News location:

Canberra Today 16°/18° | Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Why the ACT bureaucracy is losing its humanity

A tower of alternative reality, the planning directorate HQ at 480 Northbourne Avenue. Photo: Paul Costigan

Too many ACT bureaucrats project a disrespectful attitude towards the wellbeing of the city’s residents and their suburban environments. They would probably say they were doing whatever it took to please their ministers. Not really a defence in the 21st century,” writes “Canberra Matters” columnist PAUL COSTIGAN

MEDIA and opinion writers, when criticising the government of the day, traditionally keep the focus on the politicians and not their bureaucrats.

Paul Costigan.

Then there was Robodebt. The evidence to the Royal Commission clearly planted the blame on those federal coalition government politicians involved. 

They enabled this nasty scheme to happen and were keen to continue with it despite reports that people were innocent, were being harmed and some committed suicide rather than deal with the harassment. 

More revealing was that senior public-sector executives made questionable decisions to appease their ministers. It was as if ministers had signalled what they wished to happen and the senior executives were expected to pick up on this no matter how devastating their actions were for others. 

The suspicion is that this enabling by federal ministers of their public-sector executives to do nasty things was not isolated to Robodebt. 

The public sector changed during recent times due to the attitude of the previous federal governments.

After more than a decade of ACT Greenslabor governments, those questionable attitudes to decision making have also become embedded in the ACT government and its bureaucracies. 

The culture of the bureaucracy has changed in the last decade and its attitude to residents has become unacceptable. If the minister is happy with the outcome, despite any collateral damage, then all is well. How questionable decisions affect residents appear to be no longer of concern.

There are still some ACT bureaucrats who value residents’ input into the implementation of programs. However, the number of negative experiences is on the increase. 

Those with experience of dealing with the ACT public sector know something changed for the worse. Senior bureaucrats are now less likely to return calls, they say one thing but then nothing happens and they are hesitant to engage in conversations unless they have the political endorsement to do so.

Increasingly, the ACT bureaucracy is seen as having developed alternative realities within silos – their towers of opaque bureaucracies.

The culture of nasty behaviour is too often approved, if not encouraged, by their ministers. These unsettling circumstances hinder residents who need to relate to the ACT bureaucracy in order to address the aspirations of the residents they represent.

It is hard to fathom what senior bureaucrats were thinking when they:

  • followed orders to remove the funds from the sale of public housing to assist paying for the tram; 
  • when they know the police are understaffed and under resourced thanks to the diversion of finances for pet projects; 
  • they use spin to justify that Canberra has fewer buses than decades ago; 
  • they followed orders to effectively evict public housing tenants from their homes and neighbourhoods because funds had been diverted to the tram; 
  • the planning bureaucrats know that many developments they approved did not meet their own rules; 
  • and the same bureaucrats know the planning reforms are a farce given that what is proposed will be the deregulation of planning to assist developers make profits.

Too many ACT bureaucrats project a disrespectful attitude towards the wellbeing of the city’s residents and their suburban environments. They would probably say, when challenged, that they were following orders and doing whatever it took to please their ministers. Not really a defence in the 21st century. 

While some responsibility rests with those carrying out the actions, the accountability ultimately belongs with those enabling such a culture – the ACT Greenslabor government. 

If any of the ACT Labor or ACT Greens politicians were to be confronted with this perception of their behaviour and the unsettling nature of their bureaucrats’ way of working with residents, they would certainly deny all. That would be expected as this is the way of an autocratic government – nothing to see here! 

There is so much that should be discussed openly about the way the ACT government’s bureaucracy behaves towards residents with approval of their ministers. 

People need to confront the reality that this Greenslabor government has built a new normal around itself in order to make questionable decisions without any fear of being held to account. These debates need to happen well before the next ACT election in October, 2024.

Paul Costigan is a commentator on cultural and urban matters. There are more of his columns at

Who can be trusted?

In a world of spin and confusion, there’s never been a more important time to support independent journalism in Canberra.

If you trust our work online and want to enforce the power of independent voices, I invite you to make a small contribution.

Every dollar of support is invested back into our journalism to help keep strong and free.

Become a supporter

Thank you,

Ian Meikle, editor

Paul Costigan

Paul Costigan

Share this

4 Responses to Why the ACT bureaucracy is losing its humanity

cbrapsycho says: 21 June 2023 at 10:28 am

Those of us who were Mr Fluffy owners experienced the disregard and disrespect of the ACT government in the way they bullied us and demonised us, as if it was our fault that asbestos was in our homes, when it was the Federal government who allowed it and the ACT government who hid it from those purchasing the homes. We were blamed for the cost of rectifying the problem caused by those governments and considered ungrateful for the inadequate compensation for the harm caused to us. The media coverage kept saying how it prevented the ACT government from spending on other things.

They forced us to sell our homes AND our land, got rid of many of our possessions now considered unsafe, demolished our houses and for some of wanted us to pay more to get our land back than they paid us for house and land. Not only had we lost our homes and gardens with all the memories attached to them, we could not buy equivalent properties as we were forced to sell at the price of the date they set, which was the lowest value. In my case, I was not even paid the unimproved value of the land. And we were supposed to be thankful. Many of the public servants were completely out of touch with our feelings and needs, not caring at how much it was harming us. Instead focused on their projects and spending priorities.

This was 2014-2015 so quite a long time ago. The rot had already set in by then. They didn’t care. Some of us are still paying the price financially & emotionally, as well as with broken families, lost neighbourhoods, lost gardens, lost friends and lesser housing that would not otherwise have been chosen if we didn’t have to get out and live somewhere. We had to make do. Many were too distressed to fight back at the time. The ACT knew that and used it to gain leverage, to pay cheap compensation that did not cover the costs.

Hamba says: 22 June 2023 at 10:29 am

100 per cent, Paul! Another electoral victory by this mob will drive them deeper into autocracy to the detriment of most residents. This is one of the primary reasons why it is simply not possible that the Liberals could be worse.

S. Draw. K. Cab says: 22 June 2023 at 7:22 pm

You can vote for somebody else other than liblab. Dunno why this idea persists that our votes must be binary.

Hamba says: 26 June 2023 at 10:58 am

Voting ‘for somebody else other than liblab’ is a central part of what keeps the Labor/Greens Coalition in power.


Leave a Reply

Related Posts


Sport’s the answer, no matter the question

"While women play the team sports of cricket and the footy codes under the same rules as the males, they bring to all sport a grace and a geniality that is still too often missing in the men’s game," writes columnist ROBERT MACKLIN.

Follow us on Instagram @canberracitynews