Utopia returns to skewer real life bureaucratic misadventures and terminological inexactitude

By Harley Dennett

August 22, 2019

ABC’s Utopia satirises the fictional government agency of Nation Building Authority.

The real life misadventures surrounding Dr Karl, the Panama Papers, and the East West Link have inspired new comedic fodder for the latest season opener of ABC’s public service satire, Utopia.

In the fictional government agency Nation Building Authority, good intentions and a ‘can do’ attitude rarely result in optimal public value. Ministerial liaison officers and public relations managers are depicted as the foil to the beleaguered public servants just trying to deliver good outcomes.

Senior public servants often say Utopia is good for a laugh, but goes too far, and fails to depict the modern problems faced in public administration. Let’s take a look at how accurate the issues were in the first episode of season four, ‘The Law’s the Law’:

How do you spell ‘systemic’?

Fiction: The agency’s chief executive Tony (Rob Sitch) and ministerial liaison Jim (Anthony Lehmann) clash over fast approval of a port lease. Tony wants more time to examine the deal, and uncovers a creative ownership structure is being used to hide illegal tax avoidance through BEPS. What the minister’s office is prepared to let slide as an isolated case doesn’t sound so isolated to the public servants who dig deeper and find systemic tax rorting in port lease subsidiaries. Tony is dismayed after the massive breaches result in nothing more than a slap on the wrist for the tax dodgers, who release a public statement on ASIC letterhead accepting no fault or liability. Meanwhile, a junior employee’s parents face a fine for an offence they were ignorant of, but receive no leniency.

Reality: Since 2016, the real tax office has taken an aggressive posture with systemic tax dodging through international profit-shifting and shell companies, and enjoyed significant cabinet support in making tax transparency a priority:

  • The ATO threatened massive punitive penalties against major multinational companies caught profit-shifting (the Diverted Profits Tax), and recovered more than $92 million following revelations in the Panama Papers.
  • The ATO’s Tax Avoidance Taskforce has raised around $11.3 billion in tax liabilities since 2016, but it’s a little harder to find record how much of that sum has actually been recovered.
  • Caught up in wave of public backlash over corporate tax avoidance, then Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer announced a public register for shell companies in 2016.
  • The Board of Taxation was tasked with developing a Tax Transparency Code, to be administered by the ATO.
  • The Turnbull government cabinet also approved a commitment to increasing transparency of beneficial ownership as part of its 2016 Open Government National Action Plan.

But did it actually deliver? Yes and no. Mostly no.

The shell company register faced immediate criticism in the financial press, where it was called a ‘gross overreaction’. It made it as far as a consultation paper that completed in 2017.

Likewise, the Transparency of Beneficial Ownership commitment in the Open Government National Action Plan never made it to completion and was dropped from Australia’s second National Action Plan.

The Tax Transparency Code was approved in the 2016-17 budget, but is voluntary. Even after a post-implementation review, the government insists the code remains voluntarily and the data, while public, is not reviewed by the ATO for accuracy or completeness.

Verdict: A voluntary code can’t be satirised further, and when the public’s attention waned, the government weaseled out of its promises. I’m giving this one to Utopia for capturing how the big end of town continues to get let off the hook.

A blueprint for the future

Fiction: PR guru Rhonda (Kitty Flanagan) is looking for an ambassador to spruik the Intergenerational Report (IGR) when traditional governments ads don’t seem to be capturing the public’s imagination for this blueprint for the future. A scan of the Q-rankings for celebrities and public figures points to Dr Chris Brown of the television series Bondi Vet, who agrees to front the campaign and reveals an interest in public policy. Too much of an interest, it turns out, and the team scramble to hide the fact they haven’t read their own report. Chris uses facts from the report to repeatedly challenge Rhonda’s truth-stretching script, so the team opts for the easier path and brings in comedian Julia Morris to front the campaign ad, ridiculous spin and all.

Reality: The Mandarin readers would remember when science broadcaster Dr Karl Kruszelnicki was hired by Treasury to front the campaign for the real IGR in 2015. It was a disaster for all parties.

Dr Karl went rogue and denounced the document he was paid to spruik, admitting he only had access to embargoed extracts before signing on. That was in response to criticism from diligent readers who spotted that the ‘Challenge of Change’ campaign he was fronting failed to address the challenge of climate change. It also treated sustainability as nothing more than a balanced budget — a step backward from the 2010 report that also looked at improved wellbeing.

Public and industry confidence in the IGR’s value evaporated amid the ensuring debate about who really wrote it — Treasury, or partisans — sparked primarily because Treasury picked a prominent science broadcaster to front a national discussion that left out one of the biggest scientific challenges of our time.

Dr Karl and Treasury were spared from weeks of embarrassment only because, a few days later, the Agriculture department released the even more absurd ‘Biosecurity Matters’ campaign, featuring Johnny Depp and Amber Heard looking like hostages in a proof-of-life video.

The Utopia plotline also touches on how departments now use Instagram influencers to promote their campaigns. The Health department’s ‘Girls make your move’ campaign, for instance, generated some controversy last year over the amount of money spent on influencers and whether those selected were good role models. An evaluation found participation in physical activity and sport actually declined during the rollout, but still called it a success and recommended more money be pumped into it. Bizarre.

Verdict: Evaluation of government campaigns has improved significantly since 2015, but that’s more a factor of how poor the baseline was. Those same conversations satirised by Utopia’s Kitty Flanagan continue to happen every day in government. This was a well-deserved skewering.

Microstructure, ruralisation, nanotecture: the cutting edge of what exactly?

The c-plots included the temp worker who unintentionally disrupts the entire office, and not in that innovation-inspiring way; the proliferation of new jargon that even the experts struggle to keep up with; and the many, many infrastructure projects around Australia that got far enough to create marketing collateral for, but never got built. Played for laughs, each of these is nonetheless fairly close to real but peripheral issues in the public sector. If this is all you’re dealing with in your workplace, you’ve got it easier than most.

The satire’s return to ABC on Wednesdays at 9pm for its fourth season keeps the show firmly in the well-trodden cliques of public administration, updated ever-so-slightly to include the real-life modern pressures that serve more as backdrop than as main gags. Issues like mid-level management being too stretched to read 300-word reports, corrosion of the unique role of departmental advice, and ‘freedom to fail’ meaning precisely the opposite.

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