Too much bureaucracy is failing Australia’s climate response

By Melissa Coade

Thursday June 3, 2021

Albanese said disbanding the ACLG ripped away ‘an important function of the relationship between the two levels of government’. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

A former mandarin outlines how a tendency among public servants to self-censor, and ‘draconian’ confidentiality rules they are bound to, have led to Australia’s poor climate change position and policies that fail to confront one of humanity’s greatest existential threats. 

When Cheryl Durrant retired after 30 years in the public service, half of which was served in uniform as an intelligence officer and the other half as a civilian with the Department of Defence, she left knowing Australia’s position on some of the most urgent global issues was lacking. 

Having previously led defence’s global change and energy sustainability initiative and served as director of preparedness and mobilisation, it was clear to Durrant why serious work in the national interest was being left on the back burner. 

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“I’ve had conversations with ministers on this — there’s a frustration sometimes that the public sector isn’t giving them frank and fearless advice. But at the same time there’s this concern on the [part of] public sector that if certain advice is presented, then it’s not going to be acceptable,” Durrant says.

“The system doesn’t seem to work well, regardless of the virtue or otherwise of the people in it.”

When politics promotes following over leading

There are several reasons Australia’s bureaucracy is limping along on climate change, one of the most obvious Durrant has observed is a departure from the theory of classic policy cycles. 

The Australian government’s preference to be responsive at the height of a crisis, rather than implement pre-emptive measures before something goes wrong, has resulted in federal leaders taking action when they are following others. On climate change, Durrant adds, the government is not even following all that well with allies and comparable nations (in terms of demographics and resource dependencies) like Canada and New Zealand taking a more ambitious approach to lowering carbon emissions.

Retired public servant and former Army officer Cheryl Durrant.

“In classic policy cycles, people are doing futures work, scenario planning, risk assessments and they’re getting ahead of the game. Governments are using evidence base to lead policy,” Durrant says. 

“We don’t get ahead of the game so we’re falling behind and we’re not aiming high and we’re going slow. 

“If you wait until the majority of people have seen a crisis and are convinced that it’s in their face, and have given [the government] permission to do something, that’s where you see action in Australia,” she says. 

According to Durrant, not only are Australia’s federal leaders shirking leadership responsibility, but the challenge of cutting through the bureaucratic layers to get the right message to influential decision-makers has become more difficult. This has served to hinder the impact of expert advice in policy development. 

“I used to ironically say in the department of defence that if I want the minister to read something that I’m going to produce on climate change, I would have more chance of success as an independent advocate sticking it in the news cycle then I would writing an evidenced-based analytical piece of work and trying to get it through a hierarchical bureaucracy,” she says. 

“And if that’s the case, that’s severely wrong.”

The problem with public servants being ‘quiet Australians’

Public debate on climate change could really do with some of the common sense perspective on crisis minimisation which services like the Australian Defence Force are guided by, Durrant says.

Many of the roles at defence which Durrant held over her many decades with the department were strategic decision-making and decision support jobs. In 2012 she was tasked with focusing on the importance of understanding climate risk to defence. 

The priority of climate risk in the eyes of the Chief of the Defence Force (going back several men) is high, Durrant says, because they understand the practical and obvious impact now and into the future. That combination of thinking and military pragmatism means the implications of the climate risk to national security and the security of the region are real — and it is the job of the Australian Defence Force to plan for that eventuality.

Durrant believes that many public servants share this kind of clear-eyed, scientific, non-partisan perspective and it is time for their voices to be heard on the issue. 

“Partly why I’m motivated to talk up is that the real quiet Australians are the public servants. We have some of the most draconian rules and regulations and punishments around public servants speaking out,” Durrant says. 

“Those with access to the information and the deep expertise that the public servants possess, need to have their work open and transparent and debated because there is a whole voice missing from Australia’s debate on climate change and that’s the public sector voice,” she adds. 

The contradiction of defence’s ‘diarchy’ 

Durrant will be the first to admit that she has witnessed some ‘bizarre’ contradictions in the position of the uniform and civilian branches (which she refers to as a ‘diarchy’) within defence on the issue of climate change. In her view, this is due to ministers having the power to ‘make or break’ the careers of secretaries, usually indirectly, if their advice failed to align with what was politically favourable. 

“It is really quite bizarre where you can have half an organisation working off a certain set of understanding and the other half operating on a different set,” Durrant says.

“There was a hell of a lot of self-censorship that I saw in defence, including one occurrence where I was instructed by our civilian strategy organisation to not include climate change in the strategic risk assessment, only to have the CDF the next day approve commentary to the senate inquiry on climate change, declaring climate change as an existential risk.”

The final report for that inquiry was published in May 2018 and made 11 recommendations, one of which was to release certain unclassified defence documents about its work to identify climate risk. Durrant was the lead author of the department’s submission to the inquiry.

“Every CDF I worked for understood climate change was a really serious and significant risk and they all were incredibly supportive and just apolitical,” Durrant says.

 “They’d go: ‘It’s one of the risks we need to look at , so we’ll look at it. And there are some things that we need to do and we can deal with in my authority as the CDF, so let’s deal with it’.”

Grass-roots governments turning the dial on climate change

Durrant says that work to address climate change by businesses, and at the level of local and state governments is something to celebrate. The climate emergency strategist says she is encouraged that the path these groups have forged will make the federal government change tact eventually. 

“But the vibe I get is so different listening to the voices of the Biden [climate change] summit, where leaders are stepping up to lead. In Australia we don’t have, at federal level, leadership – that’s the thing we’re most missing,” she says.

When asked why she worked within the department on climate change matters when there is so much structural and political push-back, Durrant says it was good enough for her to know that she was laying the groundwork. She hopes her efforts will mean that when the Australian government is ready to act meaningfully, it will not be starting from a position of nothing.

“Awareness and education have a benefit all of their own – so just making people more aware and doing your work properly and looking at evidence base without ideological lenses as far as possible meant that at some point in time, when the world changes and Australia wakes up to reality, there’s a basis of work that would have already been done,” Durrant says. 

“There won’t necessarily be as much, or as successful, or as well resourced as you might wish it had been but at least there is a better starting position than if nothing had been done.”

Collaboration key to achieving policy feat

Durrant is an active member of the Climate Council, now free from the shackles of her public service job to speak openly on a subject she is extremely well versed in. A recent report published by the group said that the cost of extreme weather, exacerbated by climate change, by 2038 would hit the Australian economy with $100 billion each year. 

The retired mandarin sees great potential for public servants to play a role in steering the debate on climate change towards a course of solutions and action. She says for that to work, Australia must adopt a whole of government approach, and be open to collaboration and new ideas. 

“My experience of the public service is, outside very formally constructed departmental committees, there just wasn’t enough collaboration across agencies and collaboration across agencies brings in new thinking,” Durrant says. 

“It makes you think about innovative solutions and it gives you more opportunity to have a joined-up, coherent policy approach in Australia. So all power to the collaborator.”


Collaboration is easier and harder than you think

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