Bureaucrats Immersed In Canberra Bubble Out Of Touch With Nation

Written by:
3 June 2019
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Last month’s federal election result throws up a worrying anomaly. The ACT electorates diverge markedly from the nation. In the ACT, the electors embrace the ALP big time. In the Canberra-based Australian Public Service, one group is under-represented: people who vote for the Coalition government.

Federal bureaucrats apply an intense focus to diversity and inclusion. It is the subject of endless meetings, conferences, workshops, strategies and taskforces. Executives and senior staff spend hours poring over their plans to achieve diversity targets. They do well, with outcomes for women at 59 per cent of the workforce.

The results are not so impressive for the disability, ethnic and the LGBTI and other letter groups.

The theory is that the makeup of the APS should mirror the Australian community. The gurus say this will aid policy development that draws on the ideas of the diverse Australian community. And, after all, the community pays the bureaucrats’ salaries.

Nationwide the Coalition attracted 41.5 per cent of first-preference votes on May 18; the ALP 33.8 per cent. In the ACT, the voting pattern is flipped: Coalition 31.2 per cent and ALP 41.6 per cent.

Returns for some electorates are even more divergent. In the seat of Canberra the two-party preferred outcomes were 67.4 per cent for the ALP and 32.6 per cent for the Coalition. In the ACT seat of Fenner the result was 61 per cent for the ALP and 39 per cent for the Coalition. The national two-party-preferred result was Coalition 51 per cent and ALP 49 per cent.

The APS prides itself as a professional outfit that has served the nation well. Its record in this regard is solid. Its emphasis on professionalism means officers subjugate their political opinions when discharging their duties.

However, more subtle influ­ences may need to be addressed. Care has to be taken to ensure the APS does not become disconnected from the broader national community. An APS officer in Canberra easily can become captured by a limited insider’s perspective.

During my time in the APS I observed a tendency to superficially tolerate the trendy accepted wisdom. For example, right-wing politicians and institutions were dismissed with a “tut-tut” as out of step with community values. Many espoused climate change as an impending threat requiring dramatic shifts in economic and industry policy. An intellectual arrogance permeated some groups who showed disdain for ordinary folk as incapable of grasping the true intent and effects of policy. No one could rest until every aggrieved minority group achieved a suitable voice and representation.

I was Victorian Red Tape Commissioner for two years. I found a culture among regulators, in Victoria and Canberra, that showed intolerance of those who complained or proposed more effective ways to achieve fairness. This often was amplified by a disturbing ignorance about the impact of regulations on an individual, company or industry.

Scott Morrison bemoans “the Canberra bubble”, so it makes sense for his re-elected government to combat the tendency for groupthink. First, MPs develop good local networks and listen attentively to constituents. We need a mechanism to ensure worthwhile views of constituents are thought about. Promising ideas should be shared with the APS.

Second, portfolios and agencies develop consultative arrangements. These should cover a range of interested parties, not just the familiar lobbyists, industry associations, non-government organisations and other Canberra players. Special attention should be paid to identifying and listening to innovators in their fields.

Third, most departments with policy responsibility should consider relocating some staff to other cities and localities. One benefit of such a shift is the engagement of more staff from outside the APS. Many Canberra bureaucrats have difficulty even contemplating a shift from Barton to Tuggeranong, let alone moving to an interstate city. A move of one agency’s operations to a regional centre last term was equated with having to live in Siberia.

Fourth, senior Canberra staff should be encouraged to travel to meetings and conferences outside the ACT. The more intrepid could even discover intelligent people in regional and rural Australia.

Fifth, the digital transformation of government should be used to enrich the input of citizens and businesses into policy formulation and review.

These ideas may seem basic. But too many in the APS think the internet and the Canberra scene provide sufficient information on Australians’ views of policy.

I also worry about the capacity of the APS to continue to attract talent. Melbourne and Sydney are predicted to grow to cities approaching eight million in the next 30 years. Cities of that size will offer immense career opportuni­ties for young people with talent.

Life in trendy voting Canberra may not seem all that attractive.

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