“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.
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 citynews.com.au
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