The buck stops where?


The old adage says ‘the buck stops here’ and it applies to managers, CEOs, government ministers and similar people when they take responsibility for what happens in their organisations, including mistakes. When applied in full it leads to people resigning if more serious mistakes are made even though the mistake was not personally made by them. But nowadays modern managers are more likely to point the finger down the ladder and say the blame lies there. What has happened to the old concept of responsibility?

In my recent piece about the rise of political staffers I used the example of Barnaby Joyce blaming a ‘rogue’ staffer for changes that were made to Hansard that should not have been made. Not a hanging offence but even for a mistake of that nature Joyce did not want to take responsibility nor even to blame his Chief of Staff (who should be responsible for the operation of his office) and instead it was an unnamed staffer lower down the pecking order. No doubt it probably was a junior staffer who made the ‘mistake’ — if mistake it was and not a direction to that person from someone higher up — but it still occurred on the watch of Joyce and his Chief of Staff. They are the ones who should have procedures in place to ensure such mistakes do not occur and it is for that reason that the old adage applies.

In my early years in the public service I had one departmental secretary who I would describe as being akin to a regimental Colonel: he was somewhat aloof from the staff, worked through the department’s hierarchy and everything had to be done ‘by the book’. He did, however, defend the department strongly to outsiders, including when appearing before parliamentary committees. It was like the old attitude that the regiment (read department) can do no wrong but woe betide the junior officer (read line manager) if a mistake was made. The next manager in the hierarchy would be summoned to the secretary’s office and given a dressing down. That manager, in turn, would pass the ‘dressing down’ along the line until it reached the individual who had made the mistake. In the case of more serious mistakes the threat was that it would be noted on an individual’s personnel file, including the line managers who had overseen the mistake.

The problem with that approach was that it could, in the case of serious mistakes, appear to be a cover-up. The secretary would accept responsibility and defend the department to the outside world but ‘kick bums’ internally — out of public view.

Then came the new secretaries, schooled in modern management theory. They were taught that people are important, not just cogs in the hierarchy, and would call people by their first names. Some of them were also happy to be called by their first name. They would sometimes call upon the person actually doing the work to brief them, not just the line managers. So far, so good. Most of us would agree that some old-style managers did not treat people well when operating with a hierarchical approach.

But these new managers were less likely to bear the brunt of mistakes. Perhaps because they did involve themselves with people down the line and did not always follow the hierarchy, they were quicker to point the finger to where a mistake was actually made. You were supposed to feel that you had let them down but, to my mind, that was a little hypocritical. While the new style was meant to make you feel part of the team, the captain of the team was as likely as not to abandon you when the proverbial hit the fan and push you into the firing line, no longer accepting responsibility.

In modern corporations we see CEOs, already on huge salaries, continue to receive bonuses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not a million or two, even when company turnover and profit has dropped and the share price has fallen. Are they held accountable or accepting responsibility for the success of their corporation when that happens? Why do their boards allow it to happen? It seems just another step in the diminution of responsibility in the modern corporate world. It takes something on the scale of the Volkswagen deception on emission testing to force acceptance of responsibility at the highest levels but, even then, only after the deception is discovered. Why was it allowed in the first place?

Since President Truman a number of US presidents, including Obama, have had the sign ‘the buck stops here’ on their desk, but consider Nixon and Watergate. Nixon denied all knowledge of the break-in. Even when it became clear that members of his staff were involved in organising it, he still denied any involvement. It was the leaking of the Oval Office tapes Nixon kept that made clear it was not just a case in which he should accept responsibility for the actions of his staff but that he had been personally involved. He operated on the principle that if it was difficult to find the truth, he had scope to deny responsibility and that seems to have become common for modern CEOs and politicians — hence we now have the term ‘plausible deniability’.

We saw it in Australia with the ‘children overboard’ affair (also referred to in my previous article). Political staff have learned from the Nixon experience and now work to keep their minister at arm’s length from awkward situations, so there can be ‘plausible deniability’. Staff kept the corrected advice about the children overboard from Howard so that he did not need to lie when he maintained the story. When it eventually came out the blame was shifted to the public service, rather than staff in Howard’s office because, in the hierarchy between ministers’ offices and the public service, ministers’ offices do not make mistakes (at least not publicly). And I can point to the hierarchy that operates between government departments where the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) also does not make mistakes. In an example when I was still in the public service a mistake (of a minor nature) was made, based on advice from PM&C, but it was the head of the agency in which I worked who accepted ‘responsibility’ for the mistake — he was subsequently ‘looked after’.

When he was first elected Howard introduced a strict code of conduct for his ministers whereby they were held responsible for their behaviour, their pecuniary interests, gifts, travel entitlements and so on. But he lost seven ministers upholding that standard and soon retreated from it. So when it was revealed that Peter Reith and his son had run up $50,000 dollars in six years, from 900 locations around the world, on a ministerial phone card, the government ‘toughed it out’ — Reith did repay the money and retired at the next election. It was Nick Minchin who promoted the idea (now known as the Minchin protocol) that ministers, and other parliamentarians, should be allowed to repay any misuse of tax-payer funded entitlements and, if that was done, no further action should be taken. Both sides of politics initially accepted that idea to reduce ‘losses’.

By the time of ‘choppergate’, when Bronwyn Bishop used a helicopter for a short trip to a Liberal Party fund raiser and charged it to her tax-payer funded travel, then Prime Minister Abbott stood by her until that became untenable — both the media and members of his own party continued questioning it. In that circumstance, simply repaying the money was no longer enough and Bishop had to resign her position as Speaker.

Turnbull lost three ministers in the first six months of his tenure as PM: Jamie Briggs, Mal Brough and Stuart Robert; the first for inappropriate behaviour towards a female public servant; Brough stood aside pending police investigations into the Ashby-Slipper affair; and Robert for having an indirect financial stake in a company he assisted in Beijing.

But the question remains, why did they misuse their entitlements or their position in the first place? Like Nixon, do they not accept any responsibility for their behaviour unless caught? Do they not have principles that would tell them it shouldn’t be done, that as public representatives they do have a higher standard of responsibility? — or even some level of personal responsibility to operate within the guidelines? And why do those above them defend their actions or remain silent, waiting until the furore dies down?

Compare that to Andrew Peacock in 1970 offering his resignation after his then wife appeared in a television advertisement for Sheridan Sheets. Perhaps it could be construed as gaining an indirect benefit from his position as a minister in the Gorton government. His resignation was not accepted but it shows that responsibility was taken more seriously then even for trivial matters.

Similar examples of relatively minor offences occurred in relation to customs declarations during the 1980s. In 1982 Michael MacKellar and John Moore lost their places in the Fraser ministry over a colour television. MacKellar had returned from overseas with a colour television but declared it as black and white; Moore was Minister for Customs at the time. In 1984 Mick Young stood aside from the Hawke ministry pending an investigation into his failure to declare a Paddington Bear, which gave the incident its name; the investigation found he should have been more careful but had no intention of evading the duty and he returned to the ministry.

Then there is ‘misleading the parliament’, one of the worst crimes a government minister can commit. In the Westminster system, in both the UK and Australia, that was supposed to lead, in the old days, to a minister’s resignation or sacking, even if the ‘misleading’ was unintentional. That was because ministers were considered to have a responsibility to ensure everything they told the parliament was truthful — after all, they had large government departments to advise them. Even if the advice they received was shown to be wrong, they accepted responsibility because they should have checked further, had processes in place to verify the information or been more circumspect in their statement. That is often part of the political game, to prove that a minister’s statement has been based on incorrect advice. We have seen that, after the event, in the Chilcot report in the UK which examined the advice on which Blair made the decision to join the US invasion of Iraq.

In the Whitlam government both Jim Cairns and Rex Connor were sacked for misleading the parliament over different aspects of ‘the loans affair’. In the Hawke government John Brown lost his ministerial position in December 1987 for misleading the parliament regarding tenders for a theatre in the Australian pavilion at Expo 88. But no-one has stood down or been sacked for that offence since — that is 29 years in which no-one apparently has misled the parliament (not even Brandis)!

Nowadays, the word ‘intentional’ seems to have crept into that crime, so to be a sackable offence the minister must intentionally mislead the parliament.

Look again at the ‘children overboard’ in that light. Did Howard mislead the parliament? — yes. Unintentionally? — probably, but only because correct advice was withheld from him. So where does responsibility now lie if ministers are denied the information that would prevent them misleading the parliament? Should the buck still stop with them? — if a culture of protecting the minister at all costs has grown in their office and they have done nothing to discourage that, then perhaps it does.

Yes, there are varying degrees of mistakes, from minor errors to serious infractions. Would the colour television or Paddington Bear incidents merit being stood down in the modern climate? Even minor mistakes, however, are less often these days accepted by CEOs and ministers — as in Barnaby Joyce’s case. MacKellar would now likely have pointed to the staffer who filled out his customs declaration for him. Mick Young could have blamed his wife (if he dared) as the Paddington Bear was in her suitcase.

Some offences are not ‘hanging offences’ but they are now blamed on someone down the line. Resignation may not be required for minor offences but the people in charge should at least accept responsibility and explain how they will ensure such mistakes do not happen again.

So in this modern world if CEOs, prime ministers and ministers are no longer responsible, who is? It seems the buck stops with you and me, as voters and as shareholders. With the lack of principle shown by our leaders, both political and corporate, and their seeming inability to say ‘I am responsible’, it is you and I who need to place pressure back on them to do their job as it should be done. It is time we told them you are responsible for what occurs in your office, in your department, in your corporation; you are responsible for the actions of those under you; it may not always be a sackable offence but the buck stops with you regardless and you had best remember that!

What do you think?
Why do you think modern CEOs and ministers have abandoned the idea of being responsible for their organisations, let alone their own actions?

What can we do to make them accept that responsibility?

Let us know in comments below.


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Comments (6) -

  • Ad Astra

    12/11/2016 3:57:30 PM |

    Greg Jericho is well regarded as a commentator by all sides of politics. Today he had this to say about the lamentable performance of our government in addressing climate change in The Guardian in On climate change and the economy, we're trapped in an idiotic netherworld:

    This week was a prime example of how economics and, by extension, politics doesn’t cope very well with the issue of climate change.

    “The news that Australia economy went backwards in the September quarter was greeted with alarm by politicians and then used as a reason to push their policy barrow. And most of the barrows were piled high with coal.

    “The treasurer and the prime minister in their press conferences on Wednesday made great mention of the need to keep electricity prices low for the economy to grow.

    “Malcolm Turnbull especially was in full Tony Abbott 2010 mode out of a desire to cover the silly back flip on the issue of investigating whether or not to introduce an emissions intensity trading scheme.

    “When asked about the prospect of GDP growth going backwards he immediately responded by suggesting the issue was for Bill Shorten to ‘explain why he is proposing to increase the price of electricity’.

    “Never mind that such a scheme would more efficiently price emissions than does the current system, for now we remained trapped in an idiotic netherworld where any mention of pricing carbon (no matter how oblique) must be greeted with shrieks of horror, with the prime minister leading the chorus.

    “And while you do wonder if Malcolm Turnbull ever looks in the mirror in the morning and asks himself how it all came to this – or whether he first rings Cory Bernardi to ask whether he is allowed to look into the mirror and ask such questions – the broader issue is that this netherworld is one that inherently sees action on climate change as a negative for the economy.

    “And by contrast, the economic impact of anything that will cause climate change is seen as inherently positive.

    “The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, for example, took the decline in the GDP growth as further evidence of why investment in the Adani coal mine was essential.

    “He argued in favour of a $1bn government loan to build the railway from the proposed mine site to Abbot Point port saying: “you need that money to flow. If the loan facilitates this happening or expediting this process then I’ve got no problems with the loan”.”


    Read more here: www.theguardian.com/.../on-climate-change-and-the-economy-were-trapped-in-an-idiotic-netherworld  

    In his article Jericho referred to a report of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) written by eminent economists in The Stockholm Report of 16 November 2016. Here’s the preface of this statement, and its gist:

    Thirteen of the world's leading economists, including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and four former chief economists of the World Bank, have summarized their accumulated know-how in the Stockholm Statement. Traditional economic thinking no longer applies. Inequality within countries is threatening social cohesion and economic progress and development needs to be seen in a broader perspective in order to achieve more equitable and sustainable results. (My emphasis.)

    ”Inclusive economic development is the only socially and economically sustainable form of development.” This sentence is taken from the ”Stockholm Statement”, developed by four former chief economists of the World Bank including the Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz and nine leading economists*.

    “Sida and the World Bank co-hosted a meeting in Stockholm 16-17 September 2016 with the purpose of discussing the challenges faced by today’s economic policymakers. The meeting gathered a distinguished group of the world’s leading thinkers and academics to discuss today’s most pertinent development challenges and the way forward. The outcome of the meeting is the ‘Stockholm Statement’, which identifies a set of principles to help frame country-level policies in a rapidly changing and globalizing world.

    “The Statement emphasises the importance of policies that tackle inequalities.

    “Trickle down growth policies where the state has a minimal role and the rest is left to the market are not sustainable. It is underlined that the trend towards ‘unfettered markets’ of the last quarter century explains some of the recent crisis (financial crisis of 2008) and the current levels of inequality. GDP growth is needed as a means to achieve societal objectives. This requires a combination of a particular focus on the most deprived groups, deliberate interventions to eradicate oppressive norms and discriminatory practices as well as to attend to the impact of global technology on inequality.

    Environmental sustainability is a requirement, not an option.”


    Once more we see the linkages between trickle down economics, inequality, environmental sustainability, and climate change. We live in an interconnected world where systems theory applies: everything is related to everything else. Politicians who focus opportunistically on only one or two politically attractive aspects will get it wrong every time.

    The buck stops with our politicians, but they prefer to prevaricate, act adversarially, and end up doing little or nothing. Yet we pay them well!


    Read more here: www.sida.se/.../

  • Ken

    12/11/2016 7:58:37 PM |

    Ad

    Your comment raises the bigger issue of governments blaming the previous government which I did think about including in this article but it almost warrants another article on its own.  But as I point out, the public service can also wear the blame for mistakes made by ministers even though the minister is supposed to be responsible for his/her department.  It would be a change for ance to hear a minister or prime minister admit to a mistake and also say how they will ensure it won't happen again but I think that outcome belongs in the realm of fairy tales, at least for some time yet.

  • Ad Astra

    12/13/2016 12:11:40 PM |

    Folks
    Where does the buck stop on scientific matters?

    Recently we have seen science feature in the public discourse. Climate change, and Australian students’ indifferent scores on NAPLAN and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are two.

    Science arrived negatively with the advent of Donald Trump, who regards climate change as a hoax perpetrated by China to disadvantage the US commercially.

    Let’s look here at science. An article in The Conversation yesterday by Michael J. I. Brown, an Associate professor at Monash University titled: Trump has embraced pseudoscience and its deceptive tactics in a post-truth world begins:

    As a scientist, I expect the Trump presidency to have a curious familiarity.

    “Why? Because the relentless stream of falsehoods and character attacks of Trump’s campaign mainstreamed disinformation tactics that biologists, immunologists and climate scientists have come to know and despise.

    “Trump has embraced pseudoscience and its accompanying conspiracy theories. He’s tweeted that climate change is a hoax and vaccines cause autism.

    “Trump has met with Andrew Wakefield, whose fraudulent 1998 study kick-started the modern anti-vaccine movement. And he has just appointed a climate change denier to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

    “These pseudoscience communities are nothing new, and they haven’t even bothered to rebadge themselves as “alt-science” (yet).

    “It’s critical that the broader community learns from the grim experience of scientists when dealing with these attacks. Often scientists failed to appreciate that many public arguments about science are actually political battles, rather than evidence-based discussions. Raw political battle isn’t about seeking truth and reasoned argument. It’s about winning news cycles and elections."


    He continues with a debate about science.

    Scientific argument is often methodical, technical and slow. Perhaps this is exemplified by the biggest scientific announcement of 2016, the detection of gravitational waves, which were predicted by Einstein a century ago.

    “I’m engaged in a scientific argument right now about how rapidly galaxies form stars. My key points are in a 10,000-word manuscript detailing the data, methods, comparison with prior studies, and conclusions. An anonymous astronomer is reviewing that manuscript, and I expect my article to be published in 2017.

    “So if commentators or politicians demand “an honest debate” about science, what are they doing?

    “First, don’t ignore the adjective “honest”, with its veiled implication of dishonesty. It can be the starting point for conspiracy theories, with scientists and organisations around the globe manipulating science for no good.

    “What kind of debate is being sought? Are both sides going to face off by undertaking years of research and submitting 10,000-word manuscripts to scientific journals? Not likely.

    “Often a very literal debate is being sought, either on television, radio or stage. We find such debates, with their rhetorical flourishes, provocative and entertaining but they rarely advance science.

    “When Albert Einstein and Phillip Lenard debated relativity in 1920, Einstein wasn’t the clear winner. Perhaps the audience and newspapers that dutifully reported the debate didn’t appreciate that Lenard’s arguments about fictitious gravitational fields were wrong.

    "Demands for debate – such as the recent call for one by Australian One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts – are often seeking formats where even Einstein couldn’t win an argument about relativity.

    “They provide theatre and column inches. And critically, they provide equal billing for scientists and those who’ve never truly engaged in science. They embrace false equivalence.

    “Who am I?

    “I’m a scientist, but on Twitter people have some strange ideas about who I am. I’ve been accused of being a “warmist” and “alarmist” who is on the “gravy train” with a “bed wetting agenda”. (For the record, I prefer people not to wet their beds.)

    “I’ve encountered these accusations when discussing evidence, and they’re a means of derailing discussion. “Warmist” and “alarmist” are attempts to frame scientific findings as extreme political positions. Creationists can play this game too, preferring “evolutionism” to “evolutionary biology”. This tactic falsely reframes the argument as a debate between competing and equivalent ideological positions.

    “It doesn’t matter if the accusations have no factual basis, embrace conspiracy theories or are insincere. That’s not the point. I’ve been accused of using neo-fascist techniques and neo-Marxist attacks on the same day.

    “Donald Trump has never provided evidence that climate change is a “hoax”, with its accompanying global conspiracy of scientists.

    “This isn’t reasoned argument; it’s disrupting discussion of evidence. It’s about what needs to be true to reject scientists, not what is actually true about scientists.”


    Brown concludes:

    Trump has embraced pseudoscience and its tactics, and will be bringing it to the White House. I expect the accusations and misinformation of Trump’s campaign to continue, and like many scientists I will find it all too familiar. To argue with today’s politically expedient statements as if they’re evidence-based and carefully reasoned arguments embraces a false equivalence of fact and fiction. It is a time for true scepticism.”

    The science buck should stop with scientists. But what do we see – politicians getting their fingers into the pie and putting their own partisan political spin on the findings of scientific studies. Trump is a grotesque example; he doesn’t even bother with scientific argument. Our own politicians are not so flagrant, but nonetheless ignore scientific findings that don’t suit them. Think Tony Abbott and the neophyte Senator Malcolm Roberts!

    theconversation.com/trump-has-embraced-pseudoscience-and-its-deceptive-tactics-in-a-post-truth-world-70134

  • Ad Astra

    12/13/2016 2:47:09 PM |

    Folks
    Where does the buck stop with school education?

    In the comment above I mentioned the educational performance of our school children. Last week we had the 2015 Piza results, which compared performance among 15 year-old students from 72 OECD countries in scientific, reading and mathematical literacy.

    Australia was significantly outperformed by 9 countries in scientific literacy: Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Chinese Taipei, Finland, Macao (China), Canada, Vietnam, and Hong Kong (China).

    In reading literacy, Australia’s performance was significantly below 11 countries: Canada, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Hong Kong (China), and Macao (China).

    In mathematical literacy, Australia’s performance was significantly below 19 countries; Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Estonia, Canada, Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Norway, Singapore, Hong Kong (China), Macao (China) Chinese Taipei, and B-S-J-G (China).

    The full results are here: research.acer.edu.au/.../viewcontent.cgi

    It’s a pretty poor performance by our students, who are well below students in a number of Asian and Scandinavian countries. Who is to blame? Where does the buck stop for this poor result?

    Today we had the NAPLAN results: Here is what Suzanne Rice, Senior Lecturer, Education Policy and Leadership, University of Melbourne, had to say in The Conversation in a piece titled: NAPLAN results reveal little change in literacy and numeracy performance – here are some key takeaway findings:

    The national report on National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) outcomes has been released today, showing the test results of Australian students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

    “The report outlines student achievement in reading, numeracy, spelling, and grammar and punctuation, and shows performance has stagnated.

    “Around 95% percent of students are included in NAPLAN results, meaning they provide a reasonable guide to how well Australian students are learning core skills.

    “Other than Year 9 writing, over the last few years, overall Australian achievement has flat-lined – it hasn’t gone backwards but nor has it improved.”


    The full article is here: theconversation.com/naplan-results-reveal-little-change-in-literacy-and-numeracy-performance-here-are-some-key-takeaway-findings-70208

    So who is responsible for this? Of course politicians point to teacher quality, and Liberals always maintain that ‘you can’t fix the problem by throwing money at it’, thereby diverting attention from the funding issue, which has bedevilled school education ever since Labor introduced the Gonski funding plan, which selectively allocates funds to the most disadvantaged schools. NAPLAN results, which aggregate results from all the schools involved, are pulled down by the results from disadvantaged schools and by children from disadvantaged home backgrounds, the very children Gonski was designed to help.

    The article concludes:

    While the report tells us a lot about the impact of broad factors such as student background, it can’t provide information on what is happening at a school level, or the reasons behind the general lack of improvement over the last few years.

    “Establishing why student achievement has flat-lined is a complex business and is not covered by the data collected or the analyses.

    “There are two important responses to the report that governments can take.

    “First, we could apply what we know is likely to improve student achievement across the board: supporting quality teacher professional learning based on our knowledge about improving student learning from the work of people like education expert John Hattie.

    “Second, we can and must do more to reduce the impact students’ home backgrounds has on their achievement.

    “A funding system that targets funding much more strongly to high-needs students and schools is important.

    “Research shows that individual student background has an impact on achievement, but so does the mix of students in a school. Australia’s education system has become increasingly stratified.

    “So policies promoting a mix of student backgrounds in our schools, for example, by requiring that all schools enroll a percentage of students from more disadvantaged backgrounds to receive funding [Gonski], would be another place to start.”


    Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, for the first time today accepted some responsibility for the results, but our penny-pinching Treasurer still refuses to fund the Gonski plan properly, especially years six and seven, which he still refuses to contemplate.

    Until our government accepts that funding is crucial to education, no matter what other factors are operating, and until it accepts that the funding buck stops with it, that Gonski is a well-reasoned plan that deserves full implementation, we will continue to see these poor results, which won’t get us any nearer to being the innovative, agile, competitive nation Malcolm Turnbull talks about so often.

  • Ad Astra

    12/14/2016 3:10:16 PM |

    Doodle Poodle
    That is a revealing article by Ross Gittins.

    The Turnbull government, knowing that the buck must stop with it when it comes to fiscal policy, is desperately seeking to justify its actions, or lack of them, and its apparent aversion to Keynesian stimulus in the form of infrastructure spending. So it has Treasury solicit another Makin diatribe opposing fiscal stimulus, knowing full well of his antagonistic attitude to fiscal policy, which Gittins tells us Makin regards as ‘utterly ineffective and probably counterproductive’.

    Here is the party that derided Labor’s management of the economy, insisted that it should move out of the way and let the ‘adults’ who ‘understood economic management’ get on with the job of restoring the economy to its former glory, now wallowing in economic quicksand, with no idea how to extract itself, so constrained is it by an ideological ball and chain that prevents it doing what is now required in the face of depressed private sector spending: namely government spending on infrastructure that would create Turnbull’s and Morrison’s ‘jobs and growth’, while putting in place much needed infrastructure to support the economy as it transitions from mining to the new economy, the one that Malcolm insists requires us all to be ‘nimble and innovative’.

    The ones who lack these laudable attributes are the very ones that urge others to exhibit them!

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