Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pilbara play proof Lib-Nat partnership a mistake

The Premier’s “take a cold shower” comment to WA Nationals Leader Brendon Grylls this week is symptomatic not only of Mr Barnett’s tendency to highlight his superiority complex on talkback radio but also of a very messy, imminent problem for the wider government.

Of course, Mr Barnett would say that he was just trying to give some well-meaning advice to a valued friend and colleague, but his warning to Mr Grylls’ over his decision to run for the Labor-held seat of Pilbara at the next election runs much deeper than friendly advice. Quite simply, the Liberal Party will do all it can to stop the Nationals getting another seat in the Legislative Assembly, including that of retiring Labor MP Tom Stephens.

The Nationals have a well-earned reputation in Mr Grylls’ current electorate of Central Wheatbelt so they should retain that seat regardless of the candidate – be it current Upper House Member Mia Davies or anyone else. The threat to the Liberal Party is if Mr Grylls wins the seat of Pilbara, the Nationals will extend their size (and influence) in the Lower House and presumably increase their ability to manipulate Government spending in the next term.

Mr Grylls obviously believes his personal star power combined with the bucket loads of money the Government has spent in the Pilbara thanks to “his” Royalties for Regions scheme will deliver the seat to the Nationals. However, given the outright hatred the Labor Party holds toward the Nationals in that part of the world and their desperation to win Fremantle back from the Independent former Green MP Adele Carles, the Labor Party is likely to do a preference deal with the Liberal Party to disadvantage the Nationals in Pilbara. Unless Mr Grylls secures more than 50% of the primary vote, that deal would just about guarantee he will lose his seat in Parliament come 2013 and the Liberal Party will pick up Pilbara from Tom Stephens.

Mr Barnett wasn’t offering friendly advice - he was suggesting a threat to Mr Grylls’ Parliamentary career.

Both the Royalties for Regions program and Brendon Grylls himself have been problematic for Colin Barnett. There is wide discontent among his Liberal Cabinet colleagues who are often forced to go cap-in-hand to the much wealthier Nationals Ministers to effectively beg for money to fund their pet projects. And the current National team play hard-ball politics with who gets what. Consequently, the Premier is under growing pressure to reduce the proportion of Government spending controlled by the Nationals who would undoubtedly argue for the status quo or even more and if they were to secure another Lower House seat in the next Government.

In terms of Brendon Grylls the man, the Premier, who is hell-bent on trying to develop his image as a wise and considered statesman, is often frustrated by the brash impatience and naked ambition of his younger Nationals counterpart. In EERC meetings, where Ministers and their Department heads pitch to a star chamber of senior Ministers for funding, Mr Grylls is vocal, animated and often showers the room with expletives when he perceives a funding request to be poorly considered or not in the political interest of the government.

Conversely Mr Barnett, who as Premier made reinstating a jacket and tie dress code for Parliament one of his first orders of business, likes to play it cool and mull quietly in the corner leaving others to jump up and down in what he considers, an undignified manner.

But the tensions in the Liberal-National partnership are much deeper than dress-codes and unparliamentry langauge.

Mr Grylls has often upstaged Mr Barnett’s life-long ambition to run a professional, moderate bureaucracy. The urgency inherent in 39 year old Mr Grylls means he IS prepared to occasionally throw the baby out with the bathwater if it means reaching his short-term goal. As someone who has come so far aching with ambition to conquer the summit, he is often frustrated to be blocked at the top by someone who must appear to him as a boring father-figure.  His Gen X risk-taking mentality has paid enormous dividends for the kid from the bush with a cruel lisp and the decision to have a stab at the seat of Pilbara underscores his “if you’re going to go out, go out with a bang” approach to politics.

His supposed ally, but true nemesis in his race to the top of the hill is the slow-moving, overly cautious, bureaucratic Colin Barnett. Mr Barnett wants to be remembered as an academic who put good public policy ahead of political ambition. He longs to be remembered as a modern-day Charles Court and with his new-found enthusiasm for the Queen, probably wouldn’t mind following Sir Charles into a knighthood either. Consequently, he tries to keep bad news away from the front page at all cost and is desperate to ensure his leadership is not connected to anything other than full and proper process – something Mr Grylls is happy to at least partially sacrifice in order to get a timely outcome.

Mr Barnett’s philosophical approach to government is diametrically opposed to that of Mr Grylls. And the differences between the men are reflected in the mood of the parties they lead. The National Party has a can-do attitude and is keen to make the changes they want now, even if it inflicts a bit of short-term pain. The Western Australian Parliamentary Liberal Party is defensive and reactive. To use the Premier’s own analogy, his team is batting, not bowling – and it looks like he thinks it’s a test match, not Twenty20.

The fight over the Pilbara will be a high profile and somewhat destructive battle for the Liberal-National partnership but unless someone smart negotiates a formal coalition agreement ASAP, the broader differences between the parties and their respective leaders will cause a much greater chasm in any future alliance.

PS. Paige Talor from the Australian Newspaper followed this up with a great article published on 3 March 2012. You can read that here

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Senior public servants should be term of government

The Barnett Government will soon have to deal with the vexed issue of whether or not to renew the contract of one of the State’s most high profile bureaucrats – Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan - and it will cause unnecessary angst for all involved, as usual.

Mr O'Callaghan’s clever strategy to build cosy relationships with the local media has made him one of the few free-range department heads in the Government. The Premier and his Cabinet openly acknowledge that he does a pretty good job as Commissioner, but secretly would like a bit more control over his public comments without the fear of a media backlash.

However, regardless of the individual involved, the current structure and culture of our administration makes all governments vulnerable to controversy when they consider the future of any senior public servant. This is mostly because Oppositions are always hungry to invent a conspiracy theory of the betrayal of a fine public officer if the incumbent doesn’t renew a contract and just as quickly slam the Government for supporting a dud if they choose to renew. It’s largely a no-win situation for the government.

I’ll explain how this recurring ugliness could be eliminated with a fairly simple change to senior public service contracts but first, a bit of background:

In the Western Australian public service, there are fundamentally three types of employees: term of government (TOG), fixed term contract and permanent.

At present, TOG employees are very low in number and typically found only in Ministerial offices.  The people in these positions are appointed by the relevant Minister and rarely keep their jobs when a government falls. In each Ministerial office the usual roles for TOG’s include the Chief of Staff, Media Adviser, Ministerial/Parliamentary Liaison Officer and perhaps a Principal Policy Adviser or two. Importantly, the Leader of the Opposition is also afforded a number of TOG employees in his office.

The remainder of the more than 150,000 public sector employees (PSC Annual Report 2011) in Western Australia make up what is commonly referred to as the ‘bureaucracy’ and are broadly contracted as either fixed term or permanent. Regardless of their specific contract conditions, these people are usually considered “apolitical and professional” servants of the public. There is a general expectation that fixed term contracts will be renewed when they expire unless the role is redundant or the employee initiates a change.

Indeed, Premier Barnett has made a number of statements over the years that confirm his strong personal view that TOG’s are very different to their more secure cousins:
A term-of-government employee comes and goes with the government, comes and goes with the minister, and come and goes with the circumstance. A public servant cannot be moved on; that is the difference… What cannot be done under this government is the sacking of a public servant.” (Legislative Assembly, Wednesday, 19 May 2010)
While this commitment is no doubt very comforting to unionists and those employed by the public service, the Premier’s rigid  view is a double edged sword for both the Government and the tax-payers who fund the unsackable 10% of Perth’s population.

Mr Barnett’s staunch defence of the traditional “a public sector job is forever” philosophy is on balance, probably in the interest of the broader public. After all, government employees normally aren’t the highest paid in their field and high churn costs the government money in recruitment, training and lost productivity. I’ll go along with this even though the Barnett Government is currently around 20,000 public sector FTEs over its election commitment.

However, the Premier’s dogmatic implementation of this policy is problematic on two fronts – inefficiency and recalcitrance.

How do you improve the efficiency of an underperformer when they know they “cannot” be sacked? The uncomfortable truth more often than not in the public service is to promote them. Yep, you read it correctly, promote an underperformer. It is widely acknowledged that the fastest way to get a troublesome person out of your team is to move them up – clearly not ideal for the taxpayer and far from fair for those who do the right thing, work hard and don’t get promoted.

A far bigger problem caused by the no-sacking mantra occurs when a government inherits recalcitrant bureaucrats, particularly those in senior positions.

Firstly, let me put this on the record – the vast majority of public servants are excellent people doing the best they can to manage a constant fight for resources and cyclic, back-to-the-future policy changes. But occasionally, governments are faced with a Director General or other executive (on a salary of more than $150,000) who either can’t get their head around the new policies of an incoming administration or outright doesn’t want to. Then what?

The answer is fairly obvious if you concede that very senior public sector employees have to be somewhat political. It’s clear that Premier Barnett will disagree with this notion, but I contest that while bureaucrats in these positions can not act politically, they can’t be truly apolitical either –they need to be quite uniquely multi-partisan: that is, their job is to enable the political party in power, regardless of who that might be. The uncomfortable truth is that means they are often required to perform duties that advantage the government at the disadvantage of the opposition – and in that way, it’s a no-brainer that these roles have a political aspect.

And when a head of department fails (either due to lack of ability or lack of willingness) to fully embrace the policies of a new government, departments often become dysfunctional. To be fair, it’s sometimes a hell of an ask – imagine that a Director General has built a strong, trusting and friendly relationship with the Minister they have been working with for a number of years and within weeks, a new government is elected and asks that person to turn their department around and run in the opposite direction. Not easy for either the Minister or department head involved.

My proposed solution? “Term of government plus 6 months” contracts for heads of departments.

The “term of government” aspect turns the expectation of a renewal upside down – i.e. the person who accepts the role assumes that the contract will probably end in 4 years. If it does, the separation happens without turmoil or conspiracy theories, much like they do in the private sector. However, to avoid a mass exodus of knowledge and expertise at every election, the “plus 6 month” addition allows for the new Minister to meet and work with the person before offering another contract or provides for an orderly handover if there is a change.

While I understand this proposition will scare the daylights out of life-long public servants, it is made in recognition of the fact that a lot of time and political energy is wasted trying to cajole some overly comfortable, reluctant or recalcitrant heads of department to execute changes that take some time to fully implement – such as the Barnett Government’s slow-moving environmental approvals reform.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Keelty report a missed opportunity

The Barnett Government’s response to the Keelty report into the devastating Margaret River fires missed a critical opportunity for important change within Department of Environment and Conservation and further solidifies the public’s view that the Western Australlian Government lacks compassion.

Both Premier Barnett and Minister Marmion said the government took full responsibility for the controlled burn started by DEC in 2011 which ultimately destroyed 32 homes and damaged 16 more. While on the surface the statements infer culpability, the government has only agreed to provide compensation of up to $190,000 for victims of the fire - almost encouraging those who have lost a lot more to pursue arduous and expensive civil action against the state.

This is either a gross error of judgement or heartless and mean-spirited action.

Interestingly, this decision was made in spite of it being widely acknowledged among Ministers and senior advisers that the government has an image problem in this regard. Since the government’s first two budgets in which it decided to move domestic utility charges closer to cost reflectivity, the Premier’s office has been hyper-sensitive about the perception that the government lacked compassion. The Barnett government’s huge increases in fees and charges, combined with the Premier’s numerous “air conditioning is a luxury” type gaffs over the years have provoked a substantial internal effort to create a public perception that the Premier and his Government are in touch with the common people and sensitive to their financial pain. Indeed this was one of the driving forces behind the enormous $800m giveaway to the community services sector in last year’s state budget.

Even though the Keelty report squarely lays the blame on process failures within DEC, the Government has not only chosen to shirk the responsibility of full compensation but also run from the rare chance to make a much needed change to the leadership of DEC.

This might sound like a knee-jerk reaction, but the need for reform of DEC’s leadership is a long-festering problem. There is no doubt that Liberal-National government was elected in 2008 with significant backing from the mining and exploration industry, based largely on a promise of fixing the tiresome approvals process. One of the major gripes held by industry at the time was specifically about the conservative culture of DEC and it remains a huge disappointment that more hasn’t been done to correct that problem.

The Keelty report gave the government another opportunity to explain a change to the DEC leadership team and prove that it has compassion for the unfortunate amongst us, but sadly the Premier has stuck by his personal philosophies of sheltering the government and its public servants at all cost.

On this occasion, the cost may have been seriously underestimated.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Live by the sword, die by the sword

There’s been a lot of surprises in the Federal Gov’t soap opera of late. The first and possibly biggest for me is that Julia Gillard seems surprised that after trying to pull a tiger out of its cage by the tail, it turned around bearing its teeth.

I find it incredulous that a semi-intelligent human being can partake in an unprecedented attack on a first term Prime Minister then cry foul when the very precedent she set is used against her.

But it’s not the first time that someone at the top of the political heap has mysteriously forgotten the tactics they used to get there and sadly, I’m certain it won’t be the last.

Live by the sword, die by the sword they say - while I’m no fan of Mr Rudd, it’s clearly time for Ms Gillard to lay in the bed that her and her colleagues made in 2010.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The tangled web…

Last week’s dismissal of one of the Premier’s media advisers will cause significantly more harm than good for the average taxpayer – and the journalist who leaked the offending email should be the one to lose his or her job.

Let’s get a few things straight.

Firstly, the ugly truth is that our political system is adversarial and purposefully encourages confrontation. It sometimes gets personal and that is an important part of the process that provides insight to the character of the people who are paid to represent the public.

This age-old process delivers hardened leaders and exposes others who try to climb to a position they are not competent to manage. It’s far from a perfect system, but in the main it works in the favour of the public at large.

Next, hardened leaders don’t lead alone. They require (and demand) an enormous amount of assistance and support from their staff. Both the Premier and Leader of the Opposition have a handful of what are known as “term of government” staff who are in every sense, political appointments. They do the work required to navigate the messy political system that delivers our leaders and keeps them on their toes.

The media adviser who lost his livelihood and well-earned reputation last week was doing his job. It is an ugly job but it is one that has always been done by TOG’s and will continue to be done for generations to come. His actions weren’t explicitly approved by the Premier, but that is because neither Mr Barnett nor anyone else in his position could possibly approve everything his staff have to do to keep him on top of the messy system of politics we have. This background noise is managed by a group of hard-working, often under-appreciated and evidently disposable soldiers who do so to enable him to focus on the big issues of State.

Finally and perhaps the ugliest truth of all is that this has irrevocably damaged the public’s access to important insights into the State’s current and future political leaders.

The fact is that tips and suggestions like those in question are sent to journalists every day and play a critical role in the evolution of governments. The need for whistleblowers and political mischief-makers alike to feel safe when providing information to the media is clearly in the public’s interest. The decision to publicly name the author of these communications caused a series of events that has damaged that trust.

Ultimately this means less accountable governments and oppositions who do not receive the scrutiny they need before they rise to power. Bearing in mind that some journalists have chosen to go to prison rather than disclosing their source, it’s fairly obvious to at least some in the profession that the media’s responsibility is far greater than a 2 day cheap headline and scalp of what turns out to be just a young guy doing his job.


Welcome to The Quick Brown Fox blog.

I hope to bring you informed comment, insight and suggestions regarding the politics of all levels of Government in Australia with a focus on Western Australia.

I aim to not only make comment, but also some uncommon background to issues that will ultimately provide a better understanding of how our system of Government works and in some cases, doesn’t work.

I’m currently the principal consultant at Squeaky Wheel strategic communications and government relations which provides commercial services to corporate clients and also some services (such as education and some advocacy) to not-for-profit organisations and individuals on a pro-bono basis.

Thanks for reading and please don’t hesitate to provide feedback and questions for me to respond to.