Unable and unwilling to govern: the Morrison legacy may last many years

By Bernard Keane

Wednesday January 19, 2022

Scott Morrison smiling
The Morrison legacy may last many years. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

Under the traditional Canberra model of public policy, the issue of the impact of reopening the economy on the workforce and supply chains would have been dealt with something like this.

Once the national cabinet had agreed on a reopening plan driven by vaccination rates, with modelling showing a big rise in infections but not of hospitalisations and deaths, Scott Morrison and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) would have coordinated an existing, or new if necessary, inter-departmental committee to assess the likely impacts of a sharp rise in infections, not merely on the workforce but on education, on health care and on supply chains.

Departments like Infrastructure, Health, Industry, Home Affairs and Workplace Relations would have been involved. Industry and perhaps unions would have been consulted. This would have led to a briefing on expected impacts and solutions.

The national cabinet could then consider what planning needed to be done jointly, and it would become the basis for a submission to Scott Morrison’s own cabinet on what commonwealth actions were required in those areas where it had direct responsibility — primary health care, aged care, logistics, border control, industrial relations. Ministers could have had a clear basis on which to make decisions about, for example, what to do if large numbers of workers in key sectors called in sick in the context of a reopening economy.

Pretty simple stuff. But it didn’t happen, or if it did, Morrison and his cabinet ignored it. Industry and health providers were actually ahead of the government: the Australian Medical Association warned Health of the need for a strategy to secure supplies of rapid antigen tests in September, only to be rebuffed by bureaucrats who claimed the government didn’t want to intervene in the market.

The latter comment serves to confirm that Alan Kohler’s argument that neoliberalism has enfeebled government by crippling its capacity and willingness to intervene has much going for it. Crikey made similar arguments about the vaccine rollout and in other areas such as the NBN.

But it’s also the case that government no longer functions in the way it used to. Its capacity, its motivations and its leadership have all changed, in ways that have undermined its capacity to act effectively, even in the event it wishes to do so.

The capacity of government has diminished. Federal MPs are now drawn from a less diverse range of backgrounds than 30 years ago. Between 40% and 50% of MPs in the current federal parliament, depending on the party, are former political staffers; the remainder consists largely of lawyers and bankers.

The dominance of former staffers affects both the life and professional experience of MPs (and the ministers drawn from their ranks), and the role of political staff. The job is no longer about providing high-quality political advice to ministers — it’s simply a stepping stone into parliament for junior party workers.

This has coincided, under the current government, with an unusually poor-quality ministry with virtually no strong performers other than Ken Wyatt, who is working in his area of professional expertise.

The capacity of the public service (APS) has been, by common agreement, significantly diminished. Many of its function have been handed to political donors, either via outsourcing to large consulting firms, or through corporate executives directly writing government policy. And decision-making has been shifted increasingly to ministers’ offices and their staff, who operate with virtually no public accountability and thus have less incentive to ensure good process and sound reasoning.

As a consequence, high-quality public servants have decamped or been sacked for being too independent. The current generation of public service executives is the weakest in living memory, with few strong performers. And the most experienced secretary — Home Affairs’ Mike Pezzullo — presides over the most disastrously incompetent department of all.

The motivations of government are now quite different, and not merely because of Scott Morrison’s obsession with announcements over substance. As John Daley argued in his outstanding final report for the Grattan Institute, the transition of political staffing roles to career ladder changes the motivations of staffers to minimising political damage, not producing good policy. And the motivations of senior public servants are no longer the much-vaunted “frank and fearless advice” but, increasingly, aiming only to minimise embarrassment for the government. Public servants by now know that undertaking planning or policy work that may result in embarrassment for the government far outweighs any benefits that might flow from it, and act accordingly.

The leadership of both the public service and the government is also at a nadir. The APS is led by a political apparatchik, Phil Gaetjens, who operates as Scott Morrison’s personal fixer rather than the leader of the Australia’s premier public policy institution. The Coalition has, by widespread agreement, persistently acted to politicise the public service. This could partly be offset if the Prime Minister’s Office was a strong policy unit, but it’s the poorest we’ve seen in decades — worse than Tony Abbott’s or that of the last years of Howard.

Above all, Scott Morrison himself has deliberately crippled the public service by explicitly ordering it to abandon any goal of providing policy advice — in the “Morrison Doctrine” of the APS, it exists purely to carry out the wishes of the government. It is not the APS’ role to undertake planning, unless the government explicitly asks for such. All policy must be determined purely by politicians and their staffers.

The result is a government machine that — even before any ideological overlay of “small government” or “let the market decide” — lacks capacity to anticipate or think through even moderately complex policy challenges, has no motivation or incentive to do so, and is actively discouraged by its leadership from doing anything other than maximising partisan outcomes for the government.

How much of this would be remedied by a new PM or new government? A change of PM can do much: Malcolm Turnbull was interested in building a better, more effective and more competent public service — a task simply abandoned by his successor — and in innovation, digital transformation and, generally, good ideas in the public sector. He returned the sacked treasury secretary Martin Parkinson to head PM&C.

At the same time, outsourcing, driven by strong fiscal discipline, continued on his watch, eating away at the entrails of the APS. That damage has accelerated under Morrison, and will take a decade to repair, if anyone is interested in the task. The skewing of public policy by the growth of political staffers is also unlikely to change any time soon.

There’s an example of what all this could mean in the long term. When Labor returned to power in 2007 and decided to take an activist approach to broadband infrastructure, it had to rebuild the Commonwealth’s communications infrastructure delivery capacity from the ground up, because that capacity had been corporatised, then privatised, under previous governments of both sides. The rebuilding delayed the NBN rollout and left it vulnerable to a change of government. The result more than a decade later is an unsatisfactory, wildly over-budget compromise infrastructure.

Once capacity and competence is lost, it can be very hard to get back.

This article is republished from our sister publication Crikey.


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