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Public servants know their stuff on sports and plenty more, says Member for Bean

David Smith MP 2 February 2020 24
David Smith

Member for Bean David Smith says public servants deserve more respect. Photo: George Tsotsos.

There have been some breathtakingly audacious defences for the indefensible sports rorts affair but the prime minister really took the cake at the National Press Club with his suggestion that because members of parliament “live and breathe” in their communities they have a better sense of what is needed than public servants.

This is rot and misdirection of the highest order.

The public servants that the prime minister seeks to belittle work with sporting organisations across the country every day from grassroots clubs to elite sporting organisations. They work together with the broader sports industry and have expertise that has been built up over decades.

Members of parliament should have an interest in and affection for the sporting clubs in their electorates but as the former director of the AIS Robert de Castella noted we do not have the expertise of these public servants nor the visibility of competing areas of need across other electorates.

And clearly we do not bring the same level of impartiality to such considerations even where our advocacy is well intentioned and based on strong local knowledge.

Indeed, if MPs were such extraordinary fonts of knowledge in relation to their communities one would presume the debacle surrounding Old Collegians in Adelaide would not have occurred.

This is a convenient position to hold as it allows the prime minister to ignore public policy expertise across all areas of government business. It allows him to give free rein to climate denialists within his caucus such as Craig Kelly, and at the same time disregard the expertise from within the public service and refuse to meet with experienced and expert leaders who have devoted their lives to public and community service in emergency management and relief.

It allowed the outsourcing of grant processes to private organisations such as the Great Barrier Reef Foundation rather than keeping such work where it should be within the public service. It has led to a profusion of labour hire, contracting and consulting arrangements across the public service rather than an investment in ongoing expertise. And it implicitly pressures public servants to do their political masters’ bidding.

So it is rot but it is also misdirection.

We are not talking about tapping into the “expertise” of MPs but the deliberate actions of former sports minister Bridget McKenzie’s office in setting aside a merit process for one that was determined by political advantage. A process that disregarded conflicts of interest, program guidelines or any consideration of the requirement to spend Commonwealth monies appropriately.

If it was a public servant or servants responsible for such an abuse of power and position we would not be talking about resignation or a parliamentary inquiry but a referral to the Australian Federal Police.

There is no reason why any politician of any leaning and their staffers/advisors should be held to a different standard than public servants when it comes to the management of the public purse.

Yes, we “live and breathe” in our communities but this does not absolve members of parliament from being accountable for our actions.

Yet this is a government from which no one resigns or takes responsibility for their actions. They mislead parliament, they break the law, they try to pass on responsibility for decisions to public servants whose advice they ignore, they are only forced into retreat by the anger of the Australian people, and still nobody takes responsibility.

This isn’t a surprise as this government is led by the chief of buck-passing. The chief who brought back to the front bench ministers who had previously been forced to resign. The chief who has lashed out at all and sundry rather than take responsibility for his lack of leadership this summer.

If we want to rebuild trust in public life it can only start by a commitment to a federal integrity body with teeth, valuing public service expertise and with the resignation of Minister McKenzie before parliament resumes.


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24 Responses to Public servants know their stuff on sports and plenty more, says Member for Bean
rationalobserver rationalobserver 9:28 am 06 Feb 20

Political bias aside, who are we kidding here?
Anyone who has worked in the space knows that our bureaucracies are incredibly ineffective and inefficient at converting tax payer funds into results.
Everyone knows that the electoral cycle is akin to a 4 yearly popularity contest, and that we are talking about finite resources, so there should be no surprises that some applicants miss out and that politics will play a role in the decision making process.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional.

Nell Feneck Nell Feneck 7:25 am 06 Feb 20

Neither ministers or public servants have any idea

Matt White Matt White 10:04 pm 02 Feb 20

Just like politicians, different public servants have a range of different knowledge and experiences within their local community. However let’s also not forget a couple of other things. Recommendations by the public service typically go through several sets of eyes before they are finalised and they are discussed and nuanced along the way, and often drawing upon expert opinion from across the agency on various aspects. Secondly, in going through that deliberation and clearance process, recommendations and advice are often made by public servants with years of particular knowledge and expertise on the subject matter that is rarely possessed by Ministers (and their political advisers). For example, a sports grant application could be expected to be looked at by public servants with relevant academic qualifications, and/or experience running/administering or working closely with community or professional sports clubs, and/or years of developing and administering other sports grant programs. On the other hand Ministers are quite regularly new to the subject matter in their portfolio. Therefore, there should be good, fair and consistent reasons documented for going against that advice.

Yuri Shukost Yuri Shukost 9:51 pm 02 Feb 20

Unlike MPs, public servants are accountable for their actions. Had an APS member done this, they would be suspended pending a review and then possibly their employment terminated.

    Doug Wyllie Doug Wyllie 4:57 pm 03 Feb 20

    Yuri Shukost yeah and Bridgette mickenzie hasnt suffered at all and is still in the role, right?

    Yuri Shukost Yuri Shukost 10:48 pm 03 Feb 20

    Doug Wyllie Doug Wyllie she stepped down because of an acknowledged conflict of interest, not because of acknowledged bias. She still doesn’t believe she did anything wrong, according to reports. She’s still an MP.

Andrew Higginson Andrew Higginson 8:54 pm 02 Feb 20

Hmmm, happy to say most MPs know their electorates better than our public servants. And to suggest all public servants are objective and fair is silly. This Minister appears to have done the wrong thing, but let’s not get on our high horses about public service objectivity - there are good on both sides - and the opposite also applies

    David Newman David Newman 12:56 am 03 Feb 20

    Andrew, yes, but MPs only know THEIR electorates (and maybe those of their party) better than public servants, so let’s go for the public servants as those likely to be MORE objective than politicians, and LESS likely to do this sort of thing. Public servants are also bound by tighter behavioural constraints and less likely to just look short term to the next election.

    A public servant could have lost their job over this type of ethical breach; all she lost was a portfolio and part of her pay. Same with travel rorts, so please don’t give us the ‘both sides’ argument - although it has some merit, the likelihood and penalties are different, as this and other examples have shown.

    And I am not a public servant

    Chris Olsen Chris Olsen 7:17 am 03 Feb 20

    Andrew Higginson What utter rot, Pollies are so far removed from reality they wouldn’t know it if they fell over it, Public servants live in their communities, pollies live a delusional bubble of privilege. You sound like another LNP apologist.

    Yuri Shukost Yuri Shukost 8:22 am 03 Feb 20

    Public servants are able to take a big picture approach, whereas politicians are only able to see their electoral boundaries and what the party line happens to be on any given day... assuming they've received their talking points on time so they're all singing from the same song sheet.

    Andrew Higginson Andrew Higginson 8:36 am 03 Feb 20

    Chris, thanks for sharing your views

Hans Dimpel Hans Dimpel 7:38 pm 02 Feb 20

if ministers know better , why is that woman resigning?

Deb Champion Deb Champion 7:28 pm 02 Feb 20

Public servants are also community members......yes really! Their kids attend the local school and play sport on community sports teams. They have mortgages and catch public transport to work. This myth that public servants are some nebulous beings living in ivory towers has to stop!

    David Smith MP David Smith MP 12:09 pm 03 Feb 20

    So true Deb Champion. Not only was the position the PM put wrong on the supposed better expertise of MPs but it was a nasty and unnecessary attack on good people and a cover for not listening to inconvenient advice.

    Deb Champion Deb Champion 12:23 pm 03 Feb 20

    David Smith MP I fear the public service has lost the ability to offer frank and fearless advice.

    Jorge Garcia Jorge Garcia 8:45 pm 05 Feb 20

    Deb Champion We live in a bubble, not an ivory tower!

    Jorge Garcia Jorge Garcia 8:51 pm 05 Feb 20

    Argh! What's the use? There are votes in bashing the public service! Particularly those of us that live in Canberra. When the Newcastle steel works closed 2,000 people lost their jobs... a tragedy. Little battler John Howard came rushing in with aid... Just a couple of years earlier his cuts to the public service caused 5,000 Canberrans to lose their jobs... Nobody shed a tear... on the contrary.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:07 pm 02 Feb 20

This is a very persuasive argument that we have too many elected officials – they’re forever meddling in things they don’t understand, and spending money to buy votes etc. etc.

As an epicentre of bureaucratic wisdom, Canberra should take the lead and petition to have our House of Reps numbers cut back to two.

Nick Henderson Nick Henderson 6:38 pm 02 Feb 20

Also public servants operate within a number of legislative frameworks and code of ethics that actually get applied; they are legally accountable, unlike politicians it seems.

John Brinsmead John Brinsmead 6:18 pm 02 Feb 20

well pollies normally have a good feel for whats likely to get them re-elected.

Sue Palombi Sue Palombi 6:11 pm 02 Feb 20

'members of parliament “live and breathe” in their communities they have a better sense of what is needed than public servants'

Then why bother to have any public servants at all? 🤔

No one person can know everything...🥥

    Craig Elliott Craig Elliott 6:25 pm 02 Feb 20

    Sue Palombi especially when the grants were national.....so the line of local communities means nothing. What a stupid statement.

    Karlita Stirling Karlita Stirling 6:50 pm 02 Feb 20

    Sue Palombi agree that this statement stinks. The same could then be said for constituents in non-LNP seats. So why then were the applicants in their seat looked over? Such rubbish on many levels. I think however many will accept the PM’s claim on this or at least they will be convinced to by the mainstream politically motivated NewsCorp coverage so many have come to now trust

    Rob Calvert Rob Calvert 12:20 pm 03 Feb 20

    Sue Palombi they are called "members" for Avery good reason, and most have their hand on it.😆

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