Not counting the bizarre 2020 footy grand finals, two events stood out from this past weekend in Australia.
The first was the declaration of road unworthiness of a protest bus by Victoria Police. The second was the attack upon a “private” sector chief executive officer by our Prime Minister for rewarding her senior executives lavishly, it was asserted, for doing their jobs really well.
Both of these appalling events are significant beyond their immediate contexts, because they both tell us much about what is wrong with twenty-first century governance in liberal democracies. And, with a little digging, we can locate their common roots.
First, there was the anti-Daniel Andrews bus episode.
The bus, owned by a small business operator whose business has been smashed to pieces by the Victorian lockdown and hired by a new outfit called Reignite Democracy Australia, organised to push back against the erosion of freedoms witnessed all across Australia in 2020 but most outrageously in the once great State of Victoria.
As reported by news.com:
The owner of a bus with “Sack Andrews” emblazoned on the side says police spent two hours scouring over his vehicle to find a “slight” fault to take it off the road.
The coach, which has become a prominent addition to Melbourne’s streets over the past few weeks, was parked at the city’s anti-lockdown protest on Friday for only a few minutes before it attracted the attention of police.
Eventually, after two hours of “crawling” meticulously over the vehicle, owner Laurie Pincini – whose business has taken almost a $4 million hit due to coronavirus – told NCA NewsWire police issued him with a $341 fine and a defect notice that rendered the bus unroadworthy.
Mr Pincini said the officers from Victoria Police’s Heavy Vehicle Unit found a “slight” cut on a tyre, a “very small” fray in one seatbelt and an oil leak under the bus, which he said was dry on the road even though the bus hadn’t been there for long.
Four things stand out about VicPol – incompetence, ideology, politicisation and corruption. Each of these conditions is so advanced that one almost doesn’t know where to start to address them. But for today let us focus just on the politicisation, and on the instance of it, alas one of many, pointed out above.
Not pursuing credible allegations of corrupting a jury trial elicited not a jot of surprise among VicPol watchers well attuned to that institution’s visceral hatred and decades long relentless pursuit of George Pell. VicPol’s “nothing to see here” response to the Vatican corruption allegations was an example of its own “nothing to see there”. But finding reasons to declare a protest bus unroadworthy should cause at least one eyebrow to be raised. Even by VicPol’s low standards of blatant politicisation, this was a doozy.
The second incident of significance over the past few days was the Prime Minister’s ill-considered attack on the CEO of Australia Post for showering Cartier watches on some of her senior executives. “I was appalled, and it is disgraceful and not on,” Morrison intoned, announcing an inquiry.
As one newspaper noted:
The inquiry was ordered “within an hour” of the revelations “so appalled and shocked was I by that behaviour, because as any shareholder would in a company raise their outrage if they had seen that conduct, by a chief executive, the management or the board, they would insist rightly on the same thing,” Mr Morrison said.
It isn’t a good idea to catch Terry McCrann angry. When provoked, Australia’s outstanding business and politics journalist tends to lay it on a bit, with precision and venom. He also tends to reveal truths that his victims would prefer were kept under wraps.
So, the Prime Minister is “appalled and shocked” that a CEO would pay $12,000 (or even the updated, utterly damning $19,950) to four executives who worked their butts off to secure a $66m deal for the company and has demanded she be sacked for such outrageous behaviour. I would certainly hope his either faux or farcical outrage wasn’t a “bait and switch” to have everyone “look away, look away” from his own government paying $30m to a “political mate” for land worth $3m.
He immediately and I mean — almost within the hour — ordered an inquiry into the first; he doesn’t seem to have been the least fussed about the second.
It is hardly surprising from the leader of a government which will spend a staggering $677bn this year — up an even more staggering $200bn in just two years and double, yes, double, the $337bn spent in our previous biggest spending budget, Wayne Swan’s in 2009.
The burden of McCrann’s venting was twofold – first, how dare a government (ScoMo’s) profligate beyond a big spender’s wildest dreams lecture a private sector CEO over a quite proportional and appropriate bonus to senior executives, and second, how could you so massively misunderstand the nature of the private sector? So, both hypocrites AND dumbos.
The Andrews bus episode revealed a thoroughly politicised and contemptible police force. Nothing new there, you might say. The political attack on the Australia Post CEO for just doing her private sector job but ignoring public sector (read political) optics, similarly revealed the problems of having hybrid public-private, half-pregnant, sort-of-privatised institutions.
Cricket pundits might be aware of the old Bob Cunis story. The late Bob Cunis was a New Zealand test cricketer of whom it was once said, possibly by Christopher Martin-Jenkins or possibly by John Arlott, “his bowling, like his name, is neither one thing nor the other…” Both tough and crude, I realise.
Well, Australia Post, like so many similar organisations, is neither one thing nor the other. It is trying to run a business while maintaining itself as a quasi agency of government, with essentially political objectives and politicians taking the heat for its shortcomings in service delivery.
So what do the Daniel Andrews bus and the Cartier watches have in common, and why are they each such a problem for good public policy? Both episodes have their roots thirty years or so ago.
It all goes back to the 1980s …
It is easy for an old (but now reconstructed) Thatcherite like me, with the benefit of (literally) 2020 hindsight, to bag out the mistakes made by our old 1980s political champions. Especially when we critique them for things that they didn’t do rather than for things that they did do. The two things that I wish Thatcher had done but didn’t – kill off global warming ideology hard and early, and attend to the culture wars that were alive and well at the time and far more insidious than Arthur Scargill ever was.
But there was one thing she did do that was also a big mistake. That was to embrace privatisation at a cost to just about everything else.
And many acolytes followed her enthusiasm for something both overrated and dangerous. Some of these were in Australia, in the free market think tanks and on the staffs of politicians like Jeff Kennett and Nick Greiner (in his early, less woke, phase). We used to import British gurus to show us why and how to do it. One was called Madsen Pirie, someone that almost no one today would either remember or perhaps even have heard of. Pirie was a very smart ideologue with a narrow focus whose simplistic ideas decidedly had consequences when adopted holus bolus. Now eighty, he remains president of the Adam Smith Institute in the UK.
Everyone on the right here worshipped him in the economics-focused 80s, taking up his recommendations without reservations. Sadly, governments of all persuasions adopted many of his prescriptions, to our longer-term cost and with consequences that no one foresaw at the time.
Privatisation has been, at best, a non-solution to largely a non-problem (or a second order problem), and at worst, a giant cock-up with endlessly repeating negative impacts on service delivery to taxpayers, falsely described as “customers”.
The privatisation push has especially been a disaster when it gave rise to, or at least was accompanied by, its close relative, the so-called “new public management” or NPM. This was the idea that civil servants should mimic private sector managers and employees. This has meant ending tenure, moving to short term contracts, endlessly moving “permanent” secretaries around, doubling public sector senior salaries in order to attract private sector managers and executives, introducing targets and the dreaded “KPIs” (key performance indicators) that are mostly b.s., aligning the objectives of civil servants with those of the party in government, and rewarding (through huge salaries and bonuses) public servants for achieving those political objectives.
As Richard Shaw has noted (in 2012):
Influenced by the new, private sector-inspired theories sweeping much of the OECD world, departments were restructured, employment arrangements were overhauled and service delivery was outsourced.
Shaw quoted the then Australian Public Service Commissioner, Steve Sedgwick:
Over the last twenty years the APS has focused on improving its productivity and effectiveness through substantial organisational and financial reforms. The main responsibilities for financial and resource management have been devolved away from central agencies of government and given to the heads of the individual APS departments or agencies. These departments or agencies have also had to meet the ‘efficiency dividend’ by finding more cost-effective ways to carry out their business and respond to periodic program reviews and similar opportunities to reinvent programs or their administration.
It all seemed harmless enough, indeed very smart, at the time. It was yet another example of the good intentions paving company. “Efficiency” and “effectiveness” became an NPM mantra, followed blindly.
This now endless cycle of “reform” has effectively killed off the Westminster system of government and delivered us what the political scientists have nicknamed “Washingminster” government with all the worst features of each of the British and American systems of government.
While privatisation sought to change the ownership of government institutions, NPM sought to change their behaviour. Both have been disastrous.
The fruits of the 1980s ideological adherence to a privatisation-at-all-costs and in-all-areas approach to government are there for all to witness today, and witness them we did in those seemingly unconnected events over the past week.
The attack by the Prime Minister on the CEO of Australia Post, career destroying in its impact and for pathetic, indeed shameful, self-preservatory political ends, showed that today’s class of politician simply doesn’t understand the difference between the private sector and the public sector and the distinct purposes and incentive structures of each. And why the waters between the two should never be muddied.
Yet Terry McCrann’s correct and spirited defence of Australia Post’s CEO shouldn’t obscure the ills that attend the corporatisation and privatisation of government instrumentalities. It simply means that governments cannot have it both ways.
The ills of privatising the core services that should be delivered – and delivered well – by governments have been well rehearsed by critics normally associated with the left. And they were often correct about these ills – in the case of Australia Post cuts in services, price increases, routine failure to deliver the mail every day, the closure or downsizing of post offices in rural places, turning post offices into quasi shops in order to make a profit, eliminating accountability, cherry picking profitable services, and so on.
But it isn’t Australia Post’s fault that it has been turned by government into this peculiar hybrid beast that behaves like any large corporate yet doesn’t deliver core services adequately. Government shouldn’t do too many things. But providing infrastructure and basic services should be done by government, and done well.
The blatant political actions of Victorian civil servants provide the ultimate exemplar of the folly of pretending the public service should set and pursue corporate (political) ends rather than simply serving the public by sticking to its original charter, viz. to protect the people of Victoria.
VicPol should not be behaving like Daniel Andrews’ personal paramilitary outfit, providing him with political protection, as it has been doing for years. These people are meant to be civil – in every sense of the word – servants. Not private security style thugs. Finding roadworthiness faults with a protest bus delightfully sticking it to Andrews should not be a cause for police intervention. The woke thuggocracy that is VicPol, which thinks it appropriate to take a knee for whoever’s lives matter this week yet bangs up innocent pregnant mothers needs urgently to be taken down several pegs. VicPol is a law unto itself. Worse than this, it has become a law unto Daniel Andrews.
When it comes to Victoria, the term “reignite democracy Australia” seems peculiarly apt in these times. And when it comes to bagging out seemingly excellent private sector executives doing their jobs well, politicians should butt out. They were, after all, the ones who blurred the once clear lines between old school, traditional Westminster public services which delivered objective, robust advice to government and what we have now – Jekyll and Hyde, bastardised, politicised, confused and compromised hybrid corporates which have forgotten what it means to serve the public.
Bob Cunis would know all about the problem.