Sunday 21st of October 2018

a sick joke ...

a sick joke ...

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One positive legacy of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership may be to dispel, once and for all, the notion that a successful businessperson makes a better politician. From nobbling the government-owned National Broadband Network to casually handing out half a billion dollars to a private foundation in the #reefgate scandal, Turnbull has taken a dim view of the role and capabilities of the public service, preferring to back his own judgement, which has often proved spectacularly wrong.

Coalition hostility to Canberra is nothing new, but it contrasts sharply with Labor’s careful bridge-building. Today shadow finance minister Jim Chalmers announced that, if elected, Labor will remove the arbitrary cap on public service staffing levels and cut back [$] on the use of external consultants. It is a fundamentally different approach to government, which recognises that perhaps those public servants might know a thing or two about public administration and enterprise, and where the public interest lies.

The reefgate scandal, broken by investigative journalist Michael West, reveals much about Turnbull’s wheeler-dealer view of the world, that of a consummate insider. Get the key players in a room – the PM, Josh Frydenberg, John Schubert – on a need-to-know basis. Agree terms, shake on a deal, call it win-win. Meddlesome public servants, with their supposed scruples and strictures, nowhere to be seen. So efficient. So inappropriate! How could Turnbull ever believe this was any way for a prime minister to act?

It is much the same dim view of government that saw Turnbull fall for rogue Treasury official Godwin Grech, when he was Opposition leader a decade ago. Key players, small room: Turnbull, Eric Abetz, a staffer, the mole. Perhaps Turnbull believed lots of public servants leaked the way Grech did; it certainly didn’t occur to him to doubt someone so clearly flouting all the rules.

And, once again, like the Grech saga, the damage is totally self-inflicted. Allocating $444 million for research to help the Great Barrier Reef could have been a great news story. Momentarily, it was. One Fairfax commentator notes today that the recipient of the funding, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, is essentially engaged in triage in the face of global warming.

In granting funds to the foundation, Turnbull and Frydenberg showed that they were less interested in the reef than in their own political agenda, bypassing and undermining the publicly employed scientists at the CSIRO, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the environment department who actually know what needs doing. It is no criticism of the foundation to say that it is ill-equipped to handle such a sudden, large funding influx. In fact, former director Michael Myer has today described the grant as “unthinkable” and “mind-blowing”. The money will have to be given back, simple as that.

Likewise, we read in The Guardian that the now-departed public service commissioner, John Lloyd, breached the public service code of conduct when he provided a research document titled “Examples of soft arrangements in commonwealth enterprise agreements” to the Institute of Public Affairs. The IPA is a fierce critic of the public service, and has called for 27,000 jobs to be slashed. After an investigation, the merit protection commissioner, Linda Waugh, found Lloyd failed to “uphold the good reputation” of his agency. Crikey’s Bernard Keane accuses [$] Lloyd of rank hypocrisy, “doing research for his mates at the IPA on the taxpayer dollar”. Hardliner Abetz has slammed [$] the finding as “farcical”. Turnbull has since appointed his chief of staff, Peter Woolcott, as Lloyd’s successor. A game of mates.

Again, under Turnbull’s government, we have a panel stacked two-to-one with eminent business leaders headed by former Telstra chief David Thodey, tasked with reviewing the public service. Nothing against the individual panellists but, without much public service experience, how much insight can we expect?

And what conflicts do those business people have? Thodey told Fairfax last month there was no issue of independence and “should I feel compromised in any way I can assure you that I will make that known”. “Trust me”, in other words. Yet the wide-ranging review is supposed to be the most significant since the 1970s. Chalmers, who met recently with Thodey, reportedly says he is “keen to make the most of it so it’s useful to both sides of politics”.

It is good to have people from all walks of life in parliament – from the public, private and community sectors, professions and trades – but let’s stop the corporatist assumption that business experience is somehow superior. Running the country is not like running a business. From Donald Trump to Clive Palmer, an entrepreneurial streak can be the worst qualification imaginable for public office.

The Monthly