Crying over spilt ink

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

The Australian, August 19, 2014



NEVER come between an unstable prime minister and a ballpoint pen. That is one of the lessons to be drawn from Wayne Swan’s account of his years in Kevin Rudd’s government.

“At one point Kevin snapped a pen in a fit of anger in a regional hotel room and dark ink splattered all over the light-coloured decor,” Swan recalls in his new book, The Good Fight. “The damage bill was in the thousands and had to be settled privately.”

Sadly, there will be no private settlement of the bill for the National Broadband Network, which was another one of Rudd’s brain
snaps. Swan’s book presents a disturbing picture of the atmosphere in which the NBN fiasco developed. Nothing made Rudd angrier, ­apparently, than soundly based independent counsel.

“He was intolerant of detailed advice, especially of a deep and highly technical nature — the kind that comes from public servants with
decades of experience,” Swan notes. Debate or dispute “undermined his sense of control of minutiae”; Rudd’s outbursts “were often disproportionate to the matter at hand”; he “burned through staff like a child flicking matches from a box”. Advisers laboured within “a culture of fear and blame that had its origins in Kevin’s temperament”. Far worse, says Swan, “their advice was not listened to”.

Like every good horror story, the vampire gets skewered in the end, but in circumstances that leave open the possibility of a ­sequel. The frail character of Australia’s 26th prime minister plays the central role in Swan’s narrative, but its subplot reveals a frailty within public administration that ultimately may prove more ­destructive.

If the job of our professional, well-remunerated public servants is sometimes to save politicians from themselves, how do we account for their spectacular failure to avert the Rudd fiascos? Will any heads roll for the frank and fearless ­advice not given? Will careers be ended as
a consequence of their cravenness and complicity? Or will their salaries and novated leases continue to be honoured ­irrespective of the fortitude — or lack of it — they bring to their day jobs?

Those questions are at the heart of the report Bill Scales ­recently handed to the government on the NBN fiasco. Scales concludes: “The leaders of the Australian Public Service should examine whether its inability to have its views seriously considered on the important matters related to the Rudd Labor government’s NBN policy was circumstantial or whether it signals a more serious malaise within the Australian Public Service that needs addressing.”

The decision to switch from a relatively disciplined $4.7 billion broadband network to a harebrained $43bn scheme to run fibre-optic cables to everyone’s front door was made in just 11 weeks. Discussion, such as it was, was restricted to Rudd’s inner clique, a group unsettlingly known as the Gang of Four.

Rudd’s cabinet, the apex of executive government, “was asked, in a perfunctory way, to sign off the radically restructured NBN Mark 2” on
the morning it was announced. Scales calls this “a very significant public policy process failure”. In the meantime Rudd, Swan, Julia Gillard and Lindsay Tanner had been expected to evaluate more than 1000 pages of detailed documents at “breakneck speed”. We now know, thanks to Swan, that Rudd’s mandarin persona was misleading. In truth, good public policy “too frequently … came a distant third behind media and political considerations”.

It was the kind of hothouse ­environment that nurtures groupthink, a risky form of behaviour identified by American psychologist Irving L. Janis in his study of the Kennedy administration’s Bay of Pigs disaster. Warning signs are unrecognised and evidence that runs counter to the accepted view is discounted. Groupthink encourages “an illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all the members, which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks”.

Groupthink may well be an inescapable hazard of political decision-making where the need to maintain secrecy restricts the circle of discussion and leaders develop an inclination to dismiss nay-sayers in the public service as obstacles to progress rather than agents of quality control. Yet it can end the careers of the best prime ministers as well as the worst, as British political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe explain in their book The Blunders of Our Governments, published last year.

The fiasco that triggered Margaret Thatcher’s downfall was the poll tax, a political disaster dreamed up by her lieutenants Kenneth Baker and William Waldegrave, who ran a team that worked in splendid isolation from Treasury. Baker and Waldegrave’s crew “developed a gung-ho ‘yes we can’ attitude and had failed to engage in joined-up thinking”. King and Crewe sound an incidental warning against slick presentation, and what we may call the Power­Point effect. Baker and Waldegrave’s slide show “misled the spectators into imagining that the facts, figures and projections it contained were (more solid) and more trustworthy than they were”. It “discouraged scepticism and the asking of awkward questions, which in any case those in the room had not been given ­adequate time to formulate”.

As King and Crewe note in their understated introduction, “a considerable proportion of our blunders were committed at speed”. Confronted by the chaos caused by lead-footed ministers, a diligent public servant is obliged to play the role of a traffic cop. “Our study suggests that officials probably ought to be readier than they now are to put it politely to their minister that, instead of speeding up, he or she should perhaps press down less firmly on the accelerator,” say King and Crewe.

It is ironic, in hindsight, that the Coalition should have taunted Rudd in the early days of his prime ministership for leading “a do-nothing government”. “Masterly inactivity won’t fool the public forever,” Abbott told the Perth Young Liberals in January 2008.

It was a faint hope. Do-nothing governments are rare in Australia, and a do-nothing progressive government is probably a contradiction in
terms. Progressive governments are led by dreamers with rights to restore, nations to build and history to write. Their successors, unless they’re clever, are the governments that get to do nothing. Nothing, that is, except clean up broken pens.