Sins of omission can be things for commission, as mistakes mount

By Verona Burgess

Wednesday May 27, 2020

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THE OBSERVER: If government departments have any other sins of omission hidden away in their cupboards, they’d better start fixing them and start anticipating new ones, or a new trust deficit could undermine all the positive advances that have been made in the relationship between the APS and the coalition during the crisis, writes Verona Burgess.

When we suggested that the government’s path back to a healthy budget would include clawbacks of underspends in the COVID-19 support packages, little did we imagine that JobKeeper’s projected $130 billion spend had been over-generous to the tune of $60 billion.

Everyone in the news business knows that if it bleeds, it leads – likewise, if it has “$60 billion” and “blunder” in the same sentence. These things take on a life of their own but they also show how sins of omission in the Australian Public Service – in this case, why it wasn’t detected sooner – can rapidly become sins of commission at the political level. It is not the only public-service sin of omission that is bubbling along.

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Sins of omission at state and federal public-service levels also appear to characterise the Ruby Princess debacle, while the Western Australian premier Mark McGowan has quickly blamed the Australian Border Force for allowing the infected livestock carrier Al Kuwait to dock in Fremantle last Friday, and federal agriculture minister David Littleproud has quickly hit back. Then there’s sports rorts, more of which later.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison moved things along on Tuesday at the National Press Club by emulating that cunning master of distraction, John Howard, and Labor greats Bob Hawke and former ACTU president Bill Kelty. And yes (think former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen), he fed the chooks left, right and centre.

The union-busting bill (which would have failed again in the Senate anyway) is dead. The federal anti-corruption commission is on hold. Long live the new-style industrial Accord with five working groups under minister Christian Porter.

Regrettably in this new world of peace and harmony, the federal opposition is not at the table, although, the unions are. Federation reform, training, industrial relations, deregulation, tax reform and housing construction are all in the Utopian mix. Manufacturing will sprout new branches.

 

The economy will grow like the magic pudding. All hail ScoMo the JobMaker; if it fails, it won’t be his fault, he’s merely presiding over the squabbling children.

And be warned: the Australian National Audit Office is working on performance audits again after a virus-induced pause in April.

Speaking of which, the sports rorts affair has not gone away and former sports minister Bridget McKenzie made an important point recently on the question of whether she had had the legal authority to approve the grants.

“If there was any issue around the legality of how this program was going to be run, then my expectation of the [APS] is that they would’ve raised it with me,” she said. “And, I’m sorry, if there is an issue around the legality, then that should’ve been raised with the appropriate minister.”

There had, she said, been several opportunities to do so throughout the three-stage funding program, which had gone through Cabinet and been approved by the Expenditure Review Committee.

“It is the responsibility of the [APS] to inform ministers around appropriate arrangements,” she said.

It is indeed. A public-service failure to ensure she did have the legal authority and, if she didn’t, to tell her, looks like another sin of omission with major political consequences.

This is not to excuse her behaviour in serving up the pork, nor the conflict of interest that provided the fig leaf for her resignation after the as-yet undisclosed report from the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens.

But back to the $60 billion JobKeeper error (or saving, as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg would rather have it).

JobKeeper was never going to be fair, equitable or a perfect policy. It is a blunt instrument, but three million fewer eligible employees than projected does not mean three million happy little Vegemites who don’t need income support. People and businesses are bleeding out there, and let’s not even start on the public universities, other ineligible employers and those for whom the process was just too difficult.

But as, far as we know, nobody has died from it, unlike the Ruby Princess debacle and the four young men, aged 16 to 25, who lost their lives during the risky oversight of Kevin Rudd’s Home Insulation Program during the Global Financial Crisis.

Please spare a thought for the Australian Taxation Office. It was all going along so swimmingly – a new relationship had been born between the APS and the coalition government. Public servants were feeling useful and were making a difference. Bluebirds of happiness were singing. Trust was reborn. Evidence-based policy was the new black. John Maynard Keynes lived.

Now the $60 billion has become a legendary budget tale that will provide fodder for political journalists for years.

The thing Frydenberg can be most relieved about as the caravan moves on is that he didn’t attempt a proper economic statement in lieu of the Budget earlier this month, because $60 billion has a not-trivial effect on Treasury forecasts. All eyes are now on the end of June for a credible set of figures.

But if government departments have any other sins of omission hidden away in their cupboards, they’d better start fixing them and start anticipating new ones, or a new trust deficit could undermine all the positive advances that have been made in the relationship between the APS and the coalition during the crisis.

Let’s not go back to the low at the end of last year when five secretaries lost their jobs for no good reason.

 

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