Flat White

The Australian public dis-service

14 June 2021

5:08 PM

14 June 2021

5:08 PM

Former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld once quipped: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Well, if Australia had to go to war with the Australian Public Service, we may as well surrender now.

According to the Australian: 

One of the country’s most accomplished and respected public servants has lashed the political class for being idle on economic reform during the past decade and for striving to stoke fear for partisan advantage, while also turning international relationships into a tool for domestic political gain.

The reference to the so-called “most accomplished and respected public servants” was to Martin Parkinson. Unfortunately, no explanation is given to what Parkinson’s so-called accomplishments were nor why Parkinson should be respected. Becoming Australia’s chief public servant is not an accomplishment in and of itself, and not ab initio, commanding respect. 

It is also cheap commentary, unlike their salaries, for former senior public servants to criticise the political class for a lack of effort in pursuing economic reform — particularly given the long, long list of administrative failures overseen by these same former senior public servants. So said Parkinson, a former Secretary of the Departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Treasury: 

[R]eal leadership and courage were needed to educate the public, tackle rising debt and lift living standards. 

While it is correct that leadership and courage are required to pursue economic and regulatory reform, so is execution capability.  As has been well documented, ideas without execution are mere delusions.  And if insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, then expecting the Australian Public Service to be a constructive partner in reform is manifest insanity.   


On one hand, Parkinson is absolutely correct that Australia’s political class is callow, shallow and clueless.  But even if Australia had a much better-quality political class, there would still not been any fundamental reform in Australia because those who would be tasked with designing and implementing that reform are not up to the job. Canberra is a case study in the symbiosis of sycophantic stupidity. So why would politicians take the political risk of reform when all that would happen is that the public service would stuff it up. 

Let’s reflect briefly. It was the Australian Public Service that designed and implemented Robo-debt the pink bats scheme, cash for clunkers, JobKeeper, the ATO operating procedures manual, Collins Class submarines, French submarines, the ABS census website, ABC governance, the NBN and the Leppington Triangle land acquisition. And this is just whatl I could think of in 30 seconds. Has a single public servant been held to account for any one of these farragoes of failures? 

Not to mention that while it was not the Commonwealth public service, it was still the public service that brought Victoria their “gold standard” quarantine and contact tracing systems. Unaccountable incompetence thy name is Australian Public Service. But according to the retired grand high public service priest, the failure of reform in Australia falls square onto the political class. 

Yeah, yeah. There will be some who say that the public service does some execution tasks well. But what does “well” mean? Does it mean delivering policy effectively and efficiently? If yes, can anyone point to a single contemporary example of efficient and effective government service delivery? 

In the private sector, accountability for performance is measured by profit, bankruptcy and employment termination. In politics, accountability for performance is measured by re-election, as imperfect as that may be. In the public service, there is no accountability for performance. Incompetence is rewarded through promotion, transfer or increased budget and responsibility, and blame is projected onto the political class, or ideally, a different jurisdiction.  So I repeat, why would the political class take the risk? 

In the same way that Australia’s current political elite is not of the same calibre of the Hawke, Keating and early Howard governments, neither is the public service. I would not take 1,000 Martin Parkinsons, Ken Henrys, Philip Gaetjens or Steven Kennedys over a single John Stone, Ted Evans or Bernie Fraser. What we get today is ten times more expensive for one-hundredth the effectiveness. 

It has been said that a bad strategy well executed will always beat a good strategy poorly executed.  The reason for the lack of reform in Australia, the real reason, is a toxic cocktail of political policy incompetence and bureaucratic execution incompetence. No one trusts the government to do anything. 

Mr Parkinson should stop lecturing others to deflect accountability for the public service failures of Australia and spend a bit more time reflecting on his so-called “accomplishments”. 

Stephen Spartacus regularly writes at Sparty’s Cast.

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