Ever had the disappointment of buying or acquiring something which you thought would be pretty special, only to find out your new possession is a major disappointment?
ACT Senator Katy Gallagher did last week: the Australian Public Service.
Paraphrasing the minister, she took delivery of a shiny new Cadillac, only to find it was a run-down old rust bucket with missing hubcaps, exhaust dragging on the ground and a radio that only played Backstreet Boys.
To put it frankly, the Cadillac was definitely not pre-loved and had obviously been used for far more than trips to the local shops for milk.
So faced with the choice of sticking some plaster on the broken bits and learning to love the Backstreet Boys (not sure if that’s possible) or returning the jalopy to its place of purchase for a complete do-over, Minister Gallagher has chosen the latter.
Katy Gallagher says the Australian Public Service has been run into the ground by previous governments and is no longer fit for purpose.
Government departments have turned readily to outside consultants to do the work that diligent and hard-working public servants would usually carry out, and Senator Gallagher wants that to stop.
“I was pretty shocked,” she said last week (she really did say this – no paraphrasing required).
“It was far worse than I thought insofar as the fragmentation of pay and conditions across the public service. The differences are pretty stark.”
Public servants, of whom a lot call Canberra and the surrounding districts home, will be thrilled to hear the new Labor Government wants to return the APS to its former glory. But if Minister Gallagher and the PM believe throwing a truckload of money at the problem will solve the crisis, they’ve got a big surprise waiting for them.
There’s a general feeling that years of neglect and a lack of trust from previous governments have cowered public servants. Once revered and respected for their ability to give frank and fearless advice, both frank and fearless departed the scene long ago.
Ministers, having applied a cap on the amount of money government departments could spend to show they were saving money, then spent millions of dollars on consultants and contractors, who are also a big part of the Canberra community.
And outside consultants and contractors often are much happier to provide advice that the minister wants to hear than, say, old Frank and Fearless at the APS.
Senator Gallagher is aware of the problem.
“People’s trust in institutions is falling,” she said last week in something of an understatement.
“We need to make the APS as strong and as well-resourced as it needs to be. We’ve seen an eroding down of the public service. It needs to be independent and be able to give frank and fearless advice.”
She’s also told the previously thriving consultancy and contractor community to prepare to have less taxpayer money flowing their way.
In one interview last week, Senator Gallagher claimed all the big consulting firms were happy not to have to do this work anymore. This may be true, but show me someone who doesn’t like earning lots of money and I’ll show you a wombat who plays Beethoven.
So, for now, Senator Gallagher is asking everyone to watch this space. She’s set up an audit of the backfiring old banger, which she hopes will illuminate a path to a shiny new model with chrome hubcaps, individual climate settings and digital radio with Dolby surround sound.