Showing posts with label public service. Show all posts
Showing posts with label public service. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

PwC: How are the haughty chartered accountants fallen

As we watch the Albanese government and the Senate crossbench getting to the bottom of what’s become “The PwC Scandal”, it’s important to join the dots. It’s not just a question of who did what and when, and how they’ll be held accountable for their actions. It’s more a question of how did a formerly highly respected firm of chartered accountants come to behave in such an unethical and possibly illegal way. And how did the federal government allow itself to get into such a compromised position?

It’s an issue that interests me on many levels. There’s a caste system among accountants, and the ones who call themselves “chartered” – acting under a charter from the King – regard themselves as the brahmins.

Before I became a journalist almost 50 years ago, I worked for one of the “big eight” firms of chartered accountants – Australian partnerships that had affiliated with one of the eight big, American-based international firms. (I’m still a fellow of the chartered accountants’ institute.)

The big eight coalesced into today’s big four, with their snappy, slimmed-down names: PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and EY. Historically, the main thing they did was audit publicly listed companies, certifying that their published accounts were “true and fair”. They also gave tax advice and did rich people’s tax returns.

But there’s not much money in auditing, so each of the big four has branched out into providing consulting services to big companies – in a big way. The consultants – few of whom would be accountants – have become the fat tail wagging the chartered dog.

There is much potential conflict of interest between these three activities, and it’s possible this scandal will hasten the separation of the auditors from the consultants – something that should have happened ages ago.

That’s enough about boring accountants, except to say that, if you wonder why PwC has been so slow to send the offending heavies packing, it’s because these businesses aren’t companies with the usual command structure, they’re unwieldy partnerships. “Why should I vote to get rid of one of my partners, when I might be next?” In Australia, PwC has about 900 partners and 8000 staff.

These days, much of the big four’s income is from consulting to federal and state governments. In 2021-22, the feds paid $21 billion for “external labour” – consultants, but also contractors and labour-hire companies. Senator Barbara Pocock, of the Greens, says this is equivalent to 54,000 full-time workers, and compares with 144,000 directly employed federal public servants.

Barrister Geoffrey Watson has asked “why is Australia outsourcing so much of its governing to private enterprise? Policy development and implementation are now routinely taken from the public service and turned over to private consultants.”

To leftie academics, the answer is that it’s part of the rise of “neoliberalism”. To me, its part of the quixotic quest for smaller government and lower taxes, via deregulation and privatisation in all its forms: not just the sale of government-owned businesses, but the provision of publicly funded services such as job search, childcare, aged care and disability care by church and community groups and profit-making businesses.

Plus, in the present case, getting rid of public servants in favour of advice from private consulting firms. At the beginning, the big four had no great understanding of public policy. But they set up offices in Canberra and hired many of the policy experts being let go by government. These people got paid a lot more, and their services sold back to the government at an even higher rate.

What’s not to like? It’s only taxpayers’ money.

Remember that PwC’s questionable behaviour occurred long before the arrival of the Albanese government. It was the Coalition government, particularly under Scott Morrison, that distrusted and disliked public servants.

One of the attractions of paying outside consultants for advice is that, to ensure repeat business, they tend to tell you what they think you want to hear. Whether in auditing or consulting, the notion that anyone can buy genuinely independent advice is a delusion.

According to Andrew Podger, a former senior public servant, the government’s imposition of ceilings on staff numbers and wage bills “led to the use of external labour even when departments knew it didn’t represent value for money”.

Consultants will always give their business’s profits priority over the public interest. When you join the dots, they go from the PwC affair to the problems we encountered years ago with privately owned childcare, the royal commission into aged care, and all the present problems with the cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The great experiment of finding out whether it’s better for public services to be delivered by the private sector than the tea-drinking public servants has been a resounding failure. And the suggestion that, by dishonouring its confidentiality agreements, PwC may have broken the law, provides a link to the royal commission on banking misconduct, and even to the epidemic of wage theft.

Somehow or other, the “smaller government” policies of recent decades have left many businesses believing they are no longer required to obey the law.

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Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Why I'm happy to bang the drum for higher wages

I’ve long believed that no government – state or federal, Liberal or Labor – should be in office for more than a decade before being put out to pasture. But I can’t say the demise of the 12-year-old Perrottet government in NSW filled me with joy.

Liberal-led governments have been falling like ninepins. But this one happened to be the only one genuinely committed to limiting climate change, improving early childhood education and care, and getting more women into politics (even if its party members weren’t playing ball).

The best thing about Dom Perrottet’s departure is the end of his cap on the size of public sector pay rises. Its removal will add to pressure for higher public sector wages in the other states – particularly Victoria – and at federal level.

It will even put a bit of upward pressure on wage rates in the private sector.

If you wonder why pay rises have been so small over the past decade, government wage caps – in Labor states as well as Liberal – are part of the reason. They’ve reduced the price competition for workers throughout the economy.

But don’t take my word for it. When he was desperate to get inflation up to his 2 to 3 per cent target range, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said the same.

In NSW, public sector wage rises were capped at 2.5 per cent in 2011. Only when the inflation rate started heading to 8 per cent was it lifted to 3 per cent.

There’s never a shortage of people predicting that higher wage rates will lead to death and destruction. Many Canberra lobbyists make a good living crying poor on behalf of the nation’s employers.

I’m sure there must be some businesses somewhere doing it tough, but you don’t see much evidence of it in the business pages of this august organ. The reverse, in fact.

But won’t higher wages just lead to higher prices? Yes, but not to the extent it suits business groups to claim. Wages and other labour costs don’t account for anything like the majority of the costs most businesses face.

If all firms do is pass on their higher labour costs, all it will do is slow our return to low inflation. It’s when firms use the cover of the highly publicised rises in their costs to add a bit extra to their price rises that inflation takes off.

But that’s less likely now the Reserve Bank is jacking up interest rates to slow the economy down. It won’t say so, but it’s hitting the brakes precisely because businesses were getting a bit too willing with their price rises.

Certainly, it’s not because wage rises have been too high. Few if any workers have been getting – or are likely to get – wage rises anything like as high as the rise in prices.

That’s likely to be true even for the “frontline” nurses and teachers in NSW, whose unions will be celebrating the end of the wage cap by hitting Premier Chris Minns for big increases.

It will be least true for the bottom quarter of workers dependent on the national minimum wage and the range of minimum wage rates set out in awards, who are likely to be awarded decent pay rises by the Fair Work Commission, as they were last year.

We can’t possibly afford that? Really? Nah. “If you made a list of all the things that are giving us this inflation challenge in our economy, low-paid workers getting paid too much wouldn’t be on that list,” Treasurer Jim Chalmers has said.

Why am I happy to bang the drum for higher wages? Because, as any year 11 economics student could tell you, the economy is circular.

Business people may begrudge every cent they pay their workers, but they’re pretty pleased to have all those dollars back when the nation’s households front up at their counters.

A big part of managing a capitalist economy involves saving short-sighted business people from their folly.

As for minuscule public sector pay caps, ask yourself why it’s fair enough to expect people who work for the government to accept lower rates of pay. Because they’re second-class citizens? Because they stand around leaning on shovels?

Because they’re not as smart as the rest of us? Well, if you go on doing that for long enough, you probably do end up with the cream of the crop going to higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

Which means it’s not just a matter of fairness. Underpay your nurses and teachers and then wonder why you can’t get enough recruits.

Yes, but how will Minns possibly pay for those higher wages? He could cut the number of nurses and teachers he can afford to employ, but I doubt he will.

No, he’ll do what a business would do: raise his prices. Except that, in government, prices are called taxes. You want the workers? You pay the going rate. It’s the capitalist way.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Why Albanese will bring public servants in from the cold

The election was so much about getting rid of Scott Morrison that few but the party faithful turned to Anthony Albanese with great hope and enthusiasm. He’s not the most charismatic bloke you could meet. Yet almost everything we’ve heard from him so far has been encouraging.

From his victory speech on, he’s said everything you’d want him to say. He made a promise which, to be fair, his predecessor never made and so never broke: to govern for all Australians.

Morrison was in the divide-and-conquer mould. He was the most tribal prime minister I can remember. My tribe, your tribe; us and them; good guys, bad guys; lifters and leaners.

Kevin Rudd had to be strong-armed by his colleagues to give the job of ambassador to the US to his vanquished party predecessor, Kim Beazley, a job for which he was highly qualified.

Rudd wanted to prove his magnanimity by giving it to a Liberal worthy – a gesture that John Howard, nor his protege Morrison, would never have made. To them, the spoils of office went solely to the winners.

I remember when “jobs for the boys” was considered a strictly Labor vice. Morrison has filled the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with Liberal cronies. The Libs have pretty much appointed only people from the employer side to the Fair Work Commission. The convention used to be 50/50.

Albanese said he wanted to bring Australians together. “I want Australia to continue to be a country that, no matter where you live, who you worship, who you love or what your last name is, places no restrictions on your journey in life.”

Of course, grand election-night declarations are like New Year’s resolutions: a lot easier to make than to stick to, day after day, as old habits try to reassert themselves.

As we wonder what kind of PM Albanese will make, two things are worth remembering. First, unlike the Liberals, Labor sees itself as the unnatural party of government, the boys and girls from the wrong side of the tracks.

If the Libs have a superiority complex – if they act like they own the place and can make their own rules – Labor is the opposite. As outsiders to power, they tend to be on their best behaviour in the Big House, to worry about using the right fork.

Paradoxically, they’re more likely than the Libs to stick to the conventions rather than overturn them, more likely to consult widely – the unions come back into the tent, but business stays in – and more likely to seek, and take, advice from officials.

Second, as Julia Gillard demonstrated, prime ministers from Labor’s left faction try to prove they’re not really left-wing by being surprisingly right-wing in the policies they pursue. She was fawning towards the Americans, did too little to reverse the anti-union excesses of Howard’s WorkChoices – did someone say we had a chronic problem with weak wage growth? – and her effort to lift schools’ performance by using the publication of metrics to encourage greater competition between the public and private sectors was a faddish idea that didn’t work.

But, against those two positives, remember this. Whenever a government lowers standards, its opponents always promise to restore them. Nevertheless, the two major parties are obsessed with each other and determined the other side won’t gain an advantage.

So, the moment the new government is criticised for some behaviour and replies that it’s only what the last lot did, you’ll know the game is lost.

Recent Coalition governments have seen the public service as an enemy – the voting figures show Canberra is very much a Labor town – and have progressively cut back admin costs and public service numbers. Morrison went further, telling public servants he didn’t need their advice on policy matters. Much policy expertise has been lost in consequence – as witness, the administrative fumbling of the vaccine and RATs rollouts.

On coming to office, both Howard and Tony Abbott sacked many department heads they considered had been too close to the previous Labor government. There’s little doubt this was also intended “to encourage the others”, making them fearful of losing their own jobs should they be judged as less than fully co-operative.

Nothing could be better calculated to ensure ministers are surrounded by yes-persons. It takes a wise and strong manager to see the benefit of having around them people game to say, “Are you sure that’s a good idea, boss?” when considered necessary.

Albanese has promised not to sack any public servants, and he hasn’t so far. Replacing the head of his own department is, by modern convention, an entitlement of the new prime minister.

Politicians are prone to paranoia. Labor is right to trust the public servants. In my decades of speaking to them privately on policy issues, I can’t remember when they’ve expressed to me any criticism of government policy or lack of confidence in the government of the day. To do so would be unprofessional.

Public servants aren’t omniscient. But I’d rather have a government listening to their advice than trying to wing it.

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Sunday, March 13, 2022

Blaming the states for national policy failures won't wash

It seems everywhere you look you see governments failing to lead, failing to take charge, failing to be prepared for problems they should have seen coming.

Last week it was the flooding, before that, the distribution of rapid COVID testing kits and vaccines, before that, the Black Summer bushfires, and before that, soaring prices in the National Electricity Market along with the federal Coalition’s inability to agree on action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The items on this seemingly disparate list have a few things in common. Most arise from the effects of climate change. All of them involve shared responsibility by the federal and state governments, with the all too familiar squabbling, duck-shoving and cost-shifting.

We’re learning hard lessons about what’s needed to get a better-functioning federation. One is that when ordinary Australians are facing dire emergencies of flood or fire or cyclone, they demand that both levels of government be on-the-job doing what needs doing.

Another lesson is that when you’ve got one federal, two territory and six state governments, one of them has to take the lead, and the one that should do so is obvious: the feds.

On climate change, it’s not just that the Morrison government has failed to do anything much to “mitigate” (reduce) our greenhouse gas emissions beyond belatedly accepting the target of somehow achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

It’s also that it has failed to lead the states in adapting to the climate change we already have and, even if we do make it to net zero on time, will get more of: worse and more frequent extreme weather events.

Why does Scott Morrison seem so bad at working on problems we can see coming, until they’ve actually arrived, and we’re in crisis? Then, when we are in crisis, he makes the excuse that it’s a “state responsibility”, which so infuriates the people left stranded by fire or flood.

I think part of the reason is his deliberate downgrading of public service advice on policy. Until recent years, it’s been a prime responsibility of department heads and their senior people to advise the minister of looming problems in their area of responsibility and to develop detailed options on how the feds – often in partnership with the states – could go about fixing the problem.

But when you tell the public servants that you want their diligent obedience, not their advice – as Morrison did – all you’re left with is advice from the growing number of ambitious young Liberal apparatchiks that populate ministers’ offices.

Plus, of course, the occasional expensive report from one of the big four accounting-turned-consulting firms, whose business model is to produce lovely reports with lots of glossy pictures, that tell the paying customer what you think they want to hear.

What they don’t want to be told is that they should get started on a response to this potential problem or that one, just in case they come to a head some time in the future. “That’s the boring stuff public servants are always banging on about, and it’s a real pain.”

“Do you know they’ve been harping on for years about being prepared for some possible pandemic? Yeah, sure. What other long-shot bet do you want me to waste money on? Talk about useless.”

The beauty of getting your advice from the young would-be-pollies in your office is that, like their masters, they’re always focused on the politics of the now. “How can we draw attention away from the latest stuff-up? How can we look like we’re responding decisively? Why don’t we rush through a law making illegal something that already is? The punters would love it.”

As soon as the election is called officially, the public service goes into “caretaker mode” and begins preparing extensive policy recommendations for the incoming government. They prepare a Blue Book to give the Coalition should it win, and a Red Book should Labor win.

The Grattan Institute, our leading independent think tank, has a tradition of preparing its own Orange Book, proposing policy priorities for whichever side wins. It includes a section on energy and climate change, one of the most important areas of shared, federal and state responsibility.

Grattan’s Tony Wood says that, one of the three things that should be done to ensure electricity plays its major role in achieving “net zero” is to “better co-ordinate state and federal government objectives in the National Electricity Market.

“Frustrated at a decade of federal ‘climate wars’, state governments are increasingly going their own way on electricity and gas [and electric vehicles],” Wood says.

That’s another lesson we need to learn: whenever the feds leave a policy vacuum, the states fill it – badly. Only leadership by the Federal government can make our ramshackle federation work.

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Monday, February 14, 2022

Boring auditors-general our last defence against dodgy governments

You may be appalled by the ever-declining standards of propriety as the two main parties chase each other to the bottom of the barrel, putting career advancement ahead of their duty to voters. But recent events show our courageous auditors-general haven’t lost their commitment to upholding honest behaviour.

Which, particularly in the absence of a federal independent commission against corruption, is one thing to be thankful for.

Just last week in NSW, state Auditor-General Margaret Crawford issued a highly critical report on the Stronger Communities grants program established by the Berejiklian government before the 2019 state election.

The report said there was “little or no [defensible] basis” for the selection of grant recipients, with 95 per cent of all grant money flowing to 22 local councils belonging to Coalition electorates. These decisions were made by the former premier and her deputy, Gladys Berejiklian and John Barilaro.

This is reminiscent of federal Auditor-General Grant Hehir’s equally critical 2020 report on the “sports rorts” grants made by the Morrison government before the 2019 federal election. He found that the Australian Sports Commission’s carefully evaluated recommendations for grants were overridden by the minister’s office.

More than 61 per cent of the grants awarded failed to reach the commission’s merit cut-off. Rather, the grants went predominantly to sporting organisations in marginal electorates held by the Coalition.

When announcing tax cuts, Liberal politicians in particular love making speeches about how they’re only returning taxpayers’ own money. But in their attitude to pork-barrelling – it’s not illegal and everybody does it, in the immortal words of Saint Gladys – pollies on both sides act as though it’s really their money, to be spent as best suits their interests.

We’d know much less about their misuse of our money were it not for our auditors-general. The pollies want to keep it dark, but they can’t stop the auditors doing their duty. Scott Morrison was so grateful to the Australian National Audit Office he cut its funding. (More proof he regards taxpayers’ money as his own.)

As an accountant who was glad to escape auditing and become a journo, I’m pleased to acknowledge our debt to the auditors-general’s diligence. But I’m particularly impressed by the fearless Crawford’s blow against that great blight on budget honesty, “creative accounting” – using loopholes in the rules of public accounting to make the budget balance look better – or less worse – than it really is.

Some years ago, some bureaucrat in the NSW government (I doubt if any pollie could have come up with it) got the bright idea of making the budget look better by transferring the state’s railway assets to a new off-budget body, the Transport Asset Holding Entity.

This way, the cost of additional annual spending on rail infrastructure could be removed from the budget and treated “below the line” as an equity investment in a government-owned business. But this turned into an almighty and long-running battle between the state Treasury and the state Transport department.

Treasury prevailed and the Transport boss was dismissed without explanation. Enter the Auditor-General. Crawford declined to issue an audit report for the government’s 2020-21 accounts until she was satisfied all was in order.

In particular, she required evidence that the new holding entity was genuinely independent of the government and a genuinely profitable business. This would require higher annual payments from the budget for the use of the rail assets, thus reversing the engineered improvement.

Treasury delivered that evidence on December 23, allowing Crawford to issue an unqualified audit report about three months’ late. Soon after, Treasury secretary Mike Pratt, a former banker, announced his return to the private sector.

In another report last week, Crawford accused Treasury of obstructing her investigation into the holding entity by dragging its feet, withholding critical documents and overestimating the expected budget benefit from the transaction.

NSW Treasury’s reputation for probity has been damaged by evidence about the imbroglio given to a long-running parliamentary inquiry. Treasury regularly struggles to extract full and timely information from other departments. Now it has given them a master class in misbehaviour.

The parliamentary inquiry’s hearings have also damaged the reputation of KPMG – one of the big-four auditing firms moving into the more lucrative field of consultancy – which was revealed to have given opposing advice to Treasury on one side and Transport on the other.

The new NSW Treasury secretary is the highly experienced state and federal econocrat Dr Paul Grimes. Grimes has the distinction of having been sacked as head of the federal Agriculture department by Barnaby Joyce.

Joyce claims to have sacked him to show who was boss. It’s easier to believe that “a relationship of strong mutual confidence” between them wasn’t possible. In any case, the era of NSW Treasury being run by itinerant bankers seems to be over.

The holding-entity budget fiddle has its parallel federally. Both sides of politics have exploited a loophole in the definition of the budget balance introduced by Peter Costello’s Charter of Budget Honesty in the late 1990s.

The former Labor government used the loophole to stop its massive spending on the National Broadband Network from worsening the budget deficit by treating it “below the line” as an equity investment in a new for-profit business.

The present government is using the same trick to hide spending on its Nationals-inspired inland freight railway from Melbourne to Brisbane. A profitable business to be sold off at some future date? I think not.

There was a time when Yes, Minister was a reasonably accurate depiction of the relationship between a minister and his department head. But that was in Bob Menzies’ day. These days, the term “permanent head” is hardly apposite. Department heads have renewable fixed-term contracts, but it’s relatively common for prime ministers and premiers to lop off the heads of those who displease them.

When Tony Abbott sacked several department heads on coming to office in 2013, he was following the precedent set by John Howard in 1996. If the objective was to discourage unwelcome advice from bureaucrats – “Sorry, minister, that would be contrary to the Act” – it seems to have worked a treat.

So, how come our auditors-general are still so diligent in telling us when ministers have been playing ducks and drakes? Auditors-general are statutory officers appointed by the governor or governor general, and report to the parliament, not cabinet. They’re appointed for non-renewable eight or 10-year terms, and can’t move on to another government job. It’s a terminal appointment.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

More to running the state than keeping a lid on wages and debt

You’d think that, when it came to assessing the performance of a government in power for 10 years, its handling of economic issues would be central. But, in truth, not as central as you’d think. Much that state governments say about their “state economy” is mere boosterism – or another word starting with b.

The present NSW Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, is no slouch in telling us how well the state’s doing economically. Before the arrival of the coronacession changed his tune, he used to say we had the “fastest-growing state economy over the past five years” and were “leading the nation” in this or that.

He told us about the Coalition’s “strong financial management” which kept the government’s triple-A credit rating secure, had produced a string of budget surpluses and a “negative net debt”.

“The greatest threat to our future prosperity,” he told us, “would be a return to the budget deficits ... of the past”. Ask him about the present huge deficit and the return to positive net debt and he’ll tell you we’d be crazy not to be borrowing when interest rates are at rock bottom.

Several of the big banks regularly rank the eight states and territories according to their economic performance. This is like calling a horse race. At any point in the race, some horses will be ahead and some behind. At a different point in the race, the order will be different. What does this prove? Not much.

Time for some sense. The fact is, many silly claims are made about the “state economy” because there’s no such animal. The lack of hard economic borders between the states means there’s one, national economy, with eight corners.

The national economy is managed nationally from Canberra and Martin Place, not Macquarie Street (the Reserve Bank, not the NSW Parliament). Interest rates don’t vary by state, nor the rates of income tax, company tax or the GST.

With a few exceptions – mining and financial and professional services – the industry composition of the states is very similar. The feds carefully divide the proceeds from the GST between the states in a way intended to minimise difference in the quality of public services provided by them. The wealthier states subsidise the poorer ones.

The states have responsibility for public health and hospitals, schools, law and order, roads and transport, planning and local government. But they each deal with them in much the same way.

And, in any case, because NSW accounts for about a third of the nation’s population and economic activity, its performance is rarely far from the national average.

All this explains why talk that purports to be about the management of the state’s economy ends up being about the government’s management of its own finances, as shown by its budget and annual capital works program.

Perrottet and his predecessors are terribly proud of their success in limiting the growth in government spending but, since the wages of state government employees account for well over half that spending, they’ve achieved this mainly by keeping a tight 2.5 per cent cap on annual wage rises and using the excuse of the coronacession to freeze state workers’ wages.

Trouble is, this is a two-edged sword. Every dollar the government doesn’t pay its workers is pretty much a dollar they don’t spend on the products of the state’s businesses. What’s more, there’s evidence that keeping the lid on public sector wages encourages private sector employers to give smaller increases. Screwing down wages is the way to grow the economy?

The Coalition boasts it’s spending a lot more on infrastructure – particularly motorways and railways – than its penny-pinching predecessors. True. Much more. Labor allowed a bunch of discredited American rating agencies to dictate how much it could spend on infrastructure, for fear of what its political opponents would say if it lost its triple-A rating.

This government is no braver, but got the bright idea of “asset recycling”. You privatise government businesses – the electricity companies, ports, buses, ferries, the lottery office, whatever – then use the proceeds to build new stuff without upsetting the Yanks.

Trouble is, the government decided to “fatten the pig for market”. To maximise the sale price of the electricity businesses, it created arrangements that allowed the new owners to put up their prices. When it sold Port Botany and the Port of Newcastle, it did what was intended to be a secret deal where, if the new Newcastle owner decided to build a container terminal in competition with the new owners of Botany, it would have to pay compensation.

So the government got great sale prices at the expense of the state’s electricity users, people who hate all the container trucks rumbling through Sydney streets on their way north, and Novocastrians (including me) who worry about where the jobs will come from as the world stops buying our coal.

Sorry, I can’t say I’m wildly impressed by the Coalition’s decade of financial dealings. Too many bankers, not enough economists.

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Sunday, January 24, 2021

The economy doesn’t work well without good public servants

You’d hope that one of the big things Scott Morrison learnt in 2020 was to have more respect and trust in his public servants. After all, they must get much of the credit for helping him – and the premiers – respond to the pandemic far more successfully than most other rich countries. What Morrison did right was take their advice.

Morrison began his time as Prime Minister by making his disrespect and distrust of public servants crystal clear. He was blunt in telling them he didn’t need their advice on policy matters, just their full cooperation in faithfully implementing the decisions he and the Cabinet made.

The Coalition has continued its Labor predecessor’s practice of imposing annual “efficiency dividends” – fixed percentage cuts in the money allocated to pay public servants’ wages and admin costs – which by now amount to annual rounds of redundancies, with those more senior public servants with policy experience being the ones most likely to get the heave-ho.

This has robbed the public service – and its political masters – of much benefit from its institutional memory of what works and what doesn’t. The government prefers to get its advice from the young people with political ambitions employed to help in ministers’ offices.

These young punks act as intermediaries between the minister and his department. Their great attraction is their loyalty to the party. They tend to be a lot stronger on political tactics than policy detail.

In a quite wasteful way, when the government has felt the need for advice on tricky policy matters it now pays top dollar for a report from one of the big four accounting firms busy turning themselves into management consultants (which is more lucrative).

Where does a bunch of auditors and tax agents find the expertise to advise on quite specialised issues of public policy? They hire – at much higher salaries - some of the redundant public servants who know all there is to know on particular topics.

Despite the expense to taxpayers, one reason the government likes to pay outsiders for advice is that, like all profit-making businesses, the consultants make sure they tell their paying customers what they want to hear, not necessarily what they need to be told.

By now, most big businesses have learnt it’s smarter to keep their core functions and expertise in-house, but the Liberals prefer to pay outsiders because they neither trust public servants nor like them. They don’t like them because they see them as members of the Labor “public” tribe, not their own Liberal “private” tribe. Private good; public bad.

The Libs don’t trust public servants for same reason: how could supporters of their rival tribe give them honest, helpful advice? Plus a bit of paranoia. Whenever Labor’s in office, the Libs sit fuming in opposition, watching the public servants working hard to help the government pursue its policy preferences and keep it out of trouble, and conclude the shiny-bums are doing it because of their partisan sympathies.

The Libs’ paranoid tribalism blinds them to the plain truth that the public service takes professional pride in wholeheartedly supporting the government of the day, while suppressing their personal political preferences.

In recent times, much of the Libs’ hostility towards public servants stems from John Howard. It was Howard – aped by Tony Abbott – who instituted the practice of beginning their term in office by sacking a bunch of department heads considered to be Labor-sympathisers (or in Abbott’s case, to be so hopeless they actually believed all that Labor bulldust about climate change).

This was retaliation, but also a knowing attempt to “encourage the others”. And it’s worked well in discouraging senior bureaucrats from giving ministers advice they don’t want to hear. But in a leader, surrounding yourself with yes-persons is a sign of weakness. If such a minister stuffs up, don’t be surprised.

You couldn’t have picked a crisis more likely to bust the Libs out of their I-don’t-need-any-advice hang-up than the pandemic. There’s no recent precedent and it’s full of technicalities. Anyway, who thinks they’re smart enough to tell a doctor they’re wrong?

By contrast, every Liberal pollie thinks they know at least as much, and probably more, about the economy as any economist. Economics is much more mixed up with politics than are the principles of human health.

But get this: Morrison wouldn’t have dared to accept the medicos’ advice to lock down the economy without Treasury’s assurance that it could throw together the measures – particularly JobKeeper and the JobSeeker supplement – that would hold most of the show together until the economy could be unlocked. As has happened. Treasury is back in the good books.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Virus reminder: governments need to be better, not smaller

One good thing the coronavirus has done is slow the pace of our lives, leaving us more time to think about them. And since the main device being used to stop the spread of the virus has been to reduce physical contact between people, it hasn’t been hard to see that what matters most to us is face-to-face contact with family and friends.

People of middle age fret about not being able to visit elderly parents. The great Dr Brendan Murphy, flat out advising the Prime Minister, really misses being able to hug his granddaughters. (Grandsons and granddaughter, in my case.) Teenagers take their family for granted, but miss their friends. Younger kids realise they actually like going to school and mixing with others.

The virus has also thrown into relief our rights as individuals versus our obligations to the group. The prevailing political and economic ideology highlights the individual and plays down the group, but in emergencies like this even our squabbling federal and state politicians see that the only way of coping is to co-operate rather than compete.

Looking at the Americans and the terrible disaster they’re making of it – including people refusing to wear masks because it’s a violation of their personal freedom – it’s not hard to see that individualism can go too far, and playing your part as a loyal member of the group has its virtues.

The virus reminds us that many of the problems we face can’t be solved by individuals acting alone, but by all of us acting together. For this we need leadership; we need the government to govern. To tell us what needs to happen, to issue instructions, provide support for those who need it, and then have all of us falling into line and pulling our weight.

That’s easy to see – and accept – in a crisis, but harder when we’re muddling along as normal. Fact is, however, our world abounds with problems that can’t be solved by individuals and businesses acting on their own initiative.

For these we do need somebody – or some body – with the authority to act on our behalf, calling the shots, fixing things, spending money and requiring us to cough up that money according to our ability to pay.

And yet the rise of individualism has been accompanied by the denigration of the role of government. It was the now-canonised Ronald Reagan who famously said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I’m from the government and I’m here to help".

Obviously, governments can be far from perfect. Government agencies can be unhelpful, they can push us around for no good reason, be inefficient and waste our money. And yet the prevailing ideology’s response – influencing the behaviour of both sides of politics – hasn’t been to improve the functioning of government, but to chop it back as much as possible.

Any government business that can be sold, should be. Industries should be deregulated so private enterprise is given maximum freedom to be enterprising. There are services that governments need to pay for from the public purse, but their provision should be contracted out to private firms.

The trouble is, the advocates of Smaller Government have never persuaded the public of the wisdom of this approach, nor received a mandate. When governments try to cut back government spending in big licks – as Tony Abbott, despite promises to the contrary, tried to do in his first budget – they get repudiated.

So they end up forever trying to keep the lid on government spending – quietly cutting money going to politically unpopular causes (the unemployed, public servants), and ignoring all the people warning them to start preparing for possible problems in this field or that (a bad bushfire season, for instance).

They justify all this short-sighted penny pinching by saying no one wants to pay more taxes. Which is the message we so often send them, partly because we’ve grown distrustful that our money will be spent wisely.

See where this is leading? All the denigration and distrust of government does much to explain why we haven’t responded to the pandemic as well as we should have. National planning for a pandemic was discontinued after 2008 and it’s likely that the recommended national stockpile of personal protective equipment was a victim of successive "efficiency dividend" cut backs.

The ironically named efficiency-dividend cuts to the public service may help explain the inadequacy of Victoria’s contact tracing arrangements. There’s an inquiry into the failures of Victoria’s quarantine of returning travellers, contracted out to private firms.

Deregulation of wage-fixing has encouraged the growth in casual workers, whose lack of paid sick leave tempts them to go to work while at risk of having contracted the virus. Governments are scrambling to fill this dangerous gap.

Finally, the decades of wilful neglect and misregulation of aged care facilities, “left out of sight and out of mind” and “fragmented, unsupported and underfunded” – to quote the latest of many inquiries. All to keep taxes low.
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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

How Morrison is putting politics ahead of policy

If you think Scott Morrison’s been busy doing not very much since the election in May, you are much mistaken. In truth he’s been very busy doing stuff of not much interest to you. But sometimes it pays to take an interest in things that don’t seem of interest.

For instance, I wouldn’t expect you to have taken much interest in the reshuffle of government departments he announced on Friday. But I’ve been reading up on it and been amazed – or appalled – by what I’ve learnt.

It’s said to be the most dramatic overhaul of the federal public service since 1987, cutting the number of departments from 18 to 14 while creating four new mega-departments and removing five department secretaries, three of them women.

Morrison said it was not a cost-saving measure, but had been done to “better align and bring together functions within the public service so they can all do their jobs more effectively and help more Australians”.

So be very clear on that: it’s been done to ensure you and I get better service from the public service. Specifically, the number of departments was shrunk so as to “ensure the services that Australians rely on are delivered more efficiently and effectively”.

I just have one problem: that’s what they all say. If Morrison had increased rather than decreased the number of departments, he would still have assured us it would make the public service more efficient and effective.

This is hardly the first time departmental arrangements have been changed. They’re changed after every election and often several times more. Changes are so common bureaucrats have a name for them: MoG – changes in the “machinery of government”.

According to calculations by Bob McMullan, former Labor minister turned academic, more than 200 changes have been made since 1993-94. “In 2015-16, machinery of government changes involved the movement of 8000 staff in 21 separate changes. Changes following the 2013 election, which involved the movement of 12,000 staff, cost an average of $14 million per agency.”

Governments everywhere do it, but research by academics at UNSW’s Canberra campus suggests Australian governments do it far more than others. “Even governments with an emphasis on ‘cutting red tape’ [such as this one] have undertaken extreme and costly MoG changes,” they say.

So why are the latest changes said to be the biggest since 1987? Because that’s when the Hawke government introduced the idea of merging departments into mega-departments. Paul Keating reversed some of those changes and John Howard undid much of the rest. Get it? It’s time to mega up again.

When the changes cause the name of some function to drop out of the ever-longer titles of departments, the interest group invariably sees red. A few years ago it was the scientists, this time it’s the arts. Actually, the arts have never had their own department, but have been shunted from one department to another.

Since Bob Hawke’s day they’ve gone from Environment to Communications, back to Environment, then Regional Development, Prime Minister and Cabinet, back to Regional Development, then Attorney-General’s, back to Communications and now to the new mega Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

So many MoG changes involve moving functions from one department to another that McMullan has christened them “merry-go-round decisions”. “Responsibility for childcare, aged care and Indigenous affairs (to name a few) have all been the subject of multiple shifts in the past decade. In some cases, the functions have moved out of one department only to return to their original home a few years later,” he says.

He adds that “disentangling financial structures, IT support structures, property responsibilities and HR systems from old organisations and reintegrating them into new ones takes considerable time and effort”.

Former boss of Prime Minister’s Terry Moran’s comment on the latest changes is blunter: “There’ll be turmoil in many departments for a significant period."

So why do the changes keep happening? Partly to create the appearance of progress – “reform”. Sometimes I think the pollies are trying to convince themselves as much as us. But mainly to indulge the preferences, prejudices and professed priorities of the prime minister and his or her ministers.

It’s notable that these extensive changes to the bureaucracy – including the sacking of five department heads – involve no changes to the ministry. The new mega Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment will now contain three Cabinet ministers, co-equal in power and glory.

What particular preferences and prejudices of Morrison do the latest changes reveal? I think it reveals this government’s disdain for public servants. It’s the revenge of the ministerial staffers (which many ministers started their political careers as). Who needs public servants giving ministers advice when it’s the staffers who understand the politics of the matter?

This is Morrison surrounding himself with the top public servants he knows and likes, replacing the ones who want to keep talking about policy with can-do men and women who don’t argue.

Morrison has repeatedly expressed his belief that he doesn’t need policy advice from public servants. They should just be getting on with implementing the policies the government gives them.

I think this is Morrison perfecting the hermetic seal of his personal Canberra bubble. He already knows what’s on his to-do list and he doesn’t want news from the outside world delaying or deterring him from his purpose.
Read more >>

Monday, August 19, 2019

We’re relying on a government that spurns economic advice

I’m starting to wonder if the trouble with our politicians is that they’ve evolved to do politics but not economics, making them unfit to cope with the economic threats we now face.

On the one hand, they’ve been able to leave the management of the economy to the independent Reserve Bank, whose tinkering with interest rates – up a bit, down a bit – has successfully kept the economy growing for 28 years.

On the other hand, the pollies have been locked in a decade of unprecedented political instability where, since the demise of the Howard government in 2007, no prime minister has been safe from attack – from their own side.

In such an environment, with monetary policy (interest rates) so successfully managing the economy, the budget ceases to be “fiscal policy” and becomes just an instrument of politics.

Because you’re eternally looking over your shoulder trying to spot the next colleague holding a dagger behind his back, you use the budget primarily to shore up your support within the party, rewarding the base and punishing its designated enemies.

Be slavish in feeding the 24-hour news cycle. Keep up the pressure for ministers and their departments to provide a continuous flow of minor “announceables”. Remember, any vacuum you leave will be filled by your enemies (external or internal). If you run out announceables, just slag off your (official) opponents.

Of course, if the punters understood what you were up to, they wouldn’t be impressed. So when you’re trying to shore up the support of big business by cutting the rate of company tax, you keep claiming it’s a “plan for jobs and growth”.

When you’re using an income tax tax cut to buy some popularity at the election, you pretend that economic growth is driven by lower taxes.

The worst of it is, since the things your side really cares about – cutting taxes, preserving tax breaks favouring high income-earners, cracking down on the leaners and loafers on social welfare – are economic measures, you convince yourself you’re really into economics.

And running a budget surplus – that’s economic isn’t it? (No, not when your forecasts of a strong economy have proved way too optimistic and you’re counting on a freak improvement in iron ore prices to get you over the line. Then, it becomes an indulgent stretch for political kudos.)

You don’t actually know enough economics to realise economics is about rolling back rent-seeking and increasing the efficiency with which resources are allocated, at the micro level, and managing the economy through the ups and downs of the business cycle, at the macro level. All the rest is politics.

We’ve come to expect that if the person taking the treasurer’s job doesn’t know much about economics, Treasury will give them a crash course and get ’em up to speed. But former senior Treasury officer Paul Tilley’s new book, Changing Fortunes, leads me to think this no longer happens.

These days, treasurers are so preoccupied by the daily battle for political survival they have little time or interest in economics tutorials. Treasury has got out of the habit of giving the treasurer any advice his staff doubts he’d want to hear. Treasury’s job is largely to supply facts and figures when demanded by the treasurer’s staff.

In which case, you have to worry about how much professional rigour goes into producing the budget forecasts. How much they’re designed to avoid giving the treasurer news he doesn’t want to hear.

The Reserve Bank’s latest forecasts for wage growth are laughing at the optimistic forecasts of the budget in April. Where the budget has wages growing by 3.25 per cent a year by June 2021, the Reserve has the growth rate rising only a fraction to 2.4 per cent.

But here’s the surprising thing. Despite the central importance of wages in driving consumer spending and overall economic growth, the Reserve’s year-average forecasts for real GDP differ little from those in the budget.

I find this suspicious. And worrying. If the central bank feels constrained by the forecasts of a Treasury anxious to avoid displeasing its political masters, we’ve got a problem.

Last week, while worries about how much damage Trump’s trade war might do to the world economy were causing share markets to plunge, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – who was 20 at the time of our last big recession – emerged from his bunker to assure us the government would “take the necessary actions to ensure our economy continues to grow”.

Great. But who’ll be advising him on which actions are necessary? The young punks in his office?
Read more >>

Saturday, August 10, 2019

How politics came to trump economics in Canberra

How does the federal government really work? Is it as we were told in Yes, Minister, with the bureaucrats actually in charge, quietly manipulating the politicians? Or are public servants actually the servants of their political masters, as the pollies focus more on getting re-elected than running the country well?

Does Treasury dominate the other departments and the economic advice going to government? Do bureaucrats still give ministers "frank and fearless" advice, or has their role been usurped by the ever-growing army of ministerial staffers, politically aligned think tanks and lobby groups?

In truth, it’s hard for outsiders to be sure. But a new book by a former 30-year senior Treasury officer, Paul Tilley, Changing Fortunes, is surprisingly frank and fearless in spelling out how things work, and how Treasury’s relationship with the elected government has "changed dramatically in recent times".

Last month Scott Morrison said he saw the bureaucrats’ role as implementing the government’s policies. Their advisory role was limited to advising the government of any problems that might arise during that implementation.

Tilley makes it clear this isn’t just what Morrison would like, it’s pretty much what he and his recent predecessors have long had. Treasury gives much information to the treasurer, but avoids giving written policy advice it believes would be unwelcome. What little frank advice is given comes verbally, as part of the private discussion between the treasurer and Treasury secretary.

Tilley says the art of policy advising involves understanding the true nature of the problem, predicting the consequences of policy options and framing effective policy advice.

To be influential, however, policy advisers need to find a balance between having sufficient separation from the raw politics of government to maintain a strong policy framework, on one hand, and having sufficient responsiveness to ministers to be listened to, on the other.

"Treasury’s influence spectrum had ‘frank and fearless advice’ at one end and full ‘responsiveness to government’ at the other," he writes. The trick was the find the right spot in the middle.

But by 2014, under Tony Abbott, "Treasury was now at the full responsiveness-to-government extreme," he writes.

His book is a history of Treasury from its establishment in 1901. "Treasury has long considered itself to be the best economic policy advising agency in Australia.

"Its favoured economic policy framework has for the most part been grounded in neoclassical economics - a belief in the power of markets, and the inherent tendency of supply and demand forces to move towards equilibrium.

"Non-achievement of equilibrium must be caused then, by some market impediment or government interference, and Treasury has seen it as its job to tackle those impediments or that interference.

"If there has been one enduring belief within Treasury – its light on the hill – this is it," he writes.

This is what Tilley means by Treasury’s possession – unlike so many other departments - of a "strong policy framework".

"If there has been a central defining culture in Treasury, it has been around analytical excellence – having the strongest policy framework and the best ideas. If there has been one recurring constraint on Treasury’s policy effectiveness, it has been too narrow in its focus and closed to alternative perspectives," he says.

Tilley’s title, Changing Fortunes, recognises that, over its 118-year life, Treasury’s influence has waxed and waned.

For its first 30 years it was the government’s bookkeeper. It evolved into an economic policy agency only after the Great Depression revealed its inability to provide authoritative advice on economic policy.

The economists arrived from the 1930s, with the advent of Keynesianism. The "golden years" for the economy in the 1950s and ‘60s were also golden for Treasury, which grew in size and status, leading the debate about economic ideas and allowing its influence and strength to give it "a level of arrogance".

This did not sit comfortably with the increasingly assertive governments of the post-Menzies era. Treasury was pushed out into the cold by Gough Whitlam, and kept there by Malcolm Fraser. Treasury’s advice remained frank and fearless, but was considered dogmatic, and often wasn’t listened to. I think this was when our Yes, Minister era ended.

Relations became more constructive when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating arrived, and continued so under John Howard and Peter Costello. "There was a sense of partnership in the Treasury-government relationships, and with the advancement of economic reforms that Treasury advocated it again influenced the policy agenda."

But for the past decade, first under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, then under Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison, the "political chaos" has robbed governments of the sustained political capital needed to pursue difficult reforms. Governments fighting for their political survival have maintained a "relentless push for message over substance".

"In the daily political and media battles of the last decade, Treasury policy advice has not been sought, and at times not very effectively given. In those battles, it has been economic and budget facts and figures, not policy advice, that have been demanded," we’re told.

"The habit has developed of not providing policy advice that ministers don’t agree with. Policy advice on contentious issues now is discussed with ministers’ offices in its preparation and if the office indicates that the minister would not be comfortable with the proposed advice an information brief goes instead.

"The office’s (politically attuned) policy advice can then be provided over the top of the Treasury information brief."

The balance of policy influence has shifted to the political offices and external stakeholder groups, with the public service becoming more information providers and implementers of government decisions, he says.

"The government, therefore, is left without a strong source of genuine policy advice. The consequent lack of a consistent economic narrative over the last decade is plain for all to see."
Read more >>

Monday, July 29, 2019

Memo PM: governing goes better with a sharp public service

For good or ill, much of the attitudes and strategies of the modern Liberal Party have been shaped by its greatest leader since Menzies, newly turned octogenarian John Howard.

After Bob Hawke defeated Malcolm Fraser as prime minister in 1983, Howard, his treasurer, reflected unhappily on how little the Fraser ministers had achieved during their seven years in office. Why was that? Because, Howard concluded, the public servants had kept talking them out of doing what they’d intended to do.

So when Howard became prime minister in 1996, he resolved not to let that happen to his government. He began with a “night of the long knives” in which he sacked the heads of six government departments.

When Tony Abbott took over from Labor in 2013, he repeated the process with a “night of the short knives” in which the heads of four departments got chopped.

Nothing could be better calculated to send a message to top public servants that survival in their jobs rests on the continuing approval of the prime minister and his ministers, and that any frank and fearless advice they offer will be at their own risk.

We can be reasonably confident that, by now, it would be rare for ministers to be given unwelcome advice.

Which doesn’t sound smart to me. No leader has all the answers. The manager who surrounds themselves with Yes-persons is more likely to fall in a hole than achieve great things.

Last week Scott Morrison did what’s become the accepted practice of prime ministers from both sides and moved to install his personal choice to head his department and, in effect, be boss of the other department heads.

He shifted a former chief-of-staff of his private office, Phil Gaetjens, from Treasury to Prime Minister and Cabinet. Gaetjens’ replacement at Treasury is Dr Steven Kennedy, a Treasury-trained and highly experienced macro-economist, with much experience in other areas. His appointment suggests a step back from the politicisation of Treasury.

Asked about public servants’ role in giving advice, Morrison said “it is the job of the public service to advise you of the challenges that may present to a government in implementing its agenda. That is the advisory role of the public service. But the government sets policy. The government is the one that goes to the people and sets out an agenda, as we have”.

Get it? He sees the bureaucrats’ role as to implement the government’s policy. If they see any problems during that implementation, they are free to draw them to their masters’ attention. But, by implication, they’re not invited to suggest items that need adding to the policy agenda.

It should go without saying that the government sets policy and the public service puts it into practice. Feeling you have to say it suggests a lack of confidence and a fear of having to debate with people who know more about the topic than you do.

But if the Morrison government used the recent election to set out a busy agenda of reforms, I must have missed it. Makes you suspect the agenda for the next three years will just be responding to problems as they arise. Policy without having a policy, perhaps.

But the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government’s seeming antipathy towards public servants runs deeper than that. I get the feeling ministers and their staffers regard them as class enemies. People who vote for the other side and so are neither likeable nor to be trusted.

This government took years to reach enterprise agreements with many of them. And though the disaster of Abbott’s first budget killed off almost all the Coalition’s enthusiasm for cutting government spending, it remains strong in two (not particularly big) areas.

It’s willingness to cut spending on public administration is exceeded only by its annual “crackdowns” on benefit payments to the disadvantaged. It knows there’ll be no objection from voters generally, while its heartland supporters will be much gratified see the leaners and loafers get their comeuppance.

The annual cuts to departmental admin budgets – laughably known as the “efficiency dividend” – long ago degenerated into rounds of redundancies that have significantly reduced the size of the public service.

Thus has the public service become less efficient – including taking longer to get things done – and lost much of its corporate memory, plus most of its policy experts.

So it may be just as well the Libs think they don’t need policy advice from public servants. When they do need it, they pay megabucks to the big four accounting and consulting firms. What would they know about public policy? A fair bit now they’ve hired many of the policy experts the government let go.

The great advantage of using private-sector consultants, of course, is that they invariably give the paying customer the advice they think it wants to hear. Good luck, Scott.
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Monday, July 23, 2018

Budget office fills vacuum left by politicised Treasury

I see the federal Auditor-General has been less than complimentary about the Turnbull government’s cashless welfare card. The cheek! I say the man should be removed and replaced by a Liberal Party staffer forthwith.

Always provided the staffer has done at least a year or two of accounting at uni, of course. Wouldn’t do for voters to gain the impression his chief qualifications were his years of loyal service as a ministerial flunky.

If this ironic scenario seems over the top, it’s not way over. If the present Auditor-General actually had incurred the government’s serious displeasure, it would be more likely to wait until his statutory term had expired before replacing him with someone less likely to provide it – and us – with critical advice.

You don’t have to be very long in the workforce to realise that one of the hallmarks of a bad manager is his (or occasionally her) penchant for surrounding themselves with yes-men. See that happening and you know you’re in the presence of a disaster waiting to happen.

But installing a tame auditor-general wouldn’t be a big step beyond the flouting of convention and good governance we’ve seen the government engaged in over the past two weeks.

Following Tony Abbott’s unprecedented dismissal of the secretary to the Treasury in 2013, and his replacement with hand-picked candidate John Fraser, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have now completed the politicisation of Treasury.

What an accomplishment for Malcolm to include when he boasts in his memoirs about the glorious achievements of his reign.

With the sudden resignation of Fraser, he was replaced by Philip Gaetjens, whose service as chief-of-staff to Peter Costello and then Morrison himself was interspersed with his time as secretary of the NSW Treasury, appointed by the O’Farrell government after it sacked the apolitical secretary it inherited from the Keneally government, Michael Schur.

The timing of Fraser’s departure was portrayed as all his own inconvenient idea, which may well be true. But, with the federal election so close, it reminds me of a trick practised by the self-perpetuating boards of the mutual insurance companies of old.

Any director not wishing to serve another term would resign just a few months before his term expired. This would allow the board to select his successor, and that successor’s name to go onto the ballot paper with an asterisk beside it, certifying to the voting punters that he was a tried-and-true incumbent.

Morrison then topped off this innovation in Jobs for the Boys by installing Simon Atkinson, a former chief-of-staff to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, as a deputy secretary in Treasury.

Worse, Atkinson got the job to replace Michael Brennan, who’s been moved up to be the new chairman of the Productivity Commission, which has had a long and proud tradition of independence, giving fearless advice to governments of both colours.

We’ll see how long that lasts. Morrison tacitly admitted Brennan’s appointment was questionable by using his press release to make Brennan sound like a career public servant, conspicuously failing to mention he’d been a staffer for two Howard government ministers and a Liberal Victorian treasurer, not to mention a candidate for Liberal state preselection.

My greatest fear is that the next Labor federal government will use this bad precedent to behave the same way, thus making the politicisation of government departments and supposedly independent agencies bipartisan policy. What a great step forward that would be.

Fortunately, as trust in the professional integrity of Treasury forecasts and assessments declines, the vacuum is being filled by the rise of the Parliamentary Budget Office, which has the same expertise as Treasury, Finance and the spending departments, but is independent of the elected government.

Just last week it produced a most revealing report on the sustainability of federal taxes, one Treasury would have had trouble getting published even in the good old days.

Its message is that there are structural vulnerabilities limiting the future revenue-raising potential of most federal taxes, with the main exception being income tax and that eternal standby of dissembling politicians on both sides, the supposed evil they only pretend to disapprove of: bracket creep.

This is the last thing either side would want us thinking about before the election.

After all, thanks to the budget’s chronically overoptimistic forecasts and what-could-possibly-go-wrong 10-year projections of endless budget surpluses and ever-falling public debt, they can afford to turn the coming election into a tax-cut bidding war.

Vote for me and I’ll cut taxes more than the other guy.

The budget office has punctured that happy fantasy. After the election, whomever we vote for will have to find a way to cover not just the cost of ever-growing but untouchable spending on health, education and all the rest, but also the tax system’s built-in inadequacies.
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Monday, December 18, 2017

A bigger, better public sector will secure our future

There are important lessons to be learnt from the latest news about where our strong growth in employment is coming from. But if we listen to the nostrums of the Smaller Government brigade, we'll get them exactly wrong.

The (trend) figures we got from the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week showed employment growth of 370,000 – or 3.1 per cent – over the year to November. More than 80 per cent of the new jobs were full-time.

Great news.

But my esteemed colleague Peter Martin delved deeper and came upon a bigger story: the strong growth in employment has not been spread evenly across the economy, but is heavily concentrated in just two industries: "healthcare and social assistance" and construction.

It's also concentrated disproportionately in Victoria and NSW, and among women workers.

Why? Because, though employment in health and aged care has been growing strongly for years, the latest bout can be attributed mainly to the delayed rollout of the national disability insurance scheme initiated by Julia Gillard. Most of these extra workers would be female.

And because the strong growth in construction employment can be attributed mainly to a boom in infrastructure spending by the Victorian and NSW governments, much of it induced by Joe Hockey's incentive payment to state governments which engaged in "asset recycling" by using the proceeds from privatisation to build new infrastructure.

Oh no! You mean the growth in employment isn't the real deal? It's just some kind of temporary budget stimulus? It's not coming from the productive private sector, just from the unproductive, parasitical public sector, which wouldn't exist without the private sector's blood to suck upon?

Remember what I said last week about neoliberalism being ideology masquerading as economics? That last paragraph was a classic case.

It's true that, in some sense, the disability scheme and state infrastructure projects are instances of fiscal (budget) stimulus. But the notion that government deficit spending "crowds out" private sector spending is true only when the economy is booming and already at full employment – which we clearly aren't at present.

Just imagine how much weaker the economy would be now if government spending hadn't caused full-time employment to grow by up to 300,000 jobs over the past year.

The news that so much of the past year's employment growth has come from public deficit spending is actually vindication of the Reserve Bank's longstanding call for monetary policy (interest-rate) stimulus to be backed up by fiscal stimulus.

Note, too, that while even all full-time construction jobs are temporary in the sense that all projects end, employment associated with the disability scheme will continue indefinitely.

And, since governments tend to outsource both their construction projects and their disability care packages, most of the new jobs would actually be classed as in the private sector.

Of course, the notion that the private sector is productive but the public sector isn't is sheer economic illiteracy. We've long lived in a "mixed economy" in which most goods and services are produced by the private sector but, for good reason, some services are produced (or, at least, funded) by the public sector.

As I also wrote last week, economists are doing battle against the misapprehension scaring our youth that robots will reduce the amount of work needing to be done – the latest incarnation of what economists have long called the (fixed) "lump of labour fallacy".

While it's true new technology has been destroying jobs since the start of the Industrial Revolution, it's equally true that in those two centuries we've never yet run out of other jobs we'd like to pay someone to do for us.

Since the 1960s, a large share of these green-fields jobs has gone to women, facilitating their (continuing) mass movement back into the paid workforce after child-bearing.

But here's the most important lesson to learn from the news that most of the growth in good, full-time jobs in recent times has come from the government: much of the new demand for people to do new things for us will involve new jobs delivering services in, or funded by, the public sector.

That's because almost all the services best provided or funded by the public sector are "superior goods" – things we want more of as we get richer: education and training, healthcare, aged care, disability care and much else, even law and order.

So the greatest threat to continued growth in the "lump of labour" comes not from robots, but from those wanting to put some arbitrary cap on the size of government – and, of course, on the amount of tax we pay.
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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.
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Monday, December 7, 2015

Broken public service leads to broken governance

There's no bigger question in politics today than why our governance has become so bad. Why our discussion of policies is so superficial and how any government could come up with so many ill-considered policies as we saw in Tony Abbott's first budget.

No doubt the answer has many parts, but the more I think about Laura Tingle's Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia, the more I think she's identified a key but neglected part of the explanation.

She says our politicians and public servants have forgotten how to govern. In particular, the public service has lost much of its policy expertise – including its memory of what works and what doesn't.

And the politicians have forgotten that they can't do their job to the electorate's satisfaction without the guidance of an expert public service. That's what the bureaucracy is for.

Relations between the politicians and their bureaucrats are so little discussed by the media that I suspect many people still have a Yes, Minister view of what goes on in Canberra: the public servants pretend to be the servants of the politicians, but they're actually the bosses. Government is run by a bunch of Sir Humphreys who manipulate their ministers, pollies who come and go without making much difference.

It did indeed work like that in Canberra as well as Whitehall, but that's been becoming less and less true since the 1970s. By now it's the very opposite of the truth. These days, ministers and their private office advisers have most of the power and their departments have surprisingly little.

I might have said Treasury was the major exception to the new rule, were it not for the unprecedented disaster of the 2014 budget.

No influential Treasury and Finance departments could have handed their political masters such a booby trap. It had to be largely the pollies' and their advisers' own incompetence.

The move from Yes, Minister to Be It On Your Own Head, Minister has come in stages, starting with the decision of the Whitlam government to allow ministers a much greater personal staff of (unaccountable) policy advisers and media managers. The Fraser government perpetuated this "reform" with enthusiasm.

The Hawke-Keating government's main contribution was to replace "permanent heads" of departments with department secretaries on five-year contracts. After five years heading one department you'd be moved to heading another.

Thirty-odd years of this and now senior bureaucrats rarely stay long in any department, but climb the ladder by moving from department to department.

They've gone from being long-experienced experts in particular policy areas to "universal managers". I may not know much about health or finance, but I know how to run a department. Great.

It was John Howard who, on coming to government, immediately sacked many department heads. Abbott did the same on a smaller scale, but even sacked the secretary to the Treasury (and his likely successor).

Their purpose was not so much to "politicise" the public service as to scare hell out of the other department heads: toe the line, don't give fearless advice. And don't get identified with a controversial policy the other side may take exception to.

The plain fact is the Libs neither like nor trust the public service, the last bastion of the hated union movement. They've largely given up the practice of having many of the jobs in ministers' offices done by people on secondment from their department.

They've been replaced by young bossyboots hoping for a career in politics, who know more about partisanship than policy and are more inclined to listen to lobbyists.

Add to this the annual, deeper, across-the-board cuts in departmental budgets – ironically known as "efficiency dividends" – and you end up making many policy experts and repositories of corporate memory redundant.

The result is that many departments are weak on policy – there was a time when officers in Finance knew where each department's bodies were buried – and have to call in expensive consultants, who act like they know more than they do. The part of Treasury responsible for tax reform has lost a third of its staff.

Last year's budget and the fate of its progenitors stand as a lasting monument to the folly of running down the bureaucracy's policy-making capacity and limiting its role in policy formation in favour of young amateurs with a party pedigree.

Fortunately, there are signs Malcolm Turnbull has learnt this lesson. He has just appointed his former department secretary in Communications as his chief-of-staff, and brought sacked Treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson in from the cold to be secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

He's too smart to think he doesn't need the bureaucrats' advice.
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Monday, August 3, 2009

THE CONSCIENCE OF A PUBLIC SERVANT

Dinner speech to Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism Corporate Planning Day
August 3, 2009


I note I’ve been invited to be the dinner speaker rather than the after-dinner speaker, so I take that as a sign the desire is for me to say something thought provoking rather than just entertaining. I’d like to give you some of my thoughts on the role of government and the role of the public service.

When you look past simple party loyalties, there’s no greater divide in politics than the philosophical divide over the appropriate role for government. You can say the great divide is between individualism and communitarianism - but that ends up being an argument about the role of government. There’s a vocal school of thought that’s simply anti-government. The anti-government camp has two interrelated strands: the libertarian strand where governments are seen as limiting people’s freedom, both by passing laws that constrain their behaviour and by using taxation to require them to subsidise the provision of income and services to others. Then there’s the economic, neo-liberal strand that sees markets as the ideal - often idealised - way of allocating resources and government intervention as a highly unsatisfactory way to allocate resources. The two strands - political philosophy and neo-classical economic - fit together well, which is why economic rationalism has a much bigger right wing than left wing. These people see market failure as a minor problem, but government failure as a major problem. They’re not opposed to all government, of course. They do accept the need for law, order and defence - the need for the government to ‘hold the ring’ in which markets operate - and I guess most would accept the need for government to provide a minimal social safety net, but the more that can be left to the individual and to the market, the better it will be for society. From this we get a suspicion of government intervention - even in the form of assistance to industry - and a desire to keep government as small as possible. In practice, this is manifest in an insatiable desire for tax cuts, even in the absence of sufficient political will to cut government spending to fit - as we saw with the Bush administration, and the Reagan administration before it.

I have to tell you that I’m not a supporter of the anti-government position. I think government needs to be bigger rather than smaller, that taxes ought to be higher rather than lower, that we ought to do more to redistribute income from the top to the bottom and that there are cases where greater government restrictions would leave us better off. I reject the fundamental proposition that provides the rational for the philosophical and economic anti-government position: that there’s no way a government could know what’s in my best interests better than I do myself. I reject that proposition because I reject the key assumption on which it’s based: that humans are rational decision-makers rather than being highly emotional, instinctive social animals with a tendency to herd behaviour. Just about all of us have significant problems with self-control - making ourselves do the things we know we should do in our own longer-term best interests - and we often welcome the constraints governments impose on us that help us with our self-control problem. Road safety is just one example.

But I’m not here to expound on all that. I mention it only to demonstrate that I’m not anti-government and not a public-service basher. I think my original profession as a chartered accountant has left me with a lot of sympathy for Treasury - the people who often have to say no when everyone else wants to say yes - but my family background has left me in sympathy with the people accepting the ultimate responsibility for keeping the show on the road. The people who sweep up after the dance is over and everyone else has gone home. That used to be my family and I know how it feels. And years of hanging around with econocrats have left me with the opposite prejudice to most of the public: I think rent-seeking is rife and I’m suspicious of special pleaders and sympathetic to public servants trying to ensure the wider public interest prevails over sectional interests. So though I intend to say some things I hope you’ll find challenging, don’t think I’m unsympathetic.

Before I go on, let me add some qualifications. Although I have no in-principle objection to government intervention, I’ve been around too long to be na├»ve about the ease with which intervention can correct market failures. Intervention is a very tricky business, with enormous potential for creating perverse incentives and other unintended consequences. Economists delude themselves that they’re in the incentive business but, in fact, they often come unstuck because they’re conscious only of monetary incentives, whereas non-monetary incentives - motivations, would be a better word - are often pervasive. For instance, people can work hard because they’re ambitious for power and promotion independent of the extra salary, because they love what they’re doing, because of a work ethic or a sense of duty, because of the institution’s esprit de corps. Sometimes the creation of monetary incentives - paying people to do things - can be counterproductive if it crowds out pre-existing non-monetary motivations. SES performance bonuses may be a case in point. So, yes, intervening in ways that help rather than hinder isn’t easy.

The part of economics known as ‘public choice’ has influenced many in the anti-government camp to believe that, however well-intentioned government intervention may be at the outset, it’s virtually inevitable that the regulators end up being captured by the regulated - by the big firms in the industry, or by the industry association. The regulated have a huge incentive to get to the regulators so as to modify the regulation in ways the industry finds more congenial, or even to advantage the existing players against new entrants or rival industries. Now, if I fully believed that, I wouldn’t be a believer in intervention. But I do have to admit that there’s more than a grain of truth to the accusation: there is considerable scope for regulatory capture. And I’ve often suspected that the way most bureaucracies are organised - where the department of agriculture looks after the farmers, the industry department looks after the manufacturers, the environment department looks after the greenies, the resources and energy department looks after the miners and the tourism department looks after the tourist industry - could have been purpose-built for regulatory capture. In the various industries’ battle for their share of industry assistance, in the inter-departmental battle for influence and resources, each industry has its own special champion, the people whose true role is supposed to be to keep the industry acting within the bounds of the wider public interest. Is the bureaucracy divided up this way just to gain the benefits of specialisation, or is each department’s real role to keep their particular industry happy and not making trouble for the elected government?

Terry Moran gave a speech recently where he quoted Peter Shergold on the role of the public servant. The public service, he said, provides ministers . . . with frank, fearless and robust policy advice - and it does so in a confidential manner. The confidentiality of advice is critical to our ability to be professional. Ministers carry accountability for policy decisions. Our role is to assist them to make good decisions, not launch alternative policy proposals into the public domain. We do not therefore advise the Opposition, backbench members . . . or the media. The community perception, however, is that public servants have some duty to the public interest, something beyond, and greater than, the interests of the government of the day, and where the public interest and the government’s interests are perceived to conflict , public servants should speak out. This is a view encouraged by the media, which has a strong self-interest in public servants doing just that. Unquote.

The Crikey email newsletter conducted an interesting debate about all this, and I’d like to add some observations of my own. First, I do accept that, for policy advice to ministers to be frank, fearless and robust, it does need to remain confidential. However, it doesn’t automatically follow that because it’s confidential it will be frank and fearless. And, precisely because it is confidential, it could be weak, servile and overly accommodating of the government’s short-term political interests without anyone in the public ever knowing. A great set-up for public servants - a case of a ‘strong self-interest’ you might say - but a poor one for the public. In other words, the public just has to take it on trust that the advice we are paying you to give ministers is frank and fearless. There have been times in recent years when I’ve wondered how much of it was. And this puts a moral onus on public servants to ensure they deliver high quality, apolitical advice, even though no one will ever know whether they did. So it gets down to a moral, ethical duty - a matter between you and your conscience. You may be surprised to hear an economic journalist saying something so touchy-feely as that, but I mean it quite seriously. After all I’ve seen first about the failures of regulation and now the failures of deregulation, what’s left? For me it’s personal morality, professional ethics, a sense of duty. Consider this: given the problem - in the interests of ensuring frank advice we keep that advice confidential, so we can’t be sure it’s actually happening - what incentive would you suggest to encourage the continuing provision of frank advice: performance bonuses?

The thing that worries me most about Mr Moran’s remarks is the potential implication that public servants don’t have a duty to the public interest beyond and greater than the interests of the government of the day. Of course they have such a duty. And if the frank and fearless advice isn’t about putting before the minister the policy advice the public servant genuinely believes - rightly or wrongly - to be in the greatest long-term public interest, what else is there to be frank and fearless about? I solemnly warn you, minister, don’t pursue this policy because it would cost the government too many votes? Even though their advice remains confidential, public servants are servants of the public, not just of the government of the day. They do have a higher calling: to advance the public interest as best they discern it within all the constraints of our system of democracy. If most public servants didn’t agree with me - if they didn’t see a public service career involving the pursuit of a higher purpose than just salary and advancement - I think there’d be a lot fewer people living in Canberra. I think most senior people are attracted to the public service precisely because they believe they’re helping to make the world a better place. And my observation suggests that the happiest and most successful departments, those with esprit de corps, are those with a well defined sense of purpose, who see their role as about more than just helping the government get re-elected or keep on top of the 24-hour news cycle.

Mr Moran said the public service doesn’t advise the Opposition, backbenchers or the media. Perhaps not in the narrowest, most formal sense of ‘advice’. But public servants do provide (closely supervised) briefings to the Opposition in certain circumstances, and when you look at the farce the costing of election promises under the Charter of Budget Honesty has become, you quickly conclude that good government would be served if access to costing advice wasn’t so hugely unequal. As for advising the media, let me say that, because I promptly forgot most of the economics I learnt at university, most of what I know about economics was taught to me by infinitely patient econocrats. Why did so many of these now-senior people devote so much of their time to my edification? Because of a sense of public duty. Because they believed the public debate about policy needed to be well-informed. So if you think my work plays a generally positive role in the public policy debate, you can thank public servants.

The great temptation for public servants providing confidential advice to ministers is to cross the line between public policy and political tactics. Stick to policy; leave the politics to the politicians. Often, however, it’s not that simple. In this I think your choices are similar to mine as a commentator. I, too, give advice to governments - what’s more, mine costs the taxpayer nothing (ie it’s gratuitous). Do you give advice so pure that it’s dismissed as utterly unrealistic, or do you make it ultra-realistic because you know this mob is neither high-minded nor very brave? I think you’ve got to give advice you can be proud of, advice that discharges your daily obligation to help make the world a better place. You have to be in the ballpark of realism, but you can’t tacitly condone short-sighted political self-interest. You have to always err on the side of encouraging politicians to be just a little more far-sighted and a just little braver. As a columnist, I don’t want to waste my life writing columns that say no more than: what would you expect? Boys will be boys. To the tiny extent that anything I write has any effect on what politicians do, my goal is to encourage them to jump just a little higher in the direction of the public interest.

Before we finish with Mr Moran I want to make one further point: confidentially of ministerial advice is fine, but it has to be matched by accountability, and accountability is crippled without sufficient disclosure. If the public is inadequately informed about government actions then the electoral process can become just a caricature of the democratic ideal. The plain truth is that most ministers would prefer to keep most information about their department’s activities completely out of the public eye. It’s not hard to see why; it makes life so much simpler. It must be terribly tempting for senior public servants to see it just the same way. This becomes an issue when the department, not the minister, makes decisions about FOI requests. My point is: make sure you’re acting in the public interest, not just the short-term interests of the government of the day, nor yet the department’s own convenience.

When you hear the silly things oppositions say - all oppositions - it’s tempting to think them a waste of space. But consider how our system of government would perform without oppositions to keep on the government’s hammer. How much worse our governance would be without opponents making eight unjustified criticisms out of 10. It would be appalling. So this is something to remember when making speeches about how public servants don’t advise the opposition. Whatever their failings, they have an indispensible role to play in ensuring good government and public servants should avoid sharing the same distain for the opposition’s role as their current masters do.

Similarly, despite the many crimes committed by the media, consider how our system of government would perform without the media pursuing its ‘strong self-interest’ in digging up stories that will embarrass the government of the day. Do you really believe the public interest would be served by a much higher proportion of the government’s dubious decisions going unnoticed by the electorate? If you do, you’re too close to your political masters.

No matter how debased the process becomes on occasion, good governance requires that oppositions and the media play their part in keeping governments on their toes. Governments - and their public service agents - have some of the characteristics of a monopoly. Monopolies are almost always bad, becoming lazy, unresponsive, self-serving and high-handed in their treatment of the individual members of the public they are supposed to serve, who can be seen as ignorant inconveniences. Good public servants resist the temptation to exploit their monopoly position.

Mr Moran sees public servants as having no obligation to ‘advise’ anyone but the minister. But public servants are responsible for the dissemination of information. We’ve mentioned FOI, but there are also departmental reports and publications. It can be argued that a departmental report is really the government’s report, which gives it the right to include whatever self-serving statistics and arguments it sees fit. But I can remember a day when departments took a pride in ensuring their reports to the public were very straight-up-and-down, carefully factual affairs, with as little spin as possible. I mention it because I think I’ve detected a decline in the standards of reports in recent years. I hope that’s not true of this department.


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