Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The double-edged sword of public opinion

As an overweight person, I’ve always been fairly self-conscious about eating in public.

My partner regularly (and somewhat unhelpfully) tells me I have “food issues” and on reflection, I guess I do.

I simply can’t eat while walking and feel nauseous if someone stares at me while I chew. Even when I’m really hungry in a restaurant, including a buffet restaurant where everyone else is gorging themselves stupid, I consciously choose my food partly in terms of how it might be judged by those around me.

Stupid huh? Everyone eats, right? I’m intelligent and somewhat accomplished – why can’t I just ignore the judgement of others?

The answer of course, is as simple as it is complex: human nature.

The truth is we are all at least a little bit nervous about what others think of us – for better or worse, we are very social animals and need acceptance as part of our recipe for survival.

This need to be accepted is one of many normal human traits that are often exaggerated in our politicians. That’s not meant to be a personal attack, mind you. In this case, I’m just talking about the fundamental fact that the survival or extinction of the current government quite literally depends on how well it is accepted by the public at large. This process arguably forces political decisions to stay relevant and popular with the majority, but it also limits the boldness and creativity of our political leaders.

That necessary evil - that razor sharp double-edged sword - is at the core of why sometimes I find our political system so deeply disappointing.

A case in point is the imminent move of the Premier’s office from St George’s Terrace in Perth to Hale House in West Perth. 

As most QBF readers would already know, the Premier and Cabinet Services will soon move from their current, privately-owned St Georges Tce offices to the government-owned Hale House in West Perth. At the same time, 4 Ministers, the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Public Sector Commission are also moving from the same Perth building to the government-owned 14 storey Dumas House, which forms one corner of a virtual triangle that would be completed by Parliament House and the Premier’s new Hale House office. Both Dumas House and Hale House have undergone significant refurbishments and re-fits at a total cost of around $100 million.

The Opposition has condemned the move suggesting the expiry of the lease on the St George’s Tce property could have been handled in a way that would cost the tax-payers less. The Government has responded by trying to sell the move as a cost saving measure – apparently reducing the over-all government accommodation bill by $11 million per year.

No real surprises there – fairly standard politics at play. The Opposition did what it is paid to do and questioned the cost and impacts of government decisions. And the Government has defended the move with what we have all come to expect from our governments of both colours - justifications, explanations, clarifications and just a hint of obfuscation.

Personally, I disagree with the Opposition on this one. Even though I don’t believe we will see the annual savings the government is projecting, I would still support the move if it cost twice as much upfront and didn’t save a cent on rent.

In fact, as a Chief of Staff sitting in a 2011 briefing on the project, I explicitly argued to the Director General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet that the government should actually increase the budget.

While I wholeheartedly believe it serves every Western Australian well for the executive government (regardless of which Party holds power) to work in attractive, professional offices that are in close proximity, I wasn’t suggesting extra expenditure for nicer furniture or the latest cappuccino machines. Indeed my suggestion for a larger project budget was about something far less trivial – the security of our Ministers and the secrets they hold.

Let me explain the concern I raised.

It is common knowledge (and often even publicly broadcast) that the Western Australian Premier leads a meeting of all his Ministers at the same time on the same day of each week. It is also widely known that this meeting occurs in the St George’s Tce building that currently houses the Premier’s office. Ministers who currently also have offices in that secure building simply ride the lift to those meetings. Ministers who work from Dumas House get driven from the secure basement in that building to the secure basement of the St George’s Tce building - from where they catch an exclusive (not accessible to the public) lift to the meeting room.

Other than the small waste inherent in nine V6 Holden Statesmans carrying 1 or 2 people from the same location at the same time to the same destination a little over 1 km away, I don’t see any major risk to either the reputation or security of our executive government.

Interestingly, the media knows this well-oiled process means they probably won’t see any Minister either before or after a Cabinet meeting, but still a sizable press pack gathers in the foyer of the Premier’s building whenever a hot story is brewing - even when the Premier is not scheduled to do a post-cabinet media conference. This reliable and easy access to a group of influential journalists means the weekly Cabinet meeting is fertile ground for protestors and others who might like to make their point in a very public way.

At the moment, the process doesn’t constitute much of a threat to anyone - mostly because Ministers come and go via car in the secure basement and the minimal footpath space in front of the building makes it fairly easy for police and security guards to manage any groups of troublesome people that might try to rally.

However, given that a number of the Government’s own publicly available documents tell us that those Cabinet meetings will move to Hale House when the renovations are completed, I forecast a very different outcome.

Take a look at this image from Google Earth adorned with some of my Photoshop handy work:

To help orient you: the Perth CBD is off the top of the picture, Hay Street in West Perth runs along the left edge and Kings Park Road runs up from the bottom right bending left toward St George’s Terrace off to the top. That big flat building with the square shadow on the lower right is Dumas House where almost all the Ministers offices will soon be. The red-roofed building in the top-left corner is Parliament House and Hale House (aka the Premier’s Palace) is the smaller red-roofed building in almost the centre of the image.

Now, back to the weekly Cabinet meetings that will soon be held in Hale House:

The 223 metre long blue line shows how a normal person could be expected to walk from the front doors of Dumas House to the new Cabinet entrance of Hale House – right through the middle of a very open parking lot. Presumably, at least when it’s not raining, all but a few of our Ministers will that path at the same time on the same day every week - 10 minutes before the widely publicised Cabinet meeting.

Beside the obvious security risk, imagine the embarrassing images that will happen every week as some of our dogged local journalists chase each Minister across that car park with a camera and microphone in their face… think the closing credits of the Benny Hill show minus the big-bosomed ladies. (Gen-y’s will have to Youtube “Benny Hill Show” to understand what I mean).

So after the first hilarious episode of “Ministers run the gauntlet” hits our TV’s, what are they likely to do?

Well, my guess is some of them will get in their individual V6 cars in the secure basement of Dumas House and be driven via the 318 metre red line. This will no-doubt result in at least one episode of “Lazy Ministers cars are slower that our reporter crawling” on TV and the final response will probably be a line of security guards being employed every time there is a Cabinet meeting to keep journalists and protestors away from Ministers as they scurry across the car park to and from Hale House.

The same dilemma will exist for the Premier, who will no doubt be encouraged to walk the 159 metre yellow line to Parliament when required but end up being driven the long way around.

If it’s just the media chasing Ministers across a car park every week, it will result in somewhat humiliating, but funny images that at the end of the day cause no real harm. However, the belief that our Ministers or their staff will never be the target of something more sinister is naive in the extreme.

And it was that sad realisation that prompted me during that briefing to argue for a larger budget that would allow for the construction of a secure tunnel linking Parliament House, Dumas House and the Premier’s office (the green line). Needless to say, the double-edged sword of public opinion – that force that ensures government decisions are moderate but increasingly disables sound, long-term planning was wielded. My idea was cut down on the basis that we couldn’t spend any more on this project without losing significant public acceptance.

And they were right. The costs of this project have become a matter of significant public disquiet.

But for me, it’s not disquiet that disappoints me about our modern political process - it is the growing tendency for our leaders to follow.

Please note: the image is from Google Earth and I have not identified any landmark or feature that isn’t already publicly identified. I also took care to not give details of the current day, time or location of Cabinet meetings. This post is intended to discuss the problems associated with cutting costs to appease the public and will hopefully prompt a re-think about the tunnel idea.

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