Instant Experts

To be in public life you need to have a sense of self-belief. How else would you cope with those that feel they can criticise your actions, private life, as well as decisions you have made in the past?

‘Stars’ such as elite sports professionals, actors, performers and so on can demonstrate that they excel in their field of endeavour. While you personally may not like how people like Michael Clarke or David Bowie perform their job, there are plenty of people that do — and they are entitled to their opinion. ‘Stars’ also usually keep their public pronouncements to areas where they have demonstrated expertise and considerable knowledge. If you don’t like the field of endeavour or the person, the public opinion of the ‘star’ is usually ignored and the world moves on.

It’s not the same for politicians. Politicians have a large influence over our everyday lives. On a recent Saturday morning, the Brisbane Times was reporting a newly elected Queensland parliamentarian whose former partner claimed she suffered domestic violence; leading to the premier referring him to the Police for investigation. He is also claimed to have structured his affairs to avoid his obligations in respect to child support. There was also a discussion on the number of federal politicians with more than one mortgage — the implication being that they may allow personal considerations to be a factor in any discussion or vote on the future of negative gearing in Australia. Neither of these issues would be ‘newsworthy’ if the subjects were the staff at the local supermarket.

Ask a politician why they went into politics and few of them would say it’s for the money or to gain fame. Until fairly recently they generally saw a need for something to be done in their community and decided that they were the ‘somebody’ that should do it. In recent years we are seeing the career politician emerging where they join the young [insert party here] club at university while doing a degree, then move on to the senior party and usually take a position in an existing politician’s office, or in the party hierarchy, before ‘blooding’ themselves in an ‘unwinnable’ seat then later being offered a winnable seat as a reward.

Once a person gains a parliamentary seat, they (depending on skills and popularity) may be offered a ministry. The person who can gain the most support then becomes the leader. While the system has worked for a century in Australia (and longer in the UK) with reasonable success — as evidenced by Robert Menzies, a lawyer, and Ben Chifley, a train driver, becoming prime ministers in the 1940’s — there seems to be a pattern for recent ministers to not understand the issue at hand. The Australian government’s website explains the role of a minister as a member of the legislature who has been chosen to also work as part of the executive, usually with responsibility for matters on a specific topic (his/her portfolio). It is a similar practice in the UK and other ‘Westminster’ parliaments such as in Canada and New Zealand. The website also notes that there is no mention of political parties, ministers or the roles of prime minister and opposition leader in Australia’s constitution.

In contrast, the United States of America has a different system whereby the president selects people they believe will perform well in the ‘secretary’ roles — which are similar to the ‘minister’ roles in Westminster parliaments. The person selected usually has some involvement in the industry he or she will regulate. The president can choose anyone he likes to be a ‘secretary’ but the US congress holds ‘confirmation hearings’ to endorse the decision. As party politics are involved in the selection and confirmation process, the confirmation process isn’t always smooth — as discussed here in respect to former Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. Hagel lasted two years as secretary of defence: his resignation cited differences of opinion with the Obama administration.

In the ‘good old days’, while politicians nominally ran the various sections of the government in the Westminster system, they relied on the ‘frank and fearless’ advice of the permanent public servants provided to their (let’s face it) temporary leaders. The New South Wales Public Service Commission (PSC) discusses the concept here, while acknowledging that at times the action is fraught with danger. The guide includes the following cautions:

One approach (recommended by Stephen M. Goldman (2008) in “Temptations in the Office: Ethical Choices and Legal Obligations”) is to prepare yourself carefully before you give the advice by:
  • Digging into the facts. Seek out a complete account of the situation, including facts and acknowledgement of biases
  • Gauging similarities with past situations. Recognise any significant particulars between the current problem situation and past situations
  • Analysing your decision-making process. Don’t over-estimate or under-estimate your instincts or your rational analyses. Use them as “checks and balances” against each other. Propose options. Suggest a number of practical alternatives, both short-term and long-term, that could be taken to meet the Minister’s or manager’s objectives.
The NSW PSC also has advice for managers/ministers that are being told something they really don’t want to hear:

Your style of communication may not be compatible with the communication style of the person who is giving you difficult or distressing information. However, as a professional, it is your duty to get the information they are attempting to communicate even if you consider the way they are communicating is annoying or distracting. This is particularly important when people are giving you criticism or unwelcome advice, because if you become angry or defensive you may cause that individual to stop communicating with you, and more broadly, you may develop a personal reputation, a culture and work practices that will result in you becoming isolated, uniformed and ineffective.

It must have seemed to be a good idea for federal Treasurer Joe Hockey to appear on Q&A to discuss the release of his ‘Intergenerational Report’ during March 2015. Sadly for Hockey, it wasn’t. Hockey was shown to be out of touch on the economics of current ‘hot button’ issues such as negative gearing and infrastructure spending by John Daley, CEO of the Grattan Institute. As Hockey raised the usual talking points that had no doubt been tested by focus groups of party faithful and fed to him by senior advisors vetted by the prime minister’s chief of staff he was, as reported in Fairfax media, outclassed by someone who knew what he was talking about.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne was probably expecting a relatively friendly interrogation from David Speers on Sky (given the reputation of the broadcaster), however it didn’t happen. Pyne also forgot the adage that if in doubt say nothing, as his claim that he is ‘the fixer’ has come back to haunt him on a number of occasions since.

Prime Minister Abbott is not immune to criticism here either. Abbott claimed at a press conference that he had no concerns about metadata when he was a reporter in the 1980s. At best, Abbott was badly informed when he claimed to a group of journalists (the usual job description includes the ability to research quickly and accurately) that he wasn’t concerned by something that didn’t exist.

Prior to entering politics, Hockey was a banking and finance lawyer as well as a policy director for the New South Wales premier. Pyne also was a lawyer prior to being elected to parliament at the age of 25 and Abbott has various qualifications in economics and arts and, prior to being elected to parliament, was a journalist, concrete plant manager and director for an anti-republic organisation. While they have had varying experience prior to politics, and all have tertiary qualifications, it is unrealistic to expect that they become instant experts on all the matters in their portfolio.

As we discussed earlier, Menzies and Chifley were considered good prime ministers, but they also certainly didn’t have the personal experience to be instant experts in all the detail needed for a government to function — especially in wartime. The difference between the 1940s and 2010s is a permanent public service not afraid to give ‘frank and fearless’ advice, because in the 1940s the public servant delivering the dissenting view was a permanent employee and wasn’t neutered by the fear of their contract not being renewed. The public servant also was a long term employee — not someone appointed by the government of the day — nor did they have to deal with the ‘Minister’s personal staff’ (who have been ‘approved’ by the party hierarchy) disagreeing with them.

Not that the US system is any better. While the ‘secretaries’ are usually chosen because they have some direct experience in the area covered by their portfolio (unlike Australia), there is considerable opportunity through the selection and confirmation process for ‘the best person for the job’ to be ruled out due to some previous alleged misdeed or political belief.

Australia is also subject to political ‘ethnic cleansing’ of ‘permanent’ heads of departments, as witnessed in Victoria and Queensland following the recent changes of government. A master of the art was former Prime Minister Howard, who effectively sacked six ‘permanent heads’ soon after his election because of their perceived closeness to the former Hawke/Keating ALP government.

So Australia has the worst of both worlds. Not only do our ministers generally have no direct experience in the portfolio they control, the higher echelons of the public service are on employment arrangements that can be legally broken by either side should they feel the need. Could it be possible that the ‘need’ could be giving ‘frank and fearless’ advice to their minister?

The Political Sword has discussed the marketing and media management of politicians on a number of occasions. Is the ultimate expression of the failure of Australia’s current political system demonstrated by ministers clearly not being across the details of their portfolio? Is this because the political minders only give the minister the message or theme of the day rather than the information they need when someone goes ‘off script’?

The Westminster system of government clearly has the potential to deliver better solutions to the problems faced by the citizens of the country concerned, as the minister takes advice from experts in the particular field, employed by the government on a permanent basis and thinking with a ‘long term’ view. The experts know that they have the right and obligation to present dissenting options to the minister if needed and discuss the possible detrimental effects of the possible decision — which the minister subsequently makes with all the information at hand. The opinion given should not have any effect on the continued employment of the public service officer. The US system has flaws when the ‘confirmation’ process for the various (probably partisan) senior staff and advisers to the President can take some time or be declined for potentially some party political objective.

The problem is when the politics overrules good government. Those that operate successful businesses look for the best and brightest to manage the business elements the owners don’t understand — such as small business operators timetabling regular meetings with accountants and lawyers to assess the current situation and future plans. The current government maintains that Australia should be run like a business; and then buries the people that could provide the best advice under a layer of political appointees. The result is that ministers open their collective mouths to change feet as demonstrated above and policy is decided on party priorities rather than national priorities.

The scandal in all of this is that both sides are equally culpable; we’re paying for it now and will continue to in the future as less than optimal policy will be implemented.

What do you think?

About 2353

After reading 2353’s post, what do you think? Perhaps we can’t expect our politicians to be instant experts but are we, as a nation, allowing politics, instead of what is in the national interest, to rule our policy? Should the public service be encouraged to return to ‘frank and fearless’ advice? Is there another way?

Next week Ken suggests that the Abbott government may not be as shambolic as it appears in his piece: ‘Beware, there is a plan’.

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19/04/20152353 What an informative reminder you have offered us about how the Westminster System should ideally operate. I found myself reflecting on how perverted it has become, perverted by both partisan political considerations and political operatives, who being perpetually in ‘election campaign mode’, use every situation to extract as much political capital as they can. These back room operatives, who have had little expert experience, other than being a political operative, often from student days, think in strategic terms only so far as how to win the next election for their side. Any strategic thinking about matters of national importance is subjugated to the partisan tactical manoeuvers they deem appropriate for this occasion or that. They brief ministers about how to respond to questions or issues so that maximum political advantage is gained, much of their advice being derived from focus groups and polls. Thus we hear the same boring recitals over and again. On [i]Insiders[/i] today Joe Hockey repeated for the umpteenth time how his difficulties with reducing the deficit were the result of Labor’s recalcitrance and its perversity in not supporting 'even its own cuts to expenditure'! I must have heard ministers echoing that a thousand times, and no doubt will have my auditory apparatus assailed with that mantra many times more. If ministers were to listen more to what their public service advisers are telling them rather than what their political advisers are, we would not have this nonsense, these weasel words poured endlessly into our ears. While there will occasionally be a legitimate party political imperative that makes it necessary to override political commonsense, these days it is the illegitimate political objective that so often carries most weight. It leads to poor decision-making, and decisions not in the national interest but only in the partisan interest of the party. Oh for the days when fearless professional advice from well equipped public servants was given and [b]accepted[/b]! Thank you for reminding us of what could be, if only!


19/04/2015Please forgive a long comment – almost a mini-post – but this comes from a piece I was writing but wasn’t getting enough hard data for a full piece. Although there are problems – like the rise of political advisers in ministers’ offices - the public service is not quite as toothless as it may sometimes appear. [quote]Ever since the late 1970s, Treasury was concerned about what would happen to government revenue in the new millennium when the ‘baby boomers’ left the workforce and income tax revenue fell. Their answer was a broad-based consumption tax so that even when they retired the baby boomers would continue to contribute to government revenue. It first tried when Howard was treasurer in the Fraser government: Howard took the idea to cabinet in 1981 but it was rejected. When a new government was elected in 1983, and a new treasurer appointed, Paul Keating, they rolled out their next attempt to get it through. Keating supported the treasury’s advice but he had to take it into Hawke’s 1985 Tax Summit in the hope of getting consensus. He didn’t and the idea was dead, at least so far as the government was concerned, but not in treasury. In 1996, 13 years later, along came another new government and another new treasurer, Peter Costello, so treasury rolled out the idea again, despite the political fact that John Hewson had lost the ‘unlosable’ 1993 election with a consumption tax as the central plank of his policy. Howard had promised there would ‘never, ever’ be a GST under his government but by the time of the 1998 election, treasury had gotten its way and that consumption tax became part of the government’s platform. When it won the election (on seats, not overall votes) the government negotiated a deal with the Democrats to get the GST through the senate and it came into effect on 1 July 2000. Treasury didn’t get everything it wanted in that deal but it had won a battle (if not yet the war) it had fought for almost 25 years. Behind the scenes the public service still does not necessarily toe the government line. In a short piece in December for the Fairfax press, Peter Martin referred to an OECD report that expressed concern: • that the proposed free market in university fees will not be free at all • that the plan to take young people off the dole may significantly hurt low-income households • that increasing pensions only by the consumer price index may be unsustainable and require the pension to be lifted in the future • that Australia’s superannuation concessions are monstrous (2% of GDP) and pretty ineffective, and • the GST is too low Martin commenced the piece by writing: Does the OECD know what it’s talking about. You bet. It might be a committee of Paris-based outsiders, but it works out what to say by talking to Australian bureaucrats. Officials from the Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Reserve Bank allow it to say in public what they are only allowed to whisper in private. That does, indeed, capture the way the public service operates, often pursuing an agenda over many years with different governments: and, while governments come and go, the public service provides the continuity not only in administration but sometimes in policy approaches. [/quote] Another issue is that nowadays public servants are taught that the minister is the department’s primary ‘client’, whereas when I first joined the public service in the mid 1970s the main client was seen as the groups whom the department serviced, whether they were welfare recipients, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people or businesses and farmers. The old way meant that ‘frank and fearless’ advice would be advice that was thought to be in the best interests of the groups for which the department was responsible. Under the new approach that type of advice may not be in the minister’s best interests, so I think there is a potential conflict because, although public servants are not meant to be involved in the politics, placing the minister above the department’s other clients means that the minister’s political interests have to be taken into account.


20/04/2015Ken, Yes, the wheels within the wheels in the public service look for better outcomes in the future. My concern is that the current cult of popularity politicians use to get elected will derail the long term policy due to short term populisim (as we've recently seen in the discussion over WA's entitlement to GST revenue). There seems to be a small number of senior public servants that are 'valued' by both sides of politics, others however can affect the future by removing senior figures for reasons of ideology.


20/04/2015The title INSTANT EXPERTS caught my eye. My friend who is a train driver often talks about the volunteers at the local historical railway society. The moment they don an orange vest they become experts on everything railway. With politicians if they are given a portfolio away from their expertise they are often founding wanting in an interview.


20/04/2015DoodlePoodle I think you are half right. A politician may have a portfolio outside of his or her expertise but they rely on the department for the expertise. The department will brief them on every issue; will offer advice; will provide recommendations. In that scenario, the minister's job is to weigh the political implications of the advice and whether he/she and the government is willing to pursue it in the light of the political implications, whether good or bad. If a department is doing its job (and, unfortunately, I believe that many these days aren't capable of doing a proper job) a minister should never be caught out in an interview - unless they are stupid and can't absorb the information they are provided or refuse to accept it (and I did know one or two in the latter category). Between the details provided by their department and their own political skills, a half-decent minister should be ble to handle almost any situation. By definition, if they can't, they are nor even half-decent and should be removed.


21/04/2015Abbott is now giving advice to the Europeans on refugee migration, which causes reactions like this from a publicity seeking english commentator who's only claim to fame is being a contestant on a reality tv show. Makes you reall yproud to be an Australian!


21/04/20152353 I noted the Drum article was by Jeff Sparrow, the former editor of 'Overland', a Left literary journal, and one of my favourite Lefties among the current crop. I have quoted him previously in one or two of my pieces. Although he wasn't on The Drum tonight, the panel did have a go at Abbott for offering advice to Europe when they face a problem which is very different to Australia's. While I think there is a case to try to stop 'people smuggling', there are other ways and/or other steps that need to be taken. What no-one seems to be talking about is the need to support the UNHCR to process refugees more quickly in refugee camps so they don't need to go to people smugglers (whether Europe or Australia). Fraser sent our own government officials into the refugee camps for Vietnamese - why can't we do that again. What we should be saying is that people can come here if they are processed and be doing everything we can to speed that processing.

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21/04/2015[b]Folks Joe Hockey talks a lot about ‘intergenerational theft’, by which he means spending profligately now, running up national debt, and our grandchildren having to pay it off. To me, the more crucial intergenerational theft of which he is guilty arises from the paucity of emphasis his IGR 2015 gives to climate change, arguably the most important threat to the global economy and the viability of life on this planet. In my view, this denial of global warming by the Abbott government, and by Hockey in his IGR 2015, represents dangerous neglect. If allowed to continue, climate change will become irretrievable and will thereby thieve climate security from all future generations, an awful legacy, profoundly worse that the intergenerational theft of money! If you need convincing of the validity of this argument, get over to [i]TPS Extra[/i] to read [i]Intergenerational theft Hockey style[/i]: [/b]


21/04/2015Comrades Yer wouldn't read about it. J**** & I live in Adelaide and we rarely take trips. But yesterday (Monday) we took the 6AM flight to Sydney, and the train to the NSW Central Coast suburb of Tuggerah, near Wyong, to see my sister & her genuinely ever-loving husband. The day dawned clear and beautiful by the time we reached cruising altitude, not a cloud anywhere. But as we neared Sydney, we saw afar a band of cloud before us, with a magnificent anvil (storm cloud) with its head higher still than our own 38000 feet. We bumped on the clouds, and then as we plunged into them, droplets of water began scudding along the aircraft windows ... By the time we reached Mascot, it was raining hard. And as we boarded the train, the wind was rising too. Two hours later we were in Tuggerah, by which time the conditions had worsened still more, with a howling gale blowing the hard rain nearly horizontal. It's been like that ever since. The BoM says the conditions are "unprecedented" in NSW, and described the weather as a Category 2 cyclone. When this morning arrived, we found that the power had failed (as indeed it has all along the northern NSW coast.) No coffee,* no TV,(al-electric house), and next door a HUGE tree has blown down, rupturing a water main and flooding the roadway. We all went for a drive to see the folks' new house about a half-hour distant from their present one. Everywhere the scenes were similar. Amazing amounts of tree branches everywhere, some trees across roofs and power lines. The power was back on by the late afternoon and we now have thermoses full of hot water for coffee in the morning. Providentially as it has proven, as you see from my footnote! Lightning close to us for hours and still the wind and rain rages... I LOVE it! We don't get this sort of thing in SA. But then, they don't get it here in NSW neither - except when J**** & I take a trip here! We just hope that the electic train will get us back to Sydney tomorrow where we have booked the next few nights in a fancy pub ... Can't help thinking how completely we depend on power, water, transport, shops ... *DAMN! As I typed "coffee" the power has failed again and I'm finishing writing this by laptop-light!


22/04/2015Ken, I saw some figures some time ago that demonstrated that Canada 'processed' double Australia's number of refugees and only held them in detention for an average of three days while identification checks were carried out. Another reason to be a proud Australian! TT - I always suspected you would announce your arrival :-) Stay safe.


22/04/2015Following on from yesterday's comment about an engligh 'famous for being famous' woman's comment on refugees - she has been rightly reported to the UK Police for racial villification -> Couldn't happen to a nicer person


22/04/2015TT You have arrived in time to experience the famous 'east coast low'. An understated name for a weather system if ever there was one. They are basically like a cyclonic system that forms over cold water instead of warm water, and because of that difference are never as severe as genuine cyclones but do generate lots of rain and gale-force winds - more than a normal low that just passes through. 2353 It would be interesting to find out more about Canada's refugee intake given that it now has a similar government.

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22/04/2015TT I read your fascinating account of your trip to NSW in [i]Yer wouldn't read about it[/i]. Is this unprecedented weather event an offshoot of climate change? In my view, climate change is lurking in the background every time such events occur. Soon, only total deniers will be able to disregard the connection. [b]You may be interested to read excerpts from [i]The Guardian[/i] and [i]Climate Spectator[/i] in the comments section of the latest [i]TPS Extra[/i] piece: [i]Intergenerational theft, Hockey style[/i]: [/b]

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23/04/2015Paul of Berwick Thank you for your comment and the link to an interesting appraisal of troll behaviour. We can regard ourselves as fortunate that few trolls inhabit the [i]TPS[/i] space.


23/04/2015Worth another look - Clarke and Dawe

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24/04/2015Ken That [b]was[/b] a delightful edition of Clarke and Dawe.

Ken Fabian

24/04/2015Seems like the modern government Minister in Australia, in the face of frank and fearless advice, routinely ignores it and gets advice more to their liking from organisations intended for such purposes. Lobby groups and their think tanks in co-ordination with PR and Advertising and if they have it, supportive media can and do replace the advice of public servants or of commissioned studies and reports that don't agree with prior biases and political leanings.
T-w-o take away o-n-e equals?