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Is it a good time to be a public servant? Young professionals debate

Is it a good time to be a public servant? Not according to the outcome of a humourous debate held last night in Canberra by the Institute of Public Administration Australia (ACT division) Young Professionals Network.

The Mandarin followed the IPAA bright young things into The Bunker Theatre — so called due to its location in a former secret communications bunker beneath the heritage-listed John Gorton Building, home to the finance and environment departments — and can confirm that a good time was had by all.

Using the time-honoured “loudest applause” method, the audience of more than 100 (mostly) young public servants preferred the negative team, captained by ACIL Allen executive director Stephen Bartos, the only debater not currently employed in the federal bureaucracy.

But there was stiff competition from the affirmative team, led by deputy APS commissioner Stephanie Foster, who made a courageous stand for optimism in the face of fiscal austerity and painted public servants as unsung superheroes.

Both teams gave new meaning to the term “frank and fearless” as they battled it out, their arguments combining to reflect both the idealism that drives many to work in the public service, and the darkly cynical humour that such work breeds.

While the debate was under Chatham House rules, The Mandarin can share some of the best lines — both funny and inspiring — from the night. From the affirmative:

“Opportunity — our APS today is redolent with it; you can almost smell it. It’s that whiff of danger, it’s that hint of excitement, it’s that sniff of fear and it’s that tantalising glimpse of what might be.”

“In the midst of the uncertainty, the cuts to budget, the loss of valued colleagues, despite, or perhaps because of, this adversity, I have a dream that each one of us here will seize the opportunity to contribute to the public service, contribute in a meaningful way to our transformation, of ourselves, of our government and of our country. What a wonderful time to be a public servant.”

“If you think the public service can’t handle politicians, then remember that it’s made up of Tax Office graduates who take on multinationals, Defence ELs who casually procure heavy artillery, and a senior executive service who, over the years, have almost single-handedly kept afloat the market for south coast holiday homes.”

“Spiderman may have saved a few people from burning buildings but if he’d really been serious about fire safety, he would have signed up at the Department of Employment and gone to work on uniform work health and safety regulations.”

“The nation may come to realise that to be a true superhero, all you need is a cardigan, a badly ironed blouse or business shirt, and a Commonwealth-crested lanyard. Cometh the hour, cometh the public servant — and now is a great time to be one.”

From the negative:

“I don’t know what they do with people who tweet about politics — maybe they’ve got a dungeon down in the bottom of the department [of Prime Minister and Cabinet] with whips and stocks and things, they get a bit kinky in central agencies.”

“Yeah, what a great opportunity we have for transformational change. That might be the same way people on the Titanic had the opportunity for deep-sea bathing.”

“The previous speaker displayed a most touching faith in democracy and politicians. I can only say that having met quite a few of them, his faith is sorely misplaced.”

“We called [the post-war years] the golden age — we spent money on public servants and they gave us things like the Snowy Mountains Scheme. We thought you could do big stuff. Do we do that big stuff today? Do we get the feeling that the public service is needed, or valued for the things that it does do? Ladies and gentlemen, this ain’t the 1950s, and unfortunately, the only people who think it is are the people who write the social policy.”

“I might be a superhero in my own head, I might work in a team of superheroes, we might be that ‘team Australia’. But at the moment it just seems like we’re scoring own goals, and there ain’t no one out there to cheer us on. Ladies and gentlemen, if I jump off a burning building, I’m just going to fall.”

Finally, one musing on question time briefing notes:

“The minster never once opened them to answer a question, because frankly they didn’t need to; they knew the punters out there weren’t interested in the truth, and if they were, the media weren’t interested in giving it to them.”

Gee. It can’t be all that bad, can it?

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.