Montefiore: Everyone’s getting wasted

The essence of surviving government administration can be distilled to seven fundamentals, but in a gossipy little town like Adelaide, code is useful to summarise the sustainability principles necessary to live another day.

Ever since a new team began running the state, with another new team directing Town Hall, Sir Monty’s skills have been in demand more than ever. There’s not a roundtable, working group or workshop held at Town Hall without his watchful eye being required behind the one-way mirror. Further down King William Street, in parliament’s government suites, meeting agendas have Sir Monty’s name recorded as a permanent invitee. Before the 2018 elections, he wallowed in the benefits of contemplative, all-day sessions at his club’s bar, interrogating the scotch and soda while perusing The Times’ coverage of Brexit uproar. But nowadays it’s daily working breakfast meetings followed by mid-morning face-to-face over bottled water under dry air-conditioning, many floors up, with serious young government advisors hanging on his every word. The only light relief is his response to the instruction to turn off phones during meetings, given that his only electronic gadget remains a Bakelite wind-up number back at his North Terrace club.

One of his many recent high-fee briefs has been to advise the new folks about political survival. Politics may be the ‘art of the possible’ but how does one avoid stepping on the land mines buried in dockets by previous ministerial advisors? And how does one climb the ladder of success in a new team whose ruthlessly ambitious members would happily eat each other alive?

A recent brief was to create a long-term road map to be followed by the administrations in both tiers of government (local and state) plus a survival guide for a term in power. As a former spook, Sir Monty’s recommendation came straight out of the ASIS trainee manual. It would manifest as a form of advice that appears to refer to something completely unrelated. In this way, the apprentices could lose (as they are wont to do) the vital paperwork in any public place without compromising any of the high-level, tactical advice. Voilá – Project Waste was born. It was based on nothing more than a randomly chosen Town Hall 27 November 2018 agenda paper about waste management.

Superficially, waste management is its entire focus. But to the initiated, many of its terms and concepts have double meanings, and deliver a richly informative, three-course menu to satisfy the appetites of the hungriest of political aspirants. The code’s the thing. For example, ‘Actions for Sustainable Events’ is code for ‘ways to survive the looming term without being turned into mulch’. ‘High impact primary actions’ is code for ‘spin-enriched news leaks too close to deadline to allow time for scrutiny’. The paper listed six activity concepts. They included: waste reduction and recycling (avoid creating something new when something old works just as well); zero emissions transport (leave nothing in the Uber that a journalist might discover later); sustainable supply chain (feed the hacks who deliver the best headlines and seed the gossips who circulate the best misinformation); energy efficiency and renewable energy (don’t extend yourself unless the energy will, through a multiplier effect, benefit you many times over); water efficiency (take tiny sips of the bottled water because if you drink it all at once you’ll have to leave the room and might miss something tactically crucial); and measurement, marketing and engagement (if you want to climb the management ladder you must promote yourself shamelessly among the right people).

All this was well and good, but the seniors in the sessions kept pointing out that millennials, as a result of long-term immersion in social media, now can’t concentrate long enough to read more than a beer label. Something had to replace the pages of tedious tactical advice. Ultimately, the Inverted Preferable Pyramid was born. It looks identical to a sustainable waste concept buried in documents covering South Australia’s waste strategy 2015–2020. The entire operational workbook for surviving the administration of SA state and local government is now distilled to seven fundamentals. Let’s see what its words mean, after decoding. The seven key principles, in order of priority (from most preferable to least) are: avoid, reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, treat, dispose. Decoded, here they are.

Avoid: does anyone actually have evidence you mucked up? If not, deny everything. Trash the file and shred the paper.

Reduce: reduce attendance to only the most strategically useful meetings and only linger longer if there are people who can be of use to you.

Reuse: there are time-tested excuses that never go out of fashion. Practise them regularly.

Recycle: there’s nothing new under the sun. If your recent project got wide organisational recognition, tweak the format and duplicate, duplicate, duplicate. Given the high turnover of seniors, few will notice it’s the same output, over and over.

Recover: put in place advance hangover treatments and set up automatic replies to emails ahead of time to avoid the usual morning messages gridlock.

Treat: when you give someone an alibi, they owe you big time. Debt is your passport to the next better desk.

Dispose: if they don’t quickly reciprocate, remember the email trails you’ve been storing.

As Sir Monty learned long ago, surviving the complex administration of government at executive level is like mountain climbing with no ropes. Only the canniest endure, and in the management suites the operating temperature can be extreme. Long experience has taught Sir Monty many things, but rule #1 remains embedded in his memory. At the conclusion of his tutorials, when the youngsters cram the elevators, mesmerised by their phone screens, he’ll be first to reach street level. The rule? Always take the fire exit.

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