Current Issue #488

Montefiore: A landmark speech for the people of the public service?

Montefiore: A landmark speech for the people of the public service?

South Australia’s 80,000-plus public sector workers have something to reflect on as 2018 looms — if an intriguing draft ‘landmark’ policy speech recently seen by Sir Monty is any guide.

Few South Australians today fully comprehend that Sir Monty’s North Terrace club, with its genuine colonial shutters, roof chimneys and working front door bell, continues to be the core ‘go-to’ hub for the culturally and politically connected. Daily, thousands of drivers pass by the old three-storey 1864 pile, but if you asked where Adelaide’s ‘political centre’ was, few would be able to answer.

It is this ‘anonymity’ at the heart of the North Terrace madding crowd that makes it such an appropriate place for today’s elites seeking high-level advice on strategic matters under the most confidential of arrangements.

Sir Monty was recently enjoying a post-luncheon cigar, having minutes earlier farewelled several whippersnapper investment brokers, when the package arrived. The demand for a signature from the courier was normal but it was the demand for a biometric iris scan of his left eye that hinted that the brief was high-level. The paper-only version was clever,
too, eliminating risk of cyber interception. The instruction was brief. A draft document, described as a ‘landmark speech’ was being put before him for urgent feedback. The price of confidentiality is astronomical, and Sir Monty was delighted to accept the online premium transfer. It was only when he broke the package seal did it become obvious that this was a state election matter.

The speech began. “The tenured, long-serving, far-seeing, decent, wise masters of the bureaucratic detail, who outlive governments, are a thing of the past,” it lamented. “In their place have come what are called the new public managers…

“It means the loss of corporate memory, institutional loyalty, and creative enterprise and that other thing, pride, in the sort of creative and dynamic public sector that was [once] reality. It means too, as we here in Adelaide, the privatisation capital of Australia, have come to learn, the deliberate betrayal of the customer, the public who are meant to be served.”

Sir Monty nodded, as he drew on his cigar. Grey smoke curled towards the ceiling.

“Around the world it is quite clear what privatisation gives us — cuts in services, cuts in maintenance, fewer jobs and higher prices.” … And, on a broader theme: “The erosion of the Westminster tradition where ministers take the responsibility for the performance of their department, has resulted in the routine use of public servants as the fall guys in parliamentary committees rather than the minister concerned having to take the rap.” Clearly, this author was ramping up the pressure, Sir Monty reflected.

Then followed election pledges, including several for ‘balanced budgets in each year in the term of office, and tight controls on spending’. The Party, it promised, would introduce a law “to ensure that the provision of services was affordable and sustainable, so as to avoid running up liabilities that place an unfair burden on the community of the future.”

The leader stepped it up: “I also want to rid us of the unhealthy culture of secrecy, political bias, timidity and cronyism that has crept into parts of the public sector. My Party will insist that all new appointments to South Australian government boards and statutory authorities undertake proper accredited training in relation to their responsibilities as board members.”

Reads like a root-and-branch clean-out across the public sector, Sir Monty mused — not unusual when new administrations sweep into power after long, stale periods of incumbency.

Then there was education and health. “There has been a massive free-fall in the number of younger people in their schooling. Rebuilding our education system must be an economic and social imperative. Rebuilding our health system is also a Party priority. Our public hospitals have been gutted and demoralised.”

Sir Monty was by this time so deep in concentration that he did not hear the club’s butler approach until he felt a tap on his shoulder. An urgent message had come from the client, with profound apologies. The brief was withdrawn, the offer cancelled.

“In utmost confidence,” revealed a private note, “We have just detected that this draft has been plagiarised from one given by Mike Rann to the Public Service Association’s Biennial Conference on August 14, 2001 and as such could never apply to Adelaide’s manifestly different political realities in 2017.”

As Sir Monty awaited the courier to take back the evidence, he read on. “It’s time to end the uncertainty for public sector workers, their jobs, and for the community as a whole. On day one, Labor will call a halt to privatisation. Not one single public hospital in the city or the country will be privatised by Labor. There will be no privatisation of our Lotteries Commission, no privatisation of the Housing Trust, no privatisation of our forests … The threat of privatisation will be lifted from our schools and police, and other essential services will remain in government hands.”

Unfortunately, at that moment, the courier arrived, collected and departed, leaving Sir Monty reflecting alone. Imagine if he really had believed those 2001 pledges? He would have missed out on a glorious 16 years as advisor on public asset sales and the lucrative windfall of commissions that went with it. At least one thing remained certain. The club’s public location, location, location would never be privatised — because it always was.

Moreover, it’s only two minutes’ walk from parliament’s corridors, and as March 2018 nears, Sir Monty suspects that deliveries of speech briefs for confidential club advice have only just begun.

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