So be very clear on that: it’s been done to ensure you and I get better service from the public service. Specifically, the number of departments was shrunk so as to “ensure the services that Australians rely on are delivered more efficiently and effectively”.
I just have one problem: that’s what they all say. If Morrison had increased rather than decreased the number of departments, he would still have assured us it would make the public service more efficient and effective.
This is hardly the first time departmental arrangements have been changed. They’re changed after every election and often several times more. Changes are so common bureaucrats have a name for them: MoG – changes in the “machinery of government”.
According to calculations by Bob McMullan, former Labor minister turned academic, more than 200 changes have been made since 1993-94. “In 2015-16, machinery of government changes involved the movement of 8000 staff in 21 separate changes. Changes following the 2013 election, which involved the movement of 12,000 staff, cost an average of $14 million per agency.”
Governments everywhere do it, but research by academics at UNSW’s Canberra campus suggests Australian governments do it far more than others. “Even governments with an emphasis on ‘cutting red tape’ [such as this one] have undertaken extreme and costly MoG changes,” they say.
So why are the latest changes said to be the biggest since 1987? Because that’s when the Hawke government introduced the idea of merging departments into mega-departments. Paul Keating reversed some of those changes and John Howard undid much of the rest. Get it? It’s time to mega up again.
When the changes cause the name of some function to drop out of the ever-longer titles of departments, the interest group invariably sees red. A few years ago it was the scientists, this time it’s the arts. Actually, the arts have never had their own department, but have been shunted from one department to another.
Since Bob Hawke’s day they’ve gone from Environment to Communications, back to Environment, then Regional Development, Prime Minister and Cabinet, back to Regional Development, then Attorney-General’s, back to Communications and now to the new mega Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.
So many MoG changes involve moving functions from one department to another that McMullan has christened them “merry-go-round decisions”. “Responsibility for childcare, aged care and Indigenous affairs (to name a few) have all been the subject of multiple shifts in the past decade. In some cases, the functions have moved out of one department only to return to their original home a few years later,” he says.
He adds that “disentangling financial structures, IT support structures, property responsibilities and HR systems from old organisations and reintegrating them into new ones takes considerable time and effort”.
Former boss of Prime Minister’s Terry Moran’s comment on the latest changes is blunter: “There’ll be turmoil in many departments for a significant period.”
So why do the changes keep happening? Partly to create the appearance of progress – “reform”. Sometimes I think the pollies are trying to convince themselves as much as us. But mainly to indulge the preferences, prejudices and professed priorities of the prime minister and his or her ministers.
It’s notable that these extensive changes to the bureaucracy – including the sacking of five department heads – involve no changes to the ministry. The new mega Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment will now contain three Cabinet ministers, co-equal in power and glory.
What particular preferences and prejudices of Morrison do the latest changes reveal? I think it reveals this government’s disdain for public servants. It’s the revenge of the ministerial staffers (which many ministers started their political careers as). Who needs public servants giving ministers advice when it’s the staffers who understand the politics of the matter?
This is Morrison surrounding himself with the top public servants he knows and likes, replacing the ones who want to keep talking about policy with can-do men and women who don’t argue.
Morrison has repeatedly expressed his belief that he doesn’t need policy advice from public servants. They should just be getting on with implementing the policies the government gives them.
I think this is Morrison perfecting the hermetic seal of his personal Canberra bubble. He already knows what’s on his to-do list and he doesn’t want news from the outside world delaying or deterring him from his purpose.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.