Current Issue #488

Modern Times: Power to the public service

Modern Times: Power to the public service

The development of an infrastructure of government – one capable of realising transformative change – is a nation-building project Australia so desperately needs.

Such capability once existed within government, but has been dismantled. To rebuild it requires time, patience and commitment, and the immediate political return for such investment would be limited. It is a project made possible only by strong leadership.

For 10 years, capacity within government has gradually diminished. The drum of political expediency and fading echo of neoliberal ideology both ring in the ear of elected leaders who outsource responsibility for both ongoing essential services and long-term, transformative projects. Although these sounds have been heard for years, the excessive funding recently allocated to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation is its most stunning example.

Interest in the size of the grant gifted to Great Barrier Reef Foundation has distracted from the central argument prosecuted in defence of the decision: that non-government agencies are better placed to serve the collective, national interests. Government agencies, we were told, are not equipped to protect the nation’s most important ecological asset. Government agencies, we are told, are not equipped to do much at all.

If the most basic functions of government are outsourced to non-government entities, our elected leaders become mere agents of political calculation, both vacillating and oscillating. Even if Australia was again blessed with a leader of vision, it would be nigh impossible to realise his or her vision through a public service now unaccustomed to the challenge of realising transformational change.

Infrastructure projects invariably result in something tangible: a dam, a highway, high-speed train network, a canal. The recreation of an infrastructure of government necessary to build a vibrant and functioning society cannot be announced with a photo of a politician turning the sod. There is no physical manifestation of the project, no image of something that will serve people for generations to come. But without an effective and highly functioning infrastructure of government, other nation building projects become far less likely.

If a political movement believes in the beauty of its vision, it would also seek to support the instruments with which this vision can be realised. Only an effective machinery of government and a competent and motivated public service can enable transformational, nation-building change. Unfortunately, the public service and national interest have been decoupled in the minds of many Australians who distrust government and believe its bureaucrats to be lazy, incompetent, or both.

Without an effective infrastructure of government, it is difficult to imagine how Australia will progress at a pace that is comparable with its neighbours, where notions of governance and public service generally have a stronger cultural resonance. In Confucianist East Asian societies, public service is respected and political figures have been schooled in the art of governance. Their leaders leave lasting legacies through projects that serve the interests of their people for generations.

Political smarts and good governance should not be confused. Even if Australian politics was to once again be informed by a belief that good policy is good politics, a competent and motivated public service is required to bring public policy to life. An executive intent on dismantling its public service is captive to the irony of aspiring to govern, while repudiating the essential character of government.

It would take a leader of substance to reverse the modern tendency to diminish, rather than empower, the public service.


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