7am is a daily news podcast brought to you by the publishers of The Saturday Paper and The Monthly.
How to listen? Submit Newsletter signup Submit Website Submit

7am Podcast

Rick Morton on the state of the public service and the task of the new government to fix it.

Inside the chaos Morrison left behind

Read Transcript

As new Labor ministers begin their jobs in earnest, they say they’re discovering an unexpected challenge — the depth of disarray left behind.

According to some ministers that looks like negligence, delayed decisions, and a demoralised workforce.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton on the state of the public service, and the task of the new government to fix it. 


Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As new Labor Ministers begin their jobs in earnest, they say they’re discovering an unexpected challenge - the depth of disarray left behind.

According to some Ministers that looks like negligence, delayed decisions, and a demoralised workforce.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton on the state of the public service, and the new government's task to fix it. 

It’s Thursday, June 16. 

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
So Rick, it's been several weeks now since the election and incoming Labor ministers have been able to get to their departments and start the first few weeks of their job. And it's interesting because they've been in opposition for a long time, for a good decade. And obviously when you're in opposition, you can't really see behind the curtain of what's going on in government. So now that these Labor ministers have crossed over, can you tell me about what it is that they're uncovering in the departments that they're a part of? 

RICK:
Sure. I mean, I should say this is not a new thing, by the way. It's like any time there's a change of government between different sides of politics, there's a little bit of kind of hiding. 

Archival Tape -- Jim Chalmers:
“We are inheriting a very serious set of economic and budget challenges and there's no use mincing words about that or tiptoeing around the serious nature of the economic challenges” 

RICK:
But there's also that kind of the work that doesn't get done for ideological or perhaps more nefarious purposes. And that's kind of what we're uncovering now through the New Labor government. 

Archival Tape -- Jim Chalmers:
“Now we need to make sure that we are upfront with the Australian people about the seriousness and the nature and the magnitude of the challenges that our new government is inheriting from our predecessors.”

RICK:
They're in power. They'd been briefed by the department and they're suddenly getting eyes on projects that weren't funded properly, the nasty surprises from the former coalition government and some pretty weird stuff that was going on with some of the policy development. 

RUBY:
Okay. Well, can we dig in a little bit more into some of the detail of the, quote unquote, nasty surprises that seem to have been in store? Can you tell me a bit more about what's being uncovered and what it actually means in terms of providing services, which is, of course, what government departments are supposed to do? 

RICK:
Yes. Let let's look, I guess, at social services, just as an example, I spoke to the new Social Services Minister, Amanda Rishworth, and she told me that she was pretty concerned that there are some urgent matters to deal with. 

Archival Tape -- Amanda Rishworth:
“There were clearly nine years ago when we left government, some some key issues we had to deal with. And I am surprised that nine years later, these issues are back on the government's desk, the new government desk, without having seen much meaningful action.” 

RICK:
These issues are back on the new government desk without having seen much meaningful action at all in between.

Archival Tape -- Amanda Rishworth:
“It feels in a number of areas there's been a real drift, particularly in the social policy area.”

RICK:
Now in her portfolio, which is social census, a view has emerged that the former government has dramatically underfunded the National Disability Insurance Scheme Quality and Safeguards Commission. That's the safety regulator, which has resulted in an agency increasingly relying on contractors and consultants to do the work of protecting the safety and quality of those services being provided to NDIS participants, which is pretty significant and crucial work, I must say. 

Also, it's been put to me that some of the key pricing decisions for the disability support scheme itself had often not been made, and that's adding to a logjam of work associated with the cost of providing services that are really critical for disabled people and providers like they need to know those prices.

RUBY:
Right. Okay. So what does that actually mean then, Rick, for people who are on the NDIS in terms of the services that they're able to access and the cost of those services being provided? 

RICK:
Yeah, it's really important and it's hard to get across exactly why, but let me just put it this way: the NDIS is one of the most finely tuned and finely balanced, complicated pieces of social, you know, programme in Australian history. 

And when you're delaying key decisions that have to be made within a legislated time frame to keep the scheme running, you're actually setting off a chain reaction of things that just can't get done on time. And this is a scheme that is already under phenomenal pressure because of the speed at which it has had to grow over the last five years. So, you know, it just means future planning was not happening.

The new minister in social services, Amanda Rishworth. It's you know, just another example is rushing to complete the next national plan to end violence against women and children. With just weeks to go before the current one expires. It expires at. The end of June, And she told me that she was concerned that the former Government hadn't properly started planning for the end of the current one. And that's a big deal. 

And the way one minister put it to me is that of the former government. I just don't think they cared.And that is, perhaps not surprisingly, a view shared by many in this New Labor government. Now numerous ministers have described an almost catatonic public service and there were long ignored by Coalition politics.

RUBY:
Okay. And so, Rick, to what extent do you get the sense that any of this was ideological, that ministers weren't signing off on certain decisions, not because they couldn't, but because, you know, these particular types of programmes were not a government priority more broadly?

RICK:
Yeah. I mean, the way it was put to me and I and I happen to think this is pretty spot on. The Coalition Government had some priorities and they were certainly very interested during the campaign of prosecuting this culture war around trans kids and, you know, some of the pretty vague debates. But when it came to things like the arts, higher education, the environment, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, you know, even the plan to end violence against women and children, the fact that these things weren't foregrounded tells you everything I think you need to know about what the government was really about. 

Now, they, of course, will come out and say, we care about the NDIS and we care about all of these things and we care about the arts. But you don't look at what they say, you look at what they do. And in this case, it's that they don't do things in these areas, certainly not at any particular speed and without any particular great funding input. 

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment. 

[Advertisement]

RUBY:
Rick the incoming government is saying that they’re finding that in certain portfolios, areas like social services, there’s a backlog of decisions to be made and a certain amount of disarray in the department, I wonder though How this looks in other government areas, what about the Arts? 

RICK:
Yes. Now, Tony Burke is Labor's new arts minister and he has inherited this industry that is on its knees. Arts is an area that has had active harm done to it. And I should note that when opposition leader Peter Dutton announced his shadow ministry, The Arts portfolio was initially left off the list completely. Not a great look. It was later given back to Paul Fletcher, who was the most recent arts minister in the Coalition government. 

You know, national institutions are in chaos. The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which holds a $6 billion collection of public art, is almost falling down. And the Coalition offered less than one quarter of the required $87 million to replace the crumbling infrastructure at the gallery. We're talking lifts stairs like remedial works to, you know, building structure, like not little things. It's not like putting a water fountain in the court. 

Archival Tape -- Tony Burke:
“Effectively, we've had a long period where there's no fundamental guidance as to why the sector matters.”

RICK:
And Burke said earlier this month, there has not been any guidance. He's talking from the government that these are serious industries and that these are serious jobs. 

Archival Tape -- Tony Burke:
“I had previously always wanted to argue only the cultural value of the sector and that was what I thought was my job. What I realised when the pandemic hit was for a whole lot of people, arts workers weren't even being considered workers.” 

RICK:
And he said, I don't think we've had an act minister see it as a priority in that sense for a long time and I really want to bring that back. 

Archival Tape -- Tony Burke:
“Part of the job that will have to do with cultural policy this time is not simply look at the cultural value, but really make sure in a formal way Australia has acknowledged the economic power of the sector.” 

RICK:
Now, another minister put it more bluntly to me. They said Things get overlooked and every government has to create priorities. But the arts are just like the university sector in that we know the Coalition just doesn't give us stuff because they don't think there are any votes in for them. And and that minister went on to say, you know, when a new government comes in, you're not just dealing with a few delays with projects off and bad bookkeeping, but often you're trying to actively undo harm that has been done over many years. 

RUBY:
And Rick, how do you go about actively undoing harm like that? Because you're describing a worn out, quote unquote catatonic public service. And when that happens, that kind of culture can become quite entrenched and quite difficult to shift? 

RICK:
Yeah, it is. But at the same time, you can change things with a new direction by just listening to people like the public service. Just they're really talented, they're smart. This is their whole life. Many of them have been training for this to manage to provide frank and fearless advice to a government, but also to provide their own ideas for reform that might or might not get flicked off or ticked off by ministers. 

Now, the sense was in the previous government, but they just didn't care because again, there was this view that the public service was kind of like a lefty elite who didn't really know what real Australia was like. 

But also, I mean, people assume that it's very easy to get a new government to talk about stuff like this because, you know, it's a new government. They get to hang out all this dirty laundry on their political opponents. 

But it's actually quite difficult because these are their problems now and they're not necessarily racing to tell you everything that's gone wrong or that they're going to have to deal with, because they're now in a position where if you've left multiple services in your cargo without, you know, taking it to a mechanic, it's not just the tyres that need replacing at the end, it's the full body job which is really expensive to do.

And that's kind of where we see this language in the new government talking about, you know, it's not going to be easy, the next budget isn't going to be easy. There's a lot of spending that's been happening under the old government, but not necessarily where it's needed. 

And that is why, you know, when you've got journos looking at this stuff, it's important to keep up accountability no matter who's in government, because it's in some respects, it's the machine itself that keeps ticking. 

RUBY:
Yeah, that's interesting, Rick, because obviously during the election campaign, Labor spoke a lot about how if they got into government, they would find the ways in which the previous government had been wasting money internally. And so I just wonder, as they’ve been telling you about what they're discovering in these departments, is there any talk of actually uncovering government spending waste as well?

RICK:
Yeah, they are definitely looking for it. 

And I know this won't come as a surprise to anyone, but I know that they are looking at the grants programmes very carefully because there were rorts for days under those grants programmes under the former government, you know, where they were, you know, colour coded spreadsheet for sports rorts to essentially give any member of Parliament, especially in a marginal seat, access to grant money that was not decided on any criteria other than how marginal seat, which of course resulted in a heavy favour of funding going to marginal Coalition electorates. 

And you know Jim Chalmers has been very upfront about yes, we need to find savings, but they need to do it in a way that isn't just kind of like getting the five out and sweeping through holus bolus. And it's the same with spending. They actually do want to have some new spending, but it's going to have to be in ways that help the economy. 

RUBY:
Hmm. And so, Rick, taking a look at all of it, at the onside contracts, at the demoralised public service, what does that all suggest to you about the final months of the outgoing coalition government?

RICK:
I don't want to be melodramatic about it, but it is very much like, you know, the siege of the Capitol or the fall of Rome or something like that, where it's just like, all right, everything's over. Take what you can get if you've got time to lay the booby trap and go for it, but otherwise, get the hell out of the building. 

And, you know, there's no handover. But in politics, you've got the added disadvantage, I guess, of not only is the new person coming to replace here in the new government, not you. So you don't have to do the work, but it's probably a political opponent and so it's in your best interest to leave them in the lurch a little bit.

But the thing is, you know, what we are aware of so far is only what ministers have found. And this is just in the first few weeks. Right. So, you know, talking to one minister, they said that the depth of the rot over the nine years of the coalition government is something we've known. But it will it will take time to quantify. 

So this minister is essentially saying that the mode of operating of the government changed a little bit. It became more secretive, less transparent and more tricky to use their word. And I think that's true. And I think we will see a lot of that come to light through this Integrity Commission, which Mark Dreyfus, the new attorney general, says should be up and running in the middle of next year, 2023.

And I for one of the journalists and fascinated by what is going to come out because there's a lot been hinted at over the last nine years. And I am desperate, desperate to see a little bit more transparency come into this area. 

RUBY:
Hmm. Rick, thank you so much for your time.

RICK:
Thanks Ruby

[Advertisement]

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

The minimum wage will be increased by 5.2 per cent, slightly above inflation on July 1. Workers on minimum wage will have their hourly rate increased by 1 dollar and 5 cents to $21.38 an hour.

The Fair Work Commission said the decision will affect over 2.7 million workers and that the increase will not adversely impact the economy. Prime Minister Athony Albanese said the government absolutely welcomed the Fair Work Commission’s decision.

**

And the Australian Energy Market Operator has taken the extraordinary step of suspending the market for wholesale electricity. 

The market, which is between energy generators and retailers, will be suspended and reviewed on a day to day basis, because the regulator says it is impossible to ensure reliable electricity supply under the current circumstances.

I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am, see you tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.
Loading...