Blobsmacked by the permanent bureaucracy

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, February 18, 2014

“IT’S indescribable, indestructible and nothing can stop it,” read the cinema posters for the 1958 movie The Blob.

The science-fiction horror movie has enjoyed a minor revival in Britain since Education Secretary Michael Gove declared the Blob a metaphor for the permanent bureaucracy that smothers good policy in modern public life.

Nothing could kill the malevolent red jelly that consumed everything in its path, just as nothing can stop the regulatory activism oozing out of Sirius House, the Department of Health’s headquarters in Canberra.

In December, at a forum of health ministers from Australia and New Zealand, assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash made it clear that she was sceptical about a plan to place a health star rating on the front of food packets.

She was concerned that the Regulatory Impact Statement, requested by the Office of Best Practice and Regulation in the middle of last year, had not been produced. Nash ordered the department to calculate both costs and benefits and to report back to the forum in June.

The Blob was having none of it. Kathy Dennis, the assistant secretary in charge of the Healthy Living and Food Policy branch, decided to press ahead anyway.

Two weeks ago, the department launched a website, www.healthstarrating.com.au, explaining the forthcoming health star rating system that the minister had yet to approve.

A ministerial adviser contacted Dennis expressing the minister’s concern, but the website remained in place. Nash’s chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, called Dennis to reinforce the message. Dennis stuck to her guns.

The minister was obliged to take the matter to the acting head of the department, Mark Booth. On Booth’s instructions, the website was taken down and Dennis was moved to other duties.

The excuse for the outbreak of insubordination, if you believe The Guardian, was that bureaucrats believed they answered to a ministerial forum (which includes, incidentally, New Zealand’s Health Minister Tony Ryall) not Nash, the minister accountable to the Commonwealth Parliament.

Such an arrangement, had it existed, would have been untenable. Dennis and her colleagues are duty bound to “serve the government of the day, providing the same standard of high-quality policy advice and implementation, and the same high quality professional support, irrespective of which political party is in power and of personal political beliefs”.

The mutiny at Sirius House is not an isolated case. The progressive establishment clearly has it in for the Abbott government.

Across the board, from the Climate Change Commission to the ABC, the Human Rights Commission and even Infrastructure Australia, all are openly hostile to the popularly elected government.

As Maurice Newman observed late last year, the Abbott government faces powerful opposition from the public service, the media, the universities, trade unions and the climate establishment.

“With a huge vested interest in the status quo, they will be vocal opponents of change,” he predicted

When the Blob fights dirty, as it did last week with an attack on the integrity of Furnival, it has many influential allies.

The trumped up charges against Nash’s chief of staff were absurdly hypocritical.

If Furnival’s work for the food industry constituted a conflict of interest, what should we say about the food activists who depend for their living on maintaining the rage against sugar and fat?

It was clear that Furnival was acting on the minister’s orders, while the bureaucrats were not.

Nevertheless, The Sydney Morning Herald splashed on Furnival’s decision to step down on Saturday, and along with The Guardian has paid no heed to the more substantial issue of a bureaucracy in open revolt with the government, and by extension the people who elected it.

The case for government-sanctioned health labels on the front of food packaging is a weak one. Like plain-wrapper cigarettes, it is founded on sentiment rather than evidence.

Redesigning packages to comply with these onerous regulations will cost money that distressed food companies like SPC Ardmona can hardly afford.

Nor is there much room on the packet. Like country-of-origin labelling, the daily intake guide and the foreshadowed unit pricing rollout, FoPL rules will not discriminate between a large sack of rice and a small tin of tuna.

In any case, the link between food consumption and health is considerably more complicated than the experts like to admit.

An EU-funded research project on childhood obesity that reported last month illustrates the point. Dutch kids on average drank the most soft drink; 700ml a day for boys and 565ml for girls. Young Greeks drank the least soft drink; 139ml a day for boys and 92ml for girls.

Yet Greek kids were the tubbiest in Europe. The girth of Greek boys was almost 8cm larger than Dutch boys while Greek girls were 7cm larger around the waist. Dutch kids, it turned out, were more likely to cycle to school.

This is precisely the kind of research that should be studied before authorising another pernicious and patronising intrusion by government into decisions that are essentially private.

Seldom has the gulf between “imperium” and “auctoritas” – the holding of power and the possession of authority – been so starkly visible on the Australian political landscape.

The difference between the two Latin words is explored in depth by Frank Furedi in his scholarly work Authority: A Sociological History, published last year.

The election last September granted Tony Abbott imperium, the right to command the parliament and the instruments of executive power.

Yet he does not enjoy auctoritas, the capacity to initiate and inspire respect, within the citadels of the insider class.

If Abbott is ever to tame the establishment, he must first gain the upper hand over the public service, taming the committees, taskforces and working groups that spend every hour of every day working to ensure that the will of the people as expressed through the ballot box never becomes law.

It boils down to a simple question. Does government chosen by the people have the right to change the country?

Or did the electorate merely select a group of bunnies whose unhappy fate is to be tormented by the Australian Public Service for the next three years?