Monday, March 13, 2017

Abused public servants help bring Turnbull down

There's no clearer sign that the Turnbull government is in deep political trouble than the never-ending saga of the Centrelink robo-debt stuff-up.

A well-functioning government would have closed down the controversy more than a month ago. If the relevant senior or junior minister hadn't had the wit to do it himself, the Prime Minister would have told him to.

Instead, the controversy's been allowed to roll on, while the junior minister, Alan Tudge, and more particularly the man allowing himself to be described as general manager of Centrelink, Hank Jongen, have repeatedly denied that there's any problem with the automated debt recovery system that's been making life miserable for many Centrelink "customers", including many who, in truth, owe the government nothing.

To broaden the focus, this is the story of how a highly class-conscious government – which sides with the well-off "lifters" against the less fortunate "leaners" – has come adrift from political reality and is using and abusing its public servants to prosecute its war on those unfortunate enough to need to deal with Centrelink.

Its lifters-class sympathies have included the public service among the leaners-class, meaning it's been at war with its public servants, while using them to harass presumed welfare cheats.

Its class consciousness has blinded it to such simple truths as that, while you can always bully the top public servants into covering for you, when you mistreat the servants they stop warning you about the hazards you face and, ultimately, indulge in schadenfreude when you fall over the cliff.

As a class, public servants are not held in high esteem by the public. That's why the government has thought it safe to mistreat them, while also allowing the quality of service provided to the public to decline and using public servants to get tough with the many thousands of leaners imagined by the lifters to be ripping off the system.

Trouble is, when you oblige the public servants to deliver bad service to the public – phones that go unanswered, long waiting times, websites and phones that keep dropping out (not you, Tax Office) – or treat the public unreasonably, the punters blame the government.

As they should. Centrelink and Tax Office "customers" have votes, and their family and friends have votes, too. That counts treble when the "customers" are on the age pension.

First proof the government's at war with its public servants is that its determination to limit public service wages means it's failed to reach enterprise bargains with up to three-quarters of its staff.

One of the first acts of the Abbott government, like the Howard government before it, was to sack a bunch of department heads.

Nothing could be better calculated to make the remaining department heads fear for their jobs should they do anything to annoy the government.

Is it any wonder that when the bureaucrat really responsible for Centrelink, Human Services Department secretary Kathryn Campbell, who'd been refusing to speak to the media for weeks, had no choice but to front a Senate committee, she was full of denials and obfuscation?

No boss enjoys receiving frank and fearless advice, but only the dumb ones take steps to ensure they're surrounded by yes-persons.

The other way ministers limit the ability of their departments to pass on unwelcome advice is to interpose a bunch of young punks and political wannabes between them and their senior bureaucrats.

Successive governments' desire to avoid confronting unpleasant truths has prompted them to fill their departments with armies of public relations people – people who'd be of greater service to the public if they got behind a counter or answered a few phones.

It turns out that Jongen, the man who's happy to leave the public with the impression he's the general manager of Centrelink, has no responsibility for running it. He's just the department's "official spokesman".

He's the chief spin doctor – meaning when he knowingly misleads the public he can do so with a clear conscience. That's what he's paid to do. Apparently, the department has more than 30 people with "general manager" in their title.

The government's contempt for its public servants is reflected in the repeated rounds of "efficiency dividends" it imposes on its agencies.

These far exceed the improvements in labour productivity the private sector's able to achieve, and have become a euphemism for annual rounds of forced redundancies.

The public service union's claim that the 5000 jobs lost do much to explain the poor quality of Centrelink's service, as well as the government's mindless rush to use robots instead of humans, isn't hard to believe.