Flat White

The Australian public dis-service: part II

16 June 2021

5:12 PM

16 June 2021

5:12 PM

On Monday, I wrote in these august pages about the lack of economic reform in Australia being a function of both poor quality politicians and poor quality public servants. Thus I said: 

It has been said that a bad strategy well executed will always beat a good strategy poorly executed. The reason for the lack of reform in Australia, the real reason, is a toxic cocktail of political policy incompetence and bureaucratic execution incompetence. No one trusts the government to do anything. 

But as in other domains, timing is key.  Which is why it was quite interesting to read in Tuesday’s AFR the views of Lesley Seebeck, honorary professor at the Australian National University.  Professor Seebeck wrote: 

It’s been apparent for a while that the government has little time for its bureaucrats. The Prime Minister’s address to the Australian Public Service in both 2019 and 2020 made it clear that the APS consisted of servants whose value lay in acquiescence and delivery as directed, not as partners in public policy, insight and analysis, or statecraft. 

Now the context for Professor Seebeck’s observations is that the Commonwealth Government is increasingly utilizing the Australian military, and not the Australian Public Service, as an instrument of service delivery. Thus Professor Seebeck further wrote: 

It’s worrying when government, under pressure, almost reflexively reaches for a military officer to help it resolve messy, complex and conflicted public policy matters –matters that are inherently political in nature. 

It’s not clear whether Professor Seebeck has noticed, but there are other clear indicators of the government’s and the people’s loss of faith in the public service. This includes referring most complex policy matters to a Royal Commission or other external review bodies, and the extensive use of external consultants. Why is this so? Because the results are on the scoreboard. 

As at end June 2020, the Commonwealth Government employed 246,000 public servants with total cash wages and salaries of $22.4 billion dollars. These numbers don’t include diplomats or military personnel or “off-budget” employees such as those within NBN. 

Now within these 246,000 public servants are those that brought Australia successful programs such as Robo-debtpink bats, cash for clunkers, JobKeeper, the ATO operating procedures manual, Collins Class submarines, French submarines, Muhamed HaneefASADAthe ABS census website, quarantine, ABC governance, the NBN and the Leppington Triangle land acquisition. Just to name a few. And let’s also not forget that four of the last seven Royal Commissions were entirely about failures of public administration: 


Just last week, the Commonwealth Government came to a $1.8 billion settlement with people wrongly pursued under the Robo-debt scheme. This on top of some $750 million inappropriately (illegally?) collected monies.  The Judge presiding over this settlement described Robo-debt as a “shameful chapter” in Australia’s history, as well as a “failure” in public administration. 

So dear Professor Seebeck, why would the government, let alone the citizenry, have faith in the public service? Has anyone been held to account for any of these failures? Anyone? Anywhere? 

A key contributor to the repeated failures of the Australian public service is in-breeding. Canberra was one of Australia’s biggest mistakes, closely behind the election of Kevin Rudd. And Canberra has created a class of people who like to experiment with other people’s money.   

As I wrote late last year, also in these august pages, arguing for Canberra to be shut down: 

Canberra seems to attract and retain people who are generally uncomfortable with risk. They generally believe that humankind’s problems can be solved through legislation, regulation and taxation. They believe in the “perfectibility” of man through process or education, or in many cases re-education.  

But this is not about politics. Politicians come and go. Governments come and go. This is about bureaucracies as bureaucracies are perpetual.  

Their world view revolves around aggregation and centralisation of power and resources, into their hands of course, because they have the wisdom, training, expertise and objectivity to centrally plan and implement solutions to everything. They love job rotations because it is great for a public service career and because it makes tracing accountability next to impossible. Cross-departmental committees and studies are the coin of the realm.  

According to Professor Seebeck; 

A professional, merit-based bureaucracy is the hallmark of a strong state, just as a principled, independently-minded bureaucracy is the hallmark of a strong democracy.  

Perhaps. But what else is important? A capable and accountable public service. We don’t have one of these and won’t unless some serious surgery is undertaken. 

As I wrote in November last year, quoting US jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough”. 

Electoral reform will only get Australia so far. Fundamental bureaucratic reform is necessary for Australia to ever achieve its potential. 

Stephen Spartacus regularly writes at Sparty’s Cast.

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