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In a major speech this week, the prime minister warned the public service that it is losing the trust of middle Australia. But data suggests the ‘quiet Australians’ are losing faith with their politicians. By Rick Morton.

How the prime minister got middle Australia wrong

On the top floor of a brutalist office tower in Brisbane, throughout 2010, a 23-year-old ministerial media adviser met weekly with top departmental lawyers and stopped them releasing information to the public.

These were Queensland’s version of freedom of information (FOI) request meetings. The lawyers, public servants, would come with A3 spreadsheets of all the new requests for documents and those due to be released.

The adviser, a former cadet journalist from the Gold Coast, was the sole representative of the then minister for education. He had no legal qualifications. Yet, again and again, he managed to persuade the department they had been too broad in their appraisal of some requests, winning bids to slash the scope significantly or prevent entire applications from walking out of the building.

I know this anecdote is true because the young adviser was me.

Few ordinary Australians – the “middle” or “quiet Australians” as Scott Morrison likes to call them – know of this bureaucratic back and forth. Those who do may see political intervention in the public service as simply an aberration. But it is stitched into the very fabric of government, both at state and federal levels. In every recent government, ministerial staff members received lists from public servants of pending FOI requests from their respective departments.

“The department will tell the MO [minister’s office] what people are looking for and they will go backwards and forwards over what has to be released,” says one former senior adviser in the Turnbull government.

“The adviser might say, ‘Can we use this loophole?’ or ‘Why haven’t we redacted this part?’ That is a very common process in every minister’s office that has a relationship with their department.”

Year on year, FOI denials from federal agencies have jumped significantly.

The prime minister warned this week that the public has lost faith in the bureaucracy meant to serve them.

It’s a trust deficit, Morrison said, most pronounced in middle Australia.

“I want the APS [Australian Public Service] to have a laser-like focus on serving these quiet Australians,” he said in a speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) on Monday.

“There is strong evidence that the ‘trust deficit’ that has afflicted many Western democracies over recent years stems in part from a perception that politics is very responsive to those at the top and those at the bottom, but not so much to those in the middle.

“This will not be the case under my government. Middle Australia needs to know that the government, including the public service, is on their side.”

Morrison’s thesis is hard to prove. Overall, trust in the public service has been rising and is at its highest point in almost four decades, according to the World Values Survey 2018. The number is not especially high – of the 1800 Australians surveyed, almost 50 per cent said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the public service. It stands in sharp contrast, though, to trust in political parties, which has fallen to near 10 per cent. Trust in federal parliament itself has fallen to about 28 per cent, down almost half since the survey began in 1981.

The Saturday Paper received a breakdown of the survey respondents from Australian National University political scientist Jill Sheppard, who leads the local arm of the world survey project.

“There is absolutely no evidence for Scott Morrison’s claim that trust is declining in the public service, in fact the data suggests we’ve never trusted them so much,” Dr Sheppard says.

“In fact, we see trust declining in every other institution – politics, parliament, banks, churches and companies – but rising in the one area he has identified as failing. It bucks a trend.”

Interestingly, trust in the APS is lowest among pensioners, retirees and the unemployed – not those typically associated with “the middle”. Among respondents living in towns with populations between 10,001 and 50,000 people – the sorts of every-Australian places Morrison might conjure in his musings on the quiet masses – trust in the public service is highest.

“What we are seeing is that trust in the public service is relatively well distributed across the country. It’s not just high in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne,” Sheppard says.

“We know Australians are actually very good at pulling apart politicians from the public service.”

Frank Bongiorno, professor of history at the ANU, agrees. He says the public knows how to separate the machine from its controllers.

“People don’t like the shenanigans of question time and leadership coups,” he says, “but in line with their long historical experience of mainly efficient and mainly clean administration, they retain a faith that there’s someone buried in an office somewhere who will keep the wheels turning.”

Morrison’s office declined to elaborate on how the prime minister defined “middle Australians”.

In his speech to the IPAA, he described them as “those who don’t meet here, and you never hear from largely, they’re too busy doing life. Australians who just get on with it, but who often feel their voice gets drowned out by the shoutier ones in the public sphere and parading through this place.”

In an opinion piece, penned after returning from a summer holiday on the New South Wales south coast in January, Morrison called them the people who “don’t really have too much time to be angry”. They are: “Locals, holiday-makers staying at caravan parks, small business people from Western Sydney, surf lifesavers, fishing and rural fire service members, professionals, kids, mums, retirees, pensioners.” They are those living outside the Canberra bubble, a world away from politics, bureaucrats and “shouty” lobby groups.

And the nation’s leader is not alone in his diagnosis of their faithlessness.

Banking royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne agrees with the broad thrust of Morrison’s remarks, though the prickly former justice of the High Court also laid blame on the failures of political masters, not the mandarins underfoot.

In a speech at the Melbourne Law School in late July, Hayne said many people see ideals of independence and neutrality contrasted with the “characteristics of modern political practice with its emphasis on party difference”.

These same people, he said, are confronted “with decision-making processes that not only are opaque but also, too often, are seen as skewed, if not captured, by the interests of those large and powerful enough to lobby governments behind closed doors”.

The lobbyists Morrison called out in his speech lobby ministers, not departments.

As one senior public servant says: “I can think of a dozen examples off the top of my head where we have briefed against an idea because it did not serve the public, but they gave money to their mates anyway.”

When trust in the public service does break down, it tends to be at the mere hint of political intervention, according to social researcher Rebecca Huntley, who is now the principal at Vox Populi Research.

“In a time in which most Australians don’t want to trust anything, except maybe their best friend or their dog, trust in most parts of the public service is still quite high,” she says.

“Ironically, in the qualitative data, people’s anxiety creeps in when they feel that the public service is being politicised or when they watch this fetish for privatisation on the promise of efficiency they don’t feel is ever realised.”

Since the Howard years, the APS has been drastically scaled back – gutted or streamlined, depending on whom you’re talking to – last year shrinking to the smallest it has been since 2007. Some departments now have to beg for money in cabinet submissions – in at least one case, $1.3 million – just to have lawyers evaluate the parameters of a new proposal.

“That’s when the consultants and contractors come in and they swarm everywhere,” the former Turnbull government adviser says.

If there is one thing that ordinary Australians reflexively distrust, it’s a consultant.

Huntley acknowledges another truism about politics.

“The longstanding complaint that has been made, and it is maybe 30 years old, is that the affluent middle class feel like they are propping up the rich, who can afford to pay for their own stuff, and the poor, who ‘get stuff’ from the government,” she says. “There is a view that ‘there is nothing for us’.”

To the extent that ordinary Australians – young families trying to “have a go” in the suburbs and regional areas – are upset by politics, it may have something to do with delayed childcare reforms that left tens of thousands worse off financially and changes to family tax benefits that did the same.

The years of middle-class welfare are over, but the Australian electorate never does disappointment quite so well as when something has been taken from them. Just ask the franking credit army that helped Morrison win the election.

As Huntley notes, the prime minister may have correctly diagnosed a problem, but it rests with politics.

“I don’t think he is necessarily addressing a problem the public service can solve,” she says.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Morrison in the middle". Subscribe here.

Rick Morton
is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.