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DisabilityCare, Geelong and the Decentralisation of Public Services

Planning for the NDIS, now DisabilityCare is coming along quite well. The only state yet to sign up to the full roll-out of the Gillard Government’s new plan for disability services is Western Australia. And just a few short weeks ago, the legislation for the funding of the disability scheme was introduced into the parliament and swiftly passed through both the upper and lower houses of parliament.

And on Monday this week the government announced that the headquarters for the government program will be in the Victorian city of Geelong. The move to base the head office of the scheme in Geelong came less than two weeks after the city took a big hit with Ford announcing it plans to cease production of automobiles in the country, a decision which will cost over 1000 jobs.

As a result of the government’s announcement, three hundred jobs will be on offer in Geelong, in what is being pushed as assistance to a town which will be beginning the transition away from large-scale manufacturing, at least as far as cars go, over the next three years.

But here we reach the first question. Is it really of great assistance to Geelong, and in particular, workers who will be leaving Ford Australia? Potentially. Some may be picked up over time by the DisabilityCare agency as they try to seek work locally. Some will inevitably retrain in another area, perhaps in public administration or disability services. But others will need to look elsewhere in Geelong, or perhaps much further afield.

What the announcement really is, in the way it was framed, is a symbolic gesture by the Labor Government, meant to appeal to the heartstrings.

Another claim put forth by the government is that it is an example of a commitment to the decentralisation of the public service. And it is decentralisation, in the sense that  the top brass in the DisabilityCare bureaucracy will not be based in the traditional heartland of the commonwealth public service in Canberra. Having a number of staff in the states and territories is also an example of decentralisation.

What this policy needs however, is a more deeply decentralised structure. Rather than simply saying that the top end of the bureaucracy should be based in one city or town or another, we should be spreading it around Australia more, on the basis of the population of each state and territory respectively. We ought to have decision-makers much closer to “the action”.

This reform is about delivering the best we can to the most vulnerable in our community. This means throwing as much as possible into a number of local areas, including major players.

Of course the CEO and some staff are going to have to be placed in one location. That is not a problem, but more senior staff should be spread around.

There are still other issues to be teased out in terms of making sure that the funding commitments aside from the levy are maintained, regardless of who is in government. And we must make sure that Western Australia joins in with the disability insurance scheme, or worst case scenario, offers a policy almost identical to the national one, save for possible improvements on how to administer it.

There is a lot still to be discussed, but the die has been cast and Geelong has secured some employment opportunities. But all care needs to be taken and in particular, lessons need to be learned, during and after the trial phase which commences in just a number of weeks.

Hopefully there will be no hard lessons in the coming years.

Putting the Politics Into Public Appointments

The 2013 election result is almost set in stone. In that case, the Liberal and National Party coalition will form government after the September 14 poll, leaving the Australian Labor Party to do some soul-searching on the opposition benches. That means that from late this year, the incoming government would have the ability to make appointments to the various offices and positions across government and the public service. Almost on cue, debate has occurred over these potential appointments.

It has emerged that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott sent a letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard urging that she not announce a successor to Governor-General Quentin Bryce whose term concludes next March, about 6 months after the election. The letter also chastises the PM for the recent reappointment of the Australian Electoral Commissioner and other public service appointments made recently.

In the letter, the alternative Prime Minister writes: ”The decision to announce these appointments subverts the established convention that no government should make decisions that are legitimately the province of a potential successor”. Yes, that old nugget again about the caretaker conventions which we have already debated during this, the 43rd parliament. You would have thought that little debate was well and truly settled. It is quite surprising it is being raised again, albeit in relation to a different topic.

Under the caretaker conventions, appointments should not be made by a government during the caretaker period of government. Further, if it is necessary for there to be an appointment made once parliament is dissolved, then it should be deemed a temporary role where the person nominated is acting in the role for a short period of time, If it is deemed necessary for the government to make a permanent appointment then, under the conventions, it is agreed that the Opposition be consulted with on that position.

As there was with the earlier protestations about the government following caretaker conventions, there is a slight problem – they do not apply to the present political situation. The Prime Minister has still not visited the Governor-General to ask that parliament be dissolved and that writs be issued for a general election. We are however in the unusual position where we have an election date. But for all intents and purposes, it means nothing in this scenario.

Where there is scope for some debate, at first glance anyway, is around the rumour of a government intending to make an appointment at a point in time so far from the present date and one which would take effect after an election they are likely to lose. And that is what has apparently prompted the letter from Tony Abbott to Julia Gillard. There is also a rumour going around the political world that an incoming Coalition Government would seek to make former Prime Minister John Howard Australia’s next Governor-General.

Quentin Bryce was announced as Australia’s Governor-General approximately five months before replacing outgoing vice-regal representative Major Michael Jeffery in 2008. A rather lengthy transition period seems to be the norm and that is not particularly problematic, given that it often involves relocation, though people often move at shorter notice for employment.

It is strange, if true, that the government would seek to make an appointment to the office of Governor-General some time before the election in September. There is absolutely no reason for any government to need to contemplate making an offer of employment for a position which is not vacant until March 2014.

The potential future appointment and the response to the whispers about it point to a disturbing part of our political culture – the need to make senior public service appointments political. Who lands senior public service roles should never be the plaything of political parties striving to make a point and stamp their authority, but it is. The so-called ‘jobs for the boys (and gals)’ culture is an unfortunate blight which rankles with voters in the early months after each election, to the point where many of us now accept it as the norm. Unfortunately, it colours our altogether negative view of politics and politicians.

Who lands what role should be less, though preferably devoid of politics and more about merit. We are a meritocratic society elsewhere, and when it comes to the public service, even largely ceremonial roles should be filled by the best, most accomplished fit.

When will politicians learn that their search for power shapes the way we view them?

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