If there’s one thing I learned in Government, it’s that there is usually a simple answer to every problem.  Justice?  No problem – we can fix it easily.  Dental care?  It can be free and readily available without any budget implications.  Public housing? Nothing simpler. Bad neighbours?  We could sort it out tomorrow. 

And the big issue of the moment, health?  No problem at all. 

In every case the problem is not the problem.  The real problem is the government and its failure to manage.

Let’s look at how they do things.  And I’ll use the Northern Territory as an example to avoid stepping on more toes in Tasmania.

Jenny Macklin is the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister.  At the beginning of the Rudd term of office, it was decided that the problem of aboriginal housing should be addressed.  A worthy cause, but every government says that they’ll fix it.

So what did Jenny Macklin do?  She set up the Strategic Indigenous Housing Initiative.

Now every time I hear the word “strategic”, I know I’m listening to a bull artist and nothing will really happen.

So Rudd tells Jenny Macklin to fix aboriginal housing, and she in turn says to her Departmental Secretary, Geoff Harmer: “You fix it.  Here’s $672 million.  Go and build houses in aboriginal communities.”

To give $672 million dollars to a public servant and then walk away – you’d have to be stark raving mad.  That’s not management.  That’s not supervision.  And that’s not the way to solve problems.

The Secretary of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services & Indigenous Affairs – known as “FHCSIA” for short, did what every unsupervised public servant does.  Knowing that the project was to build houses, he ignored all the builders and architects and engineers in the public service who wanted the job, and appointed a clerk from his department to oversee the project.

That clerk then appointed the Northern Territory government as sub-overseers of the project.  So we already had this proposal passing down 5 layers of “oversight”.

Now the NT government weren’t builders either, so they just took around $90 million dollars commission and appointed a multinational company as sub-sub-overseers.

That multinational company was a New York based engineering firm, not a builder, so they appointed a failed local Labor election candidate on $300,000 a year, together with a former Labor Cabinet Minister as program managers.

Which would have pleased the NT Labor government, but the failed Labor candidate wasn’t a builder either, so he created an alliance of Australian companies to, in effect, do his job for him.

But that alliance didn’t include NT builders either, so ultimately they had to get local builders to do the job.  Those builders now report to 7 layers of bureaucracy.

One local builder wanted to do the job in the first place and quoted $350,000 per house.  But the Governments and public servants wouldn’t allow that!

In the end, he probably got the job anyway.  But the cost of the houses, instead of being the $350,000 he quoted, have turned out to be around $2 million dollars each.

Now I’m a former builder and I’ve worked in the Northern Territory.  And I can tell you that the houses they were talking about are actually worth around $200,000 each. One tenth of the price FHCSIA is paying.  And don’t believe any waffle they spin you such as: “there is a large maintenance component” – I’ve allowed for that.

And lo and behold, what did Forestry Tasmania do to show them all up and prove my point?  As a real and literal public service they sent up some of their people to show the local aboriginals how to build their own houses.  And the cost of those houses? Between $200,000 and $300,000 each.  And the locals got training and work experience, so they now have job skills and hopefully jobs, and the whole project took 5 months.  FHCSIA has already taken 4 years and who knows how long the project will drag on for?  And their $2 million houses are no better,and perhaps not as good as Forestry Tasmania’s $200,000 house.  Now I doubt that Bob Gordon at Forestry would ever say a nice word about me, but I believe in giving credit where it’s due, and what he did in the NT was pretty impressive.

Now the NT Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Alison Anderson, was a desert blackfella.  She was so disgusted with FHCSIA and the NT Labor government that she resigned.  When it came to the crunch, she didn’t care about the ministerial salary, the perks and the privilege.  She’d had enough of the incompetence and the corruption, and she resigned.  It almost brought down the government.Can you imagine any Minister in Tasmania ever resigning as a matter of principle like that?

Back to Tassie.How could the budget problems, and especially health, be handled better?

Lara needs to make cuts everywhere, so she talks to the permanent secretaries.  Naturally they say that they can’t make cuts without losing services.

Doesn’t this sound familiar?  Wasn’t this an episode of “Yes Minister”?  Yes, it was!  Because everyone, including TV script writers, except apparently Lara, knows that public servants who are told to cut spending always say that it will involve a reduction in front-line services!

What Lara and the Ministers should have done, was say to the permanent secretaries: “You will all make a cut of (say) 5% in your budgets, and there will be no cut in services.”  That’s actually what happened in the “Yes, Minister” episode, and it is what should happen in real life in a competent government!  I have known two Ministers who have said something like this (sorry, no names, but it wasn’t in Tasmania).  And when the secretary protested, the Minister said: “If you can’t do it, I’ll have to find someone who can.”  And what do you know – they did it!  That’s why Bob Hawke put senior public servants on contracts.  So he could get rid of the incompetent ones and pull the rest into line.  Hawke’s reform has filtered down to state level and all senior bureaucrats are now on contracts – but instead of using that fact to ensure we have the best possible staff for our money, the contracts are all automatically rolled over.  This means that when we really have to get rid of someone, we have to pay out their contract.

So the first thing for Lara to do is to be a real manager, and tell her bureaucrats what they are to do rather than just act as their mouthpiece, and take the abuse for them.

Second, Ministers needs eyes and ears in the departments.  Competent middle ranking public servants are all cowed and intimidated by the system and are not allowed to tell Ministers what they need to hear.  They have to go through the permanent secretary, and every permanent secretary I dealt with (except for Peter Hoult) was part of the problem.  So, Lara needs to get Ministerial advisers into the departments.Instead of having advisers do only political work, get them working for the common good for a change.  For a brief period as an adviser under Peter Hoult’s administration, I had access to the Justice Department.  It worked brilliantly and it could have become a model for the government, had they chosen to see the benefits.  The advantages are potentially large.  I saw large savings possibilities in both Health and Justice while I was working for the Government, so I know that they are there and can be made without losing frontline services.  If I could see major savings, so can anyone who actually looks.  Unless competent Ministerial staff are able to get into departments, no-one will even be looking for the real savings and only cutting services will be put up as an option.

That’s the second thing.  Now the third thing Lara has to do is give up the Treasury.

At present, our Premier is also our Treasurer.

This would not be a good thing in normal times.  In our current mess, when we are being forced into debt due to maladministration by past governments, it is very unwise.

Lara needs to accept that being Premier is a big enough job for anyone.  And by being Treasurer as well, she ensures that the Treasurer is inaccessible and the Treasurer’s Chief of Staff is inaccessible as well.  Lines of communication break down.  I know – I worked there.

Even though she made a courageous attempt to rationalise health services in the North-West, Lara was not a competent Health Minister.  I attended one extraordinary occasion in Hobart when new recruits to the government service were given a cursory and largely useless induction.  One of the experienced people there, (no names, but it was someone from a Labor MLC’s office) rose and gave us all advice on how to deal direct with Lara’s department and avoid having to deal with Lara’s dysfunctional Ministerial office!  We were invited to contact that person later for further information.  What an extraordinary thing.If an office is dysfunctional, I say fix it!  But of course that never happened.

This all comes back to lack of business experience.  Lara went to uni, got a law degree which she never used, then became a government adviser where she learned the bureaucratic system without learning anything about the real world outside.  Finally she became a politician.  It is simply not possible for someone with no relevant experience to be a Treasurer.  If she wanted to perform surgery, would we let her?  Of course not.  Yet we allow her to perform surgery on the finances of our whole State, with no relevant experience, and largely just because she wants to!  Of course she will mess it up.  What she is doing to health is crazy.  So she should get out of the Ministries and concentrate on being Premier.

If she did as I suggest and gave up Treasury, who could she hand over to? There’s the rub!  Labor preselects poor candidates as a rule, by their own admission, and certainly in our experience.  So there is no obvious Labor choice.

There are three people in parliament who could probably do the job and help to find the cuts she wants without cutting frontline services.  One is a Lib, and she can’t appoint that person obviously.  Another is Kim Booth.  A wasted talent if I ever saw one.  He has a sharp mind and good business experience.  He was a party to privileged information in respect of building matters under the last government, and didn’t abuse the trust.  The Greens are her coalition partners anyway – so if he will accept the job, offer it to him!  The third person who could take Treasury is Ruth Forrest.  Another talent wasted outside of Government, and a person with a good grip on both Treasury and Health.  Make use of her talents!

In Italy, the entire government has just been handed over to experts.  The politicians have voluntarily given up power to get the country out of a crisis.  What is Lara prepared to do?  How serious is she really, about fixing the problems?  If you are going to be abused, Lara, let it at least be for doing the right thing.

First published: 2011-11-22 11:05 AM

• Premier defends pay rises

Tasmanian Premier, Lara Giddings, has defended a 3.5 per cent pay rise to senior bureaucrats.

During question time in State Parliament, the Shadow Treasurer Peter Gutwein said the Government had got its priorities wrong by delivering the pay rise when it is cutting frontline services.

Ms Giddings told parliament it is part on an existing agreement.

“We have a policy of where we had negotiated agreement with unions on pay rises prior to the announcement of the new state wages policy that those agreements continue.”