Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light… Making the most of axing public servants

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of the narrative stemming from the change of government has been occupied with criticising (and, perhaps, not critiquing) the Abbott Government’s decision to scrap a number of public service institutions.  The criticism has been interesting if for no other reason than its reverence for the status quo.

The case of the Climate Commission is the most notable.  As part of the ALP’s failure to lead the public debate on climate change, the ALP established the Climate Commission in February 2011 to provide expert advice and information on climate change to the Australian community.  Since then, it’s done surprisingly little.  It barely manages to update its webpage.

During 2012, the Commission looks forward to meeting with many more, and will be producing new information on the science and impacts of climate change as well as the opportunities – in Australia and worldwide – that acting on climate change will bring. [Source: ‘About the Commission’, ClimateCommission.gov.au (accessed 24 Sep 2013)]

Recent past events include two community fora in June, then nothing since December 2012.  It doesn’t seem to have published anything since November 2012 (although this could be wrong — the website is difficult to navigate to find its latest publications).

In other words, this was an expensive white elephant.

This hasn’t stopped some fairly unhinged criticism.  Visiting scholar, David Suzuki, wrote in The Guardian:

There is in Canada a legal category where people can be sued and thrown in the slammer, called wilful blindness. If people in positions of power deliberately suppress or ignore information that is vital to the decisions they’re making, that is wilful blindness. I call it more than wilful blindness. I call it criminal negligence because it’s a crime against future generations, to avoid facing the reality.

That is what Abbott is doing, by cancelling the (Climate) Commission, by firing Tim Flannery. It is criminal negligence through wilful blindness.

In my country we have a government that, I am ashamed to say, is even more intensely on this path because it has been in power longer than Abbott. Stephen Harper, our prime minister, was a big admirer of John Howard and of George Bush, and he has cancelled virtually all research going on in Canada on climate change. [Source: Suzuki, D. ‘Scientists should be up on the ramparts‘, The Guardian]

Suzuki’s complaint would be correct had the Climate Commission actually done anything.  Still, it fit the general narrative of the outraged left, inspiring them to relaunch as a community funded agency.  Given their current output of work, they won’t need much money.

I’m thoroughly against this idea of crowd sourcing funding for agencies.  It creates an irritating precedent to which libertarians can point regarding other similar services.  With the Human Rights Commission also potentially on the chop, it is worrying that groups like the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs now have a model where interested citizens can fund those agencies themselves and give a tax cut to everybody else.  Down that path lies barbarism.

While Flannery is causing a stink and wrecking the place, he’s distracting attention away from possible other cuts to government agencies.  The Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation have both been significantly more useful agencies and need a good platform upon which they can explain to the public what’s going on with their axing.  Flannery is using his public profile to distract the public from these more important agencies.

As noted earlier, Steve Lewis has reported that other agencies — including the Human Rights Commission — look like they might be up for the chop.  I disagree with 90% of what the HRC says, but I am absolutely proud of the way we have a Commonwealth funded agency that can intervene in court cases against the Commonwealth.  With regard to the Malaysia Solution case, I wrote:

I would have been happy with either decision.  Following the case closely, I was awestruck by the awesomocity of our legal system.  This was a case where a statutory body (the Human Rights Commissioner) was able to intervene in a case against the Government.  This was a case where the Government helped the people suing it to more precisely state its case (check out the transcripts from the first day; understandably, the plaintiffs seem a bit all over the place: it was even unclear who precisely the plaintiffs were).  This isn’t mere democracy at work.  We have a political system where the parties are genuinely interested in just and lawful outcomes.  This should inspire pride.

Attorney-General Brandis and the Centre for Independent Studies have had their eyes on the Human Rights Commission for a while, claiming that the ‘Left’ has hijacked the human rights debate.  It’s true that the left has had control of the influential institutions for a while now, but there’s something uncomfortable about conservatives repossessing the language of the powerless against the State.  Indeed, it’s distinctly uncivilised.  When Brandis and the CIS defend ‘rights’, they are only interested in defending the privileged from attack by minorities — for examples, the right to marginalise, humiliate, and lie about ethnic minorities, the right of tobacco companies to advertise their products without restriction, and the rights of the mega wealthy to not pay more tax.  Using the language of ‘rights’ in this way is like punching a guy with his own fists.

One of the most important agencies potentially facing a cut is the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.  It is difficult to overstate what a fantastic and important agency this is.  It is an independent publisher of a vast array of data related to the health portfolio.  By staying at arm’s length from the Department of Health, it allows the public to be on equal footing with the bureaucracy about evidence related to policy issues.

If it were to be rolled into the Department of Health, there would be concerns that the Department was not playing on an equal footing with the public with regard to this data.  The APS has a bit of a Chinese Wall arrangement with the public and the government, and structurally separating the parts of the APS that provide evidence from the parts of the APS that uses the evidence to form policy increases transparency.

At the same time, it’s true that there are an increasing number of these micro agencies.  There are places around Canberra — cough, Majura Business Park, cough — where agencies of no more than 20 people are given a rather healthy budget in order to perform a peculiarly specific task.

If we are going to axe a number of these micro agencies, we should make sure we know what their purpose is before either getting upset at their loss or developing plans for where their functions should go.  Instead of rolling them into their lead agencies, I’d argue that a better place for a number of them is within the Australian Bureau of Statistics.  Although the ABS reports to the Treasurer, it has a long history of keeping itself at a distance from the other agencies that use its information.  It’s reputation is so solid that, when people challenge its datasets, they’re quickly dismissed as cranks and lunatics.

Rolling them into the ABS, of course, risks that their resources will be reduced in accordance with the ABS’ broader strategies and priorities.  Even so, much better than rolling them into other departments.

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3 thoughts on “Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light… Making the most of axing public servants

  1. I’ve also wondered that if this self-funding approach is successful that it would then be used as proof and justification for the “small government” argument that more agencies could be cut from the government. If there is “demand” for something, then those wanting it can find a way to pay for it themselves or leave it to private enterprise if there is a true need. I guess the challenge is in the government of the day recognising what are “essential services” that should have ongoing funding even when the enthusiasm of self-funding has faded.

  2. Pingback: The ‘I’m Not Dead’ blog update | Only The Sangfroid

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