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Australia in three words, part 3 — “Public servant”

‘Public Servant’ — in the sense of ‘government employee’ — is a term that originated in the earliest days of the European settlement of Australia. This coinage is surely emblematic of how large bureaucracy looms in Australia.

Bureaucracy, it has been well said, is Australia’s great ‘talent,’ and “the gift is exercised on a massive scale” (Australian Democracy, A.F. Davies 1958). This may surprise you. It surprises visitors, and excruciates them.

But in Australia the ubiquity and lustre of bureaucracy is taken for granted. In Australia, career public servants daily claim a public profile and prestige that elsewhere only central bankers could hope for. The average salaries of public servants are higher than in all but one of 26 OECD countries. And there they have unusual power. Australia is thick with ‘independent statutory authorities’ — states-within-a-state, each with a presiding potentate — which possess prerogatives seldom seen in other democracies.

Australia’s penchant for bureaucracy might be traced to the fact that Australia began as a colony. “The most enduring feature of any colonial regime,” it has been said, “one of the first to appear and the last to leave, is the administrator, the colonial bureaucrat, high, middle and low.” The highest stratum of management of colonial Australia was itself a bureaucracy, the Colonial Office, which was presided over by James Stephen, a “strict legalist” with a “passion for system and uniformity” (Australia: the Quiet Continent, D. Pike, 1962). Beneath it acted the governors, who, too, were public servants, in as much that they were accountable to the Colonial Secretary. The governors were eventually reduced to a ceremonial ornament, but Canberra soon replaced Westminster with its own host of Intendants working to achieve uniformity and centralization across the island continent.

The strength of the bureaucratic sphere in Australia may also reflect the weakness other spheres. The inevitable paucity of her social structure left bureaucracy’s claims of professionality and impersonality only weakly pressed against by other energies. Granted: the same could be said of many New World societies, including the anti-bureaucratic United States. So perhaps more important was the weakness of the market sphere in Australia, which in its frailty yielded so much of the field to bureaucracy.

The strength of bureaucracy surely also reflects the strength in Australia of the sphere of ‘prediction and control’ — or ‘science’ — that is so agreeable to the quantifying and rationalising impulses of bureaucracy. If modern Australia’s foundation in 1788 might be deemed a crazy ricochet of the Battle of Yorktown, it may be equally judged an unexpected precipitate of the Age of Reason. It was an international effort to compute the distance of the earth from the sun that dispatched Captain Cook to the south Pacific in 1770. In the subsequent settlement of Sydney, a completely misapprehended natural resources base drove its governors to resort hopefully to science: fittingly the first farmstead in Australia was named Experiment Farm. An ample supply of underemployed Scottish scientists made good the need for investigation and measurement.

Headquarters for the Australian Bureau of Statistics in Belconnen, Australian Capital Territory. Photo by Bidgee. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
ABS House which is the headquarters for the Australian Bureau of Statistics by Bidgee. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It is, then, unsurprising that one of the most significant manifestations of the pre-eminence of bureaucracy in Australia has been the creation of massive research monoliths. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is one of the most all-embracing national statistical agencies of any democracy. Australia’s CSIRO is a national scientific research body that in its size and general reach has no counterpart in the developed world. And the Productivity Commission — the economic and social counterpart of the CSIRO — has (beyond New Zealand) no equivalent elsewhere.

A more general consequence of the ascendancy of bureaucracy in Australia has been the high quality of her public administration. Thus in 1942 Nelson T. Johnson, the newly appointed US ambassador to Australia, found a panicked, demoralised, and seemingly leaderless country. The one favourable thing he could report to Franklin D. Roosevelt was that “it would be difficult to find a higher type of public servant anywhere in the world” (Australia through American Eyes, 19351945, P.G. Edwards, 1979).

Other consequences of bureaucratisation are more doleful. The higher reaches of the Australian public service were just too good. Too much talent was drawn there to waste itself in memoranda in triplicate. And, inevitably, the officiousness of bureaucracy inflamed the authoritarian tenor of Australian society. Thus the ABS in its recent census of 16 August 2016 was content to bandy the threat of fines of $180 per day for any person who did not complete it. (In New Zealand, by contrast, the maximum fine for non-completion of their most recent census was $500, and the media reports that no fine higher $200 was imposed.) Inflaming the offence, the ABS had decreed, in a characteristically high handed fashion, that the census must be completed on-line by all those who had not specifically requested a paper form. Predictably, the attempt of 10 million households to log in that August day concluded in ignominious computer failure, and the serious compromise of the census’ integrity. More grimly, and not long before, ‘the worst case of insider trading seen in this country’ — in the words of a judge — was hatched within the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Most importantly, the prestige of bureaucracy has accommodated the evasion in Australian politics of questions of value. It has suited political actors to pretend to reduce every issue to a spuriously objective bureaucratic assessment. Ideals are slighted, and perish in their neglect.

Bureaucracy, too, needs ideals, and although its apparatus in Australia expands remorselessly, its spirit decays, as it fails to maintain its own ‘Presbyterian’ value system of the ‘high minded and tough minded.’ The rational-legal logic of bureaucracy is sapped by an ethos of pop charismatic leadership, importunately grafted from ‘the market.’ Expertise and experience are discounted, and bureaucracy becomes another managerial playground of the lavishly paid but dubiously competent Australian corporate class. The progeny of Nelson T. Johnson are the today futile officialdom of various policy fiascos.

Australia’s doubtful ‘talent’ has unquestionably curdled.

Featured image credit: Crowd queuing for rationing cards, 1947 by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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