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Spring 2001 cover

National Observer Home > No. 50 - Spring 2001 > Editorial Comment

The Government of Australia by Public Servants

Australians — generally an apathetic people without a culture of responsibility — have allowed the business of government to pass more and more into the hands of public servants, perhaps more realistically referred to as bureaucrats. That this should be so is attributable also, first, to the poor quality of Australian politicians, and secondly, to the increasingly complex problems that confront them.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Parliamentary committees, which are almost always controlled by the bureaucrats who are assigned to assist them either administratively or through the giving of evidence.

An important example of this process is seen in the Report "Australia's Role in United Nations Reform", released in June 2001 by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. As is found with most parliamentary committees, the membership of this Committee is large (fifteen persons in this case), and includes such relatively uninspiring members as Senators Alan Ferguson and Vicki Bourne and Mr. Colin Hollis. None of the members is distinguished in the areas of foreign affairs, defence or trade. As is customary, the Committee is provided with a secretariat and with other departmental assistance. Those providing departmental assistance are almost invariably considerably more intelligent and better-informed than the Committee members.

To appear before the Committee is a chastening and disillusioning experience. Questions from the members invariably reveal that they have not familiarised themselves with the subject-matter of their enquiries and are in many respects naοve. In addition, partisan attitudes on the part of many members increase scepticism as to their functions.

But at the end of their inquiries (after considering especially written submissions and oral evidence) a report must be written. And do the Committee members themselves write this report? Why, of course not: for how indeed could they? Instead a report is prepared by bureaucrats, the opportunity for which they have been waiting. For the report is written in accordance with Departmental policy, subject to some few "decisions in principle" made by the Committee (these decisions in principle being usually of an obvious and generally acceptable nature). Then the draft report is sent to members of the Committee, who are too occupied elsewhere and too uninformed to review it properly, and after a number of generally unimportant or insufficient amendments is adopted by the Committee and published as its own.

Such was the history of the Committee's Report of June 2001. On the one hand it contains recommendations of memorable triteness (for example, "Australia should only support comprehensive economic sanctions as a last resort") and recommendations that follow the current requirements of political correctness by a selective support of human rights initiatives and by quoting selectively from expert witnesses and in particular by referring with approval to such generally left-of-centre or internationalist sources as Mr. Chris Sidoti, Professor Hilary Charlesworth and other persons concerned with promoting United Nations agencies or policies at the expense of Australian sovereignty. Significantly, a majority of the Committee recommended ratification of the feminist Optional Protocol to the so-called "Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women".

On the other hand the Report promotes Departmental policy on such matters as the proposed International Criminal Court, which is intended to have wide general powers that will detract from Australia's sovereignty.1 For example, that Court will, if established, be able to override Australian courts by the simple expedient of stating that Australia "is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution" and will be able to require Australian military personnel or civilians to be extradited from Australia, whether by reason of spurious "war crimes" accusations or of spurious accusations of "genocide" against Aboriginals or other such matters. Section 8 of the Report (clearly drafted by a bureaucrat intent in all respects on promoting the setting up of the Court) contains a partial and apparently dishonest analysis, by deliberately understating the adverse effects of the Court for Australia and also exaggerating its alleged advantages.

The Committee's Report is in fact a dramatic demonstration of the failure in Australia of the parliamentary committee system. The Report might as well have been made overtly by the bureaucrats who drafted it and guided the Committee to their purposes. The Committee itself did little more than rubber-stamp Departmental views and give them a validity they would not otherwise possess. The lack of efficiency and of conscientiousness inherent in the Parliamentary committee system causes committee reports to be now little more than instruments of a self-serving bureaucracy.

Bureaucratic control over universities

Dr. David Kemp may be regarded as of average competence amongst members of Mr. Howard's Cabinet. In his capacity of Minister for Education he provides a characteristic example of the way in which the Executive permits itself to be misled by bureaucrats.

Dr. Kemp's undue reliance on bureaucrats is well instanced by incompetent actions in relation to Greenwich University. This University — a private University — was formally constituted by the Norfolk Island Parliament in 1998 with the official approval of the Commonwealth Government, and is staffed by highly qualified members of faculty (more than ninety per cent of whom have doctorates).

Education Department bureaucrats are notoriously opposed to private universities, which are not subject to governmental control in the same way as public universities. Hence although initially Greenwich University was assured in 1998 by Australian Education International and other authorities that it would be included on their lists of approved Australian universities, a process of bureaucratic white-anting soon began. Approval of the University was denied, a controversial report being prepared by a Mr. Mike Gallagher, a senior departmental officer.

The University responded to Mr. Gallagher in September 2000:

"Your continuous changing of the parameters and the guidelines have made the 'review process' not only a mockery in itself but also a cynical exercise in political opportunism. As you are aware, the report is riddled with inaccurate and misleading statements and comes to a completely false conclusion."

Since that time, the University has made fruitless attempts to have its position examined on a proper basis by departmental officers. In due course letters of complaint were written to Dr. Kemp and to the Prime Minister, but responses were drafted for them by bureaucrats. It appears to be clear that neither the Prime Minister nor, especially, the responsible Minister, Dr. Kemp, investigated the matter personally or apprised himself of all the relevant facts.

This example is of particular significance, since it concerned a major institution, Greenwich University, and the responsible Minister was nevertheless content to hand the matter to bureaucrats whose actions were controversial rather than accept proper responsi-bility himself. His remissness recalls that of Mr. Peter Costello, who has happily permitted tax policy to rest largely with politically motivated bureaucrats from the Australian Tax Office and the Department of Treasury.

The Low Quality of Commonwealth Ministers

What is the solution to the problem of undue control by well-informed, self-seeking and relatively intelligent bureaucrats over the decisions of badly informed, relatively unintelligent or unconscientious Ministers?

There has been little success in attracting high-quality candidates for the Commonwealth Parliament, and the quality of candidates for the State Parliaments has long been derisory. Labor Party members have too often been drawn from trade union backgrounds or, more recently, from "the dregs of the middle classes" (per Mr. Kim Beazley Senior), whereas National Party members are generally narrow farmers and Liberal Party members appear to comprise generally those of so little ability that it is remarkable that they are employed as representatives of the people.

Hence one should look more closely at the structure of the United States' government, and that of many European countries. The United States' President, in choosing his Ministers — or, in American parlance, "Secretaries" — is able to look outside the Congress and select the most able available people from the entire nation. He is hence able to select intelligent and successful individuals who have proven abilities and who are able to make their Australian counterparts appear hill-billies in comparison. They are able to control their departments more successfully than their Australian counterparts, who are generally of very low quality.

Presently there is a tendency — particularly from Australian parliamentarians who have obviously a vested interest — to praise ("they would, wouldn't they?") a system whereby Ministers must be selected from among Members of Parliament. Their self-serving attitudes deserve to be examined critically.  For how many of the plodding front-benchers on either side of each chamber inspire confidence or respect, or would be chosen if reasonably competent alternatives were avail-  able?

A re-assessment is long overdue. The American system in regard to choice of Ministers is clearly preferable to the Australian. One possible compromise might be found in an ability of the Prime 

National Observer No. 50 - Spring 2001