Fear & Loathing in the Public Service

Troy Buswell changed my life. Seriously. If he had never sniffed that damn chair, I’d never have moved to Canberra. It’s a hilarious exercise, and I encourage you all to do it: toss away any sense of agency and speculatively map the influence of external events on your life. For me, there’s one special co-ordinate on my constellation of dubious cause-and-effect: Troy Buswell, and his infamously vulgar display of bravado.

It’s 2008 and I’m a lowly Labor staffer and scribe in Western Australia. It’s revealed that the leader of the opposition Troy Buswell has, well, boorishly face-planted a woman’s chair. Cue: Buswell’s resignation, Labor’s gleefulness, public incredulity and international comics delightedly rubbing their hands.

As Buswell sniffed the seat, so did Premier Carpenter sniff opportunity. Glimpsing Colin Barnett’s unlikely return as opposition leader, and seized by machismo and idiocy, the Premier calls a snap election to destabilise his opponent. So you can also cue one of the earliest elections in WA history.

Personally, I thought we were doomed to lose, which was more pessimism than psephology. Having been asked to run a campaign, I was concerned. “Marty, come in here,” beckoned a senior advisor. He was sitting in a plush chair, his feet propped up on a table. He was looking over electoral data. “I’ve looked over these numbers,” he said, happily snapping the binder shut, “and there’s no way we can lose this election.”

We lost the election and I flew to Canberra to work as a speechwriter in the Australian Public Service. The campaign was a disaster, in part because of the opportunism that spawned it, and now Barnett would enjoy his second act in Australian life.

It’s hilarious to contemplate now: as I flew across our continent I had visions of joining Australia’s own version of Kennedy’s Camelot, built in the glow of Kevin 07. Camelot! Canberra! Mine was a particularly virile naivety. Visions of Jed Bartlett’s West Wing danced like sugar-plums in my head.

What I found was a structural and individual dysfunction that made me blush—this wasn’t Camelot, it was Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, minus the celebrities and with more “process”.

Individually, you had detritus: an assortment of misfits and malcontents who, given that most secure permanent contracts and cannot be fired, were working beneath a sickly and morally hazardous atmosphere.

Don’t get me wrong: I met a lot of serious, intelligent people committed to a sophisticated engagement in public policy. A few have even gone on to become first-class policy commentators. Canberra is a natural fit for the best minds with a policy bent—academia would be another. I’m speaking specifically of communication “specialists”. Those who can write, write. Those who cannot, write in the public service.

If the Socialist Left want a first-hand glimpse of the inefficiencies and deformities of the Soviet system, then spend some time in a communications team in the public service. It’s a grim Trotskyist circle-jerk, a sneak peek at a dystopic communist future.

In my mind, Australia produces far too many mid-level managers—too few people capable of producing anything but petty fiefdoms built with bloody-mindedness and banality. They are not our future leaders, investors, novelists, architects because of idiocy and inanity; sloth and a diseased imagination. But they flourish because the public service naturally rewards pedantry and a waning sense of dignity.

What happens is a self-generating vortex of spin and bromides because the culture of the public service—petty territorialism and covering your arse—means the best gatekeepers are those with the least amount of imagination.

Experience—even an interest in—media and politics is unnecessary. It means that the professional touchstone is caution, not excellence, making it the perfect province for the inane. The mantra becomes “Don’t worry about the outcome, worry about the process” as so the word “process” comes to have an eerie, cultish quality because it’s the fig-leaf which covers the rank inadequacy of so many.

Watching Bob Carr’s first press conference something stirred in me which must have been similar to the pleasant shock of recognition Argos had of his old master and chum Odysseus upon his return. “Ahhh, who is this?” I thought. “A politician speaking with warmth and wit; clarity and comfort.” Laura Tingle tweeted from the presser “I’ve worked out what feels so weird… a minister (almost) who isn’t talking in spin speak”. Mr Carr will considerably raise the communicative standard.

And that’s the point: the bully pulpit is powerful—use it. The influence of a talented, passionate, articulate Minister trumps so much of the dross pumped out from the bowels of departments. And it’s cost effective, for chrissakes. Millions of dollars are spent on the salaries of communications people with no discernible talent, influence or professional worth. It’s a fact. More money is spent on people who literally have nothing to do.

The so-called “efficiency dividend” announced last year caused some consternation in Canberra—the cutting of 1.5% of spending on Federal jobs and services. In truth, the cut could be much larger—but the scalpel taken directly to the communications areas, rather than across the board. See, the cuts weren’t as discriminating as they should have been.

In Senate Estimates a few weeks back, the National Library, National Gallery and the National Film and Sound Archive detailed the losses they’d experienced because of the cuts: reduced retrospective cataloguing, reduced services, reduced staff, reduced public events and an increase in charges for those borrowing between libraries. Similar attrition was felt by the other two organisations.

Let’s move—sensibly—towards surplus. Let’s not, in the memorable words of Doug Cameron, “fetishise” it. But if we want to rush towards surplus, increase the efficiency dividend. Halve the budget of communications teams or, better yet, don’t rely on them. You can do so with absolute assurance that the public good will not be damaged.  What’s more, you might be preserving the opportunity for Australians to view the works of people who actually produce things.


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