Catch 22.0 – we wouldn’t need inquiries if public administration wasn’t so broken

One day a rooster, the next day a feather duster

By LAURIE PATTON | 17 January 2019

So we’re having a royal commission into the bushfires that have Australia in crisis mode right now. Yet, as this article points out: “Over the last 61 years state and federal governments have initiated 57 separate reports on bushfire management, most of which came to similar conclusions and yet the tragedies continue…”

A lack of action by our governments and their agencies has clearly been a major contributing factor to the extent of these latest losses of life and property. But this is just one example of a systematic failure in public administration. Nobody is ever held accountable when things go wrong and seldom do formal inquiries lead to anything fundamentally worthwhile. That needs to change.

On the ABC’s Insiders program late last year host Fran Kelly asked health minister Greg Hunt why the Government didn’t have an immediate response ready on the aged care royal commission report that had just been released. “It wasn’t a surprise to anyone, was it”, Ms Kelly observed with obvious frustration.

No, it wasn’t. Not to anyone whose parents or friends have ended up in an aged care facility. Not to any politicians who have had their eyes open. And most certainly not to the highly paid bureaucrats in our federal and state health departments.

So why do we need to keep having formal inquiries before anything is done about known problems in government administration and abject market failures? Problems that so dramatically impact on the lives of the most disadvantaged among us.

We pay politicians and public servants to do a job not fob off their responsibilities to royal commissions and the like.

Accounts of the endemic problems in aged care are the latest revelations to be exposed by a royal commission; demonstrating how fundamentally ineffective our governments and their agencies have become.

The week after a scathing interim report was handed down, Mr Hunt reportedly said the Government is “working to make sure that we have the right response” on chemical restraint, which was one of three priority areas highlighted by commissioners. Did this offence against human dignity come as a surprise to his department? Surely they had been alerted to it along the way given that it featured so often in the accounts of distraught witnesses? Did they not know about it all along? Yet they need time to think about a solution!

Mr Hunt says the royal commission uncovered a culture in the aged care sector that “went beyond anything” he had anticipated. I’m literally frightened and frankly astounded that a health minister and his advisors could be so out of touch. 

These are just some of the other areas and issues covered by recent government inquiries. I’ll leave it to others to determine what outcomes resulted from all the time, money and effort that went into them.

Age Pension Disability / NDIS Finance Sector
Banking Decriminalising Drugs Flammable Cladding
Building Industry Domestic Violence Mental Health
Child Care Education Murray-Darling River
Child Sexual Abuse Drought Management Religious Discrimination
Closing the Gap Emissions Reduction Uluru Statement
Corruption Family Court Water Management

As I’ve observed before, people died as a result of the so-called ‘Pink Batts’ scheme. Not because the concept was flawed but because government agencies responsible for OH&S failed to ensure that proper safety standards were being applied by the companies well-paid to do the installations.

In 2010 I was a member of an expert panel that carried out a review of the federal government’s investment in the Indigenous broadcasting and media sector. This review was headed by former senior public servant Neville Stevens. We undertook extensive consultations with Aboriginal communities across the country and delivered around 30 recommendations. The report called for a range of changes, including many that simply required administrative action and did not involve the appropriation of new funding. Bugger all happened. The public servant in charge of this policy area was later promoted and now heads up a major government authority.

The problem isn’t new of course. As a young public servant fresh out of university I was given some career advice by an old hand with decades of experience. The message was simple. You’ll never get into strife for not making a decision. But make the wrong one and you might. Proceed with caution (AKA, don’t rock the boat).

As a ministerial advisor to the NSW Attorney-General many years ago I received a late afternoon phone call from a volunteer legal service alerting me to the presence of a 15 year old Aboriginal girl in the adult remand section at the Mulawa Correctional Centre in Sydney. A call to the then head of the Corrective Service department was met the response that “I’ll look into it first thing tomorrow”. Using all the reflected authority from working for a government minister I insisted that she be removed immediately. It shouldn’t have been necessary for me to ask twice.

Former Prime Minister and Cabinet department head Terry Moran has opined that the public service is so lacking in expertise these days he wouldn’t trust it “with organising a collection of funds to build the local church”. How did we end up with a bunch of public servants who seem to be unable to effectively manage the areas of their responsibility?

The stuff flows downhill, as the saying goes, so we also need to ponder how we’ve ended up with a bunch of politicians so many of whom seem to have little idea about the lives of the people they are elected to represent and even less interest in finding out.

Making other people’s lives better is what politicians and bureaucrats are ultimately there for surely? It’s not called public service for nothing.

(Laurie Patton is a former public servant, ministerial advisor, journalist and media executive.)