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Byron Shire
April 14, 2021

Pandering to power fails the people

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Scott Morrison’s gee-up to the public service last week was, as usual, that of a dodgy marketeer trying to assure a sceptical customer that he and only he could be trusted to deliver the goods.

The corporate cliches flowed like sullage: respect and expect, agile and responsive, clear lines of accountability, seamless and efficient, emphasis on outcomes, with a few wildly inappropriate and in one case incomprehensible references to the footie thrown in for light relief.

But underneath the meaningless pollywaffle, there was the guts of a message: You’re working for me, and don’t you forget it.





Morrison’s view of the bureaucracy is apparently based on TV satires, the British Yes Minister and the Australian Utopia. 

Both portray the relationship between the executive’s agenda and those charged with implementing it as a battle between gormless ministers and ambitious public servants determined to frustrate the will of what they call their political masters – a term clearly coined more in ironic contempt than reverential awe.

Hence our prime minister sees the shiny bums as corruptible freeloaders, bludging meals, drinks, and God knows what else from the self-interested lobbyists who constantly duchess them around the fleshpots of the national capital.

This is, of course, nonsense, although it may provide an insight into Morrison’s own method of operating when he was a spruiker for the NSW tourist industry, a position from which his own minister sacked him.

In fact, in Canberra almost all the serious duchessing takes place within Parliament House, where hundreds of carpetbaggers enjoy free and unrestricted access to the corridors of power and ambitious ministers lobby them for lucrative retirement jobs.

The bureaucrats have already been warned off by the draconian penalties they risk by incurring the wrath of their ministers, and in any case, as Morrison says correctly (for once) they are not the decision makers. The cabinet calls the tune, as it should and it must: public servants are called servants for a reason, and they must always defer to the wishes of the elected government.

To that extent Morrison is right but in practice the reality is rather more complex and subtle than the bald demand: Do as I say. The way it should work – the way it once used to work – is best illustrated by a story from back in the 1950s.

Scott Morrison nursing his much-loved lump of coal. Photo Green Left

The Menzies lesson

Not long after Robert Menzies became prime minister for the second time he decided to make a major economic statement, so he called his top economic bureaucrats into his office to inform them of his intentions. Richard Randall, Roland Wilson, and HC (Nugget) Coombs obediently listened in silence as he outlined his plan.

There was a brief pause, until one of them responded: ‘Prime Minister, you have just told us what you wish to do. Now let us tell you what you are able to do.’

And they did, and this time he listened and amended his program accordingly, after which the mandarins went back to their bureaus and instructed their departments to implement the revised version promptly and meticulously.

The point of this story is not only that the system worked, but that the three econocrats had not been Menzies’s selections; he inherited them from his predecessors, John Curtin and Ben Chifley. They were three of the legendary Seven Dwarfs who had devised the great reforms that produced postwar reconstruction, much of what Menzies had opposed at the time.

And they were anything but Menzies Liberals; Coombs, for example was a lifelong socialist for whom much of the new government’s policy was anathema. But he, like the others, was a man of unquestioned integrity, and Menzies knew it. He trusted them and they never let him down – indeed, a good measure of his early political success could be attributed to their efforts on his behalf.

He did not have to warn them to keep their noses clean, to stick to the straight and narrow; these were givens. And the idea that he would harangue the bureaucracy about its role would never have occurred to him.

From permanent secretary to ‘yes men’

Even when Gough Whitlam came to power after 23 years of conservative rule, he accepted the independence of the permanent heads whom most of his colleagues saw as enemies to be purged. A couple of incoming ministers insisted on changes, but almost all the incumbents were given the benefit of the doubt: innocent until proved guilty.

In retrospect, Whitlam was perhaps naïve – he did not receive the co-operation for which he had hoped. But for most of his stormy three years there was little if any deliberate sabotage; that only set in during the traumatic events known as the loans affair.

But there was always tension, and the rot really set in as the guiding principle of permanency of tenure was eroded.

When John Howard came to office in 1996, he sacked a full third of what were still called the permanent secretaries; it became known as the night of the long knives.

And it meant that the entire service was effectively on notice. This of course meant that the old mantra of frank and fearless advice no longer applied. The bureaucrats did not morph into yes men overnight, but they were severely constrained. The policy options offered to their ministers became, in many cases, an attempt to second guess (or in some instances simply follow) what were known to be the ministers’ preferences, which were, and are, inevitably more about political self-interest than the national good.

This is the kind of subservience for which our authoritarian leader yearns. But it is unlikely to bring the results he would like to boast, as the last few years have so lamentably shown. So one more instructive parable, this one from the 1952 Communist Party Congress of the USSR.

Nikita Khrushchev, the new general secretary, was addressing the delegates on the iniquities of the dictatorship of Josef Stalin. As he detailed the atrocities, a voice rang out from the audience: ‘And what did you do about it?’ Khrushchev thundered back: ‘Who said that?’ There was dead silence, and after it had dragged on for a little while, Khrushchev continued. ‘Yes, comrade, and that was what I did too.’

Such intimidation may be beyond Morrison – yet. But we can fairly say that his formula to keep the bastards in check is unlikely to produce good government for his quiet Australians, or for anyone else. Silence may be consent, but it will never entail the approval he craves.

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  1. Appropriate Coombs should come into the discussion, with a republishing of a biography and the Uluru statement in question.

    Personally no objection to debate if it isn’t railroaded by the more simplistic racist argument. What activists fail to admit is that many with some aboriginal blood work and even do well in their currently mainstream affairs, and others with land title find time for that and their more traditional practice as well. This was one of many of Coombs’s objectives, though he had some reservations as well.

    The way the debate has proceeded so far, it’s all or nothing, and nothing practicable to be said about former mission land inhabitants with no future in either system. Really as first Australians if that’s not patronising they should have the best of both worlds, at least a chance at it. My reservation is that governmental policy can only really create broad structure; it will never satisfy all. I would like to hear what Morrison has to say about it all, whether he is just a marketeer or not, but idealism never works, it didn’t create the light bulb or moreover explain what light is. It didn’t fashion fire from two sticks.

  2. Why is the lump of coal such a treasured image? The fact is that lump of coal is as effective as one high tech solar panel for an hour or two. China can service 100,000 homes with solar, impressive, but it takes 25 square kilometres of panels to do it, and that’s on a good day. In India you’d need to fill Bahir with solar panels, but that’s just for the domestic market. Industry? Major cities? The figures are immeasurable. So the 100 year plan continues. Rob through taxes the poor who might like to fly, cruise, or run a car, and make sure they’re sinless as well with taxes on nicotine and alcohol while the party takes control of everything, your health, your morality, your carbon footprint and eventually your mind. The free things are gone: water, air are taxed. Thought is next.

  3. We read the World Bank on renewable energy policy and it all seems so simple, rooftop solar, the necessities, curtailing fossil fuel subsidies. But it doesn’t read like facts but assumptions. For one thing, in five to ten years a better solar technology will be available so those in debt now, like those in Port Pirie and those in India, will have to update to maintain the subsidy. Sounds familiar? It’s what Windows has been doing for a hundred years: create the market, create the reliance on the next product. And the Greens and their bed partners go on about the big end of town. This is the big end of town. It just won’t be a town anymore, it’ll be a centrally controlled system. Menzies couldn’t have predicted it. Or Chifley. But Orwell did.

  4. Reprinting Nugget [Coombs] is fresh air along with
    his ever trustworthy Judith Wright partner who
    wrote on the reef, worked with the Treaty Comm
    -ission & published We Call For A Treaty so
    many decades ago. Yet whiplash Morrison would
    not be part of that. Yes, taxation is the bad guy.
    So… spruik away ‘Dixie land The 2nd’ & bag the
    Carpetbaggers. Less is better for the country &
    its people. Leave the lynching coal in the ground.

  5. It really highlights for me Morrison’s most egregious failing – and he has many.

    He requires absolute obedience. His history in the workplace shows that he does not like and can’t abide being answerable to others and the flip side to that coin is he demands subservience from those below him.

    It is likely a result of his Pentecostal dogma, itself drawn from the “morality of the master”. That is a morality derived only from the success of those who prosper that supplies their conviction they are deserving of their success and power and those who are subservient are lesser persons whose role is to meekly and silently serve, not to crtitique (can we see the genesis of Morrison’s “quiet Australians” herein?).

    Australia has had many flawed PM’s but Morrison continues a recent trend of PM’s who are both desperate for power and so flawed that they are compelled to abuse that power. They are “bosses” but they are absolutely not “leaders”.

  6. Interesting Mangosteen you should cite the Kruschev story. Our bureaucrats probably are mostly socialist, after all they say they will do this and do that instead, then hide behind their integrity. Morrison as is becoming apparent doesn’t obey the laws of what is expected, he acts on his gut instinct. Maybe that’s the marketeer in him, he has the noose for every occasion. Even withe Echo, the abc, the Monthly fuming, the tide is turning, the Left is in retreat. They hold the power in kindergartens of course, they’re good at that.


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