Yesterday, Scott Morrison announced the number of federal government departments would be cut from 18 to 14. Even if the Prime Minister hasn’t quite pulled the plug on the Canberra swamp, at least he’s started to empty it thimbleful by thimbleful.One of the biggest complaints from federal Coalition MPs is that more than six years after the election of the Abbott government, the Canberra public service acts as if Paul Keating was still in power.
Commonwealth public servants have had no big-picture reform narrative to work towards, and while the Coalition has spent the past few years chopping and changing prime ministers and ministers, the public service has been left alone to amuse itself.
The outcome of all of this is that even if the bureaucracy wanted to implement the Coalition’s agenda, it is completely out of practice.
When politicians don’t tell them what to do, public servants and regulators decide for themselves what to do.
A few months ago the Prime Minister got upset when he discovered his own department had put up signs outside the department’s bathrooms saying “PM&C [the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet] is committed to staff inclusion and diversity. Please use the bathroom that best fits your gender identity”.
Of itself this is a small example, but every hour public servants spent talking about and producing and putting up the signs was an hour they weren’t spending cutting red tape.
A far more serious example of the public service doing whatever it wants is the admission from Attorney-General Christian Porter that a deputy secretary in his department was using laws aimed at restricting foreign interference in domestic politics to target conservatives, and he didn’t know about it.
Cutting the number of federal departments by 20 per cent is a start to developing a Coalition reform program.
An even better start would be to reduce the size of government by 20 per cent and then to cut red tape by at least 20 per cent too.
And while Morrison is at it, he can cut the what the federal government pays consultants. In 2016-17 the federal government spent more than $580 million on consultants.
It’s disappointing the Prime Minister said his decision was made to “improve structural processes rather than as a savings measure”. Eventually the privileges of the public service must be tackled.
Public sector salaries and conditions are starting to far outstrip what the private sector can offer. For example, in 2016-17 average weekly earnings in the public sector were $1,400 while in the private sector the figure was $1,116.
On top of this, Commonwealth public sector employees get 15.4 per cent superannuation while workers in the private sector generally receive 9.5 per cent.
This sort of largesse might be affordable when the economy is booming, but as the latest national accounts reveal, Australia is far from doing well. New private sector business investment dropped to a near-record low and its rate is now even lower than it was under Gough Whitlam.
Hopefully, yesterday’s announcement is the beginning of the development of a reform agenda from the Coalition recognising that the public service is as often part of the problem as it is part of the solution.
Making something bigger rarely makes it more efficient. The challenge, though, will be – as anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Canberra knows all too well – that when a reorganisation as big as this occurs, what happens is that rather than focusing on how to improve what they do, public servants are more interested in carving up the bureaucratic spoils from the carcasses of the abolished departments.
Two thousand years ago, the Roman satirist Gaius Petronius Arbiter is said to have captured the experience of anyone who has ever worked in a large organisation.
“We trained hard, but it seems that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganised,” he supposedly noted.
“I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation.”
Unfortunately the quote is apocryphal, but that doesn’t make it any less true.