s two largest States.   

These ‘servants of the public’ – -whose jobs and wages are safe despite the ravages of Covid-19 on non-government jobs — have been making ‘public health management’ decisions utterly divorced from their impact or long term consequences.  

Business, in both states, is reeling from the gyrations of public policy mayhem. In Victoria, the consequences are already catastrophic

Whichever way you cut it, it’s been a shocking month for the public sectors in both NSW and Victoria.  Key departments – some employing more than 100,000 people, such as NSW Health — have failed taxpayers, failed the governments they are intended to serve and failed the once great states that employ them.  

The dislocating social and economic impacts of their failures will be felt for decades, perhaps most intensely by those who are not even yet able to vote.

The Victorian hotel quarantine debacle, coupled with the failings in numerous Melbourne nursing homes, together have cost hundreds of lives and and done incalculable damage to thousands of taxpayers across the state. How does this look for the KPIs of departmental secretaries and their tens of thousands of staff? 

Taxpayers are not seeing much in the way of accountability at the political level in Victoria. This is despite the Premier’s oft repeated claim to the contrary. His most senior Ministers have been ducking and weaving for weeks — avoiding media and parliamentary questions and failing to protect those in their respective departments.  The Lower House in Victoria is not even sitting. Other Ministers have been forced to leaved over ALP branch stacking activities.

The ‘woke brigade’ at Spring Street — tens of thousands strong — will have ensured that all the Covid decisions it has made this year will have been heavily screened from ‘diversity and inclusion’ standpoints. Does the decision tick this box or that box?  That’s all very well ,but public administration actually involves some hard, real decisions especially in times of crisis — particularly when lives are at stake.

The breakdown in public administration in Victoria — for that’s what it is — can only be characterised as proof that the key departments are stacked with people incapable of managing appropriately during a crisis and for whom ‘being woke’ is the beginning and end of their skill set.   

It is the tough times that expose who is and who is not up to the task, let alone who is failing those for whom — in this case — life saving decisions have to be made.

Victorian voters have been massively let down by the very people who believe they and only they know how society should be organised and what’s good for citizens. Victoria today is a shambles; its economy in tatters, its people dispirited and feeling bereft and unsupported.  

To cap off the turmoil, in a grotesque coincidence of timing, Victorian public sector employees were awarded a pay rise in August which of course will flow through to their superannuation and other ‘structural’ benefits.

In NSW, notwithstanding fewer lives lost to Covid, the picture is almost as grim as Victoria, 

As revealed last week, the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess fiasco in which 2647 passengers were permitted to simply disembark a vessel known to have the virus, found a litany of ‘inexplicable and inexcusable’ failures.

These were not failures by Commonwealth agencies, or by Australian Border Force or by the Australian Defence Force but by NSW Health.  Commissioner Brett Walker SC could not have been clearer in his damning summation.

The conclusion, he said, of NSW Health to classify the Ruby Princess as being of “low biosecurity risk,” and “to do nothing” was “inexplicable and inexcusable.” Commissioner Walker‘s 320 page report (that will doubtless gather dust on a shelf in Macquarie Street) might well have gone further to say who precisely was accountable for these breath-taking and ultimately lethal decisions.

As Maxwell Smart might have said, a group of angry Boy Scouts could have done a more professional, competent job than those strangely unknown folk who ultimately took ‘decisions‘ in this matter.

All Australians have a right to expect the best of those enjoying secure, well paid jobs in the public service; in the states, territories and within the Commonwealth.

Branding an entire public service as having performed badly is dangerous and there are parts of all public administrations that do a good — even excellent — job.

But at the very moment when taxpayers lives are being turned upside down, their businesses and aspirations shredded, and their futures made uncertain – is it asking too much to expect calm, measured, sensible and accountable decision making from those in charge?

The flawed decision making, in both states, raises entirely legitimate questions around competence, suitability and experience of those at the coal face of crisis management.

To what extent have lessons been learned from earlier crises (the shocking summer bushfires actually overlapped Covid), to what extent has ‘best practice’ been harnessed from around the world, and to what, if any extent, was business consulted as to experience it had managing crises?

The answer to these relevant will never be answered.  How can they be when the only office that can review the performance of a government department is simply another government department — the Office of the Secretary of Premier and Cabinet?    

We all know the outcome when a government reviews its own performance. 

What a shameful, sad and consequential year this is for the once great States of NSW and Victoria.

John Simpson is a Melbourne company director.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments