Ministers should stop kowtowing to power-hungry premiers and prime ministers.
EARLY this year a national newspaper carried a brief report highlighting South Australian Premier Mike Rann’s proclivity to constantly expand his department’s staff numbers.
The headline read: ‘Rann on back foot as surge in staff numbers and wages dwarfs larger states’.
There are several underlying reasons for the appearance of this story.
Firstly, Mr Rann brought back to South Australian politics a panache last seen during the Don Dunstan era, which promoted dealing with the media in a mood of utter confidence laced with a tiny dose of contempt.
This, of course, wasn’t a coincidence because Mr Rann – nicknamed ‘Media Mike’ – was for some time a Dunstan government media spin doctor.
Secondly, shortly before the last state election Mr Rann was in the eye of a media storm; being publicly accused on television by a female parliamentary staffer of being her secret lover.
This followed an extremely embarrassing incident where that woman’s estranged husband publicly whacked Mr Rann across the face.
More recently, his deputy and treasurer, Kevin Foley, had the misfortune of being involved in a late night Adelaide CBD altercation.
So here we had a leader and his deputy having faced rather tawdry allegations.
And the final likely underlying reason for the story, which almost certainly stemmed from a leak inside government, was Mr Foley’s decision to cut back on a whole range of spending in his latest budget.
‘Slash and burn’ was how one Unions-SA official angrily described his latest budget.
As recently seen in England and Greece, which had similar deep budget cut-backs, those benefiting most directly from public spending get quite displeased.
Mr Foley is most certainly not flavour of the month in many obvious quarters, most especially with public sector union bosses.
The negative press over his budget cuts and that late-night incident had led to his prompt replacement as deputy premier.
Mr Foley, who is only 50, has announced he won’t contest the next election; and as successor, Attorney-General John Rau, got his faction’s nod to be deputy.
All this is by way of background.
Now, the substantive segment of the issue.
The story claimed staff numbers in Mr Rann’s premier’s department were nearly twice those of other premiers.
“This is increasing pressure on Mike Rann as tough budget cuts begin to have an impact on the community,” it said.
“Mr Rann yesterday had to call an Adelaide radio station to defend his staff and wages bill amid growing public anger.
“Staff numbers in Mr Rann’s department of premier and cabinet have increased from 716 in 2005 to 1,244 last year, according to figures provided by his office yesterday.”
Those figures were most likely provided by an angry public sector employee.
“In Victoria, with a population four times greater than South Australia, premier’s department staff numbers dropped from 465 full-time equivalent positions in 2005 to 343 last year,” the report continued.
“The Queensland premier’s department employed 684 bureaucrats last year, up from 517 in 2005.”
It would be interesting to know where Western Australia stands in the league ladder for premier’s department staff numbers.
Clearly ‘Media Mike’ wasn’t going to go down without a fight – that’s not his way.
During his telephone call to the radio station, Mr Rann defended his high staff numbers by claiming: “There was a department called the department for administrative and information services ... to save money, we put that under the premier’s department.”
If that’s really the reason for the huge leap in his department’s staff numbers – from well over 700 five years ago to nearly 1,250 last year – then it most certainly doesn’t let him off the hook.
Having 1,250 staffers is more than the population of a sizeable Australian rural town.
Surely one or other of his ministers could have acquired the department of administrative and information services. Why did the premier snap it up so gleefully?
All this also begs the question: which minister lost that department, and why.
Why did an entire department go across to Mr Rann, who should be overseeing governance?
Why did he, like all Australian premiers, and prime ministers for that matter, feel inclined to put ever more duties and responsibilities under his wing?
For at least the past half century there’s been a largely unnoticed and rarely commented upon centralising tendency (I’ve seen it described as a ‘centripetal inclination’) to push ever more duties, responsibilities, and thus staffers, into premiers’ and prime ministerial departments.
Nationally, Labor’s Gough Whitlam was notorious for this, as was his successor, Malcolm Fraser; and John Howard was no better.
At the same time there’s also been a steady trend of boosting ministerial numbers, and thus departments, agencies, and duties.
Both trends may, on the basis of simple logic, appear to be inconsistent.
But that inconsistency is going on, irrespective of whether it’s Labor or the coalition in power.
Ravenous premiers who want ever-more staffers in their once-lean er departments, along with expanding cabinets, infect both sides of politics.
No premier with a staff between 700-plus up to 1,250 can possibly oversee the workings of such a huge bureaucratic entity and at the same time effectively carry out their duties as the first minister overseeing cabinet and departmental outcomes and goals.
Micro-management has never been the duty of premiers or prime ministers, who invariably transform ministers into Muppets.
Anyone believing otherwise should carefully consider the dumping of thankfully ousted former prime minister Kevin Rudd, a serial micro-mismanager.
That’s why he was finally (it should have happened at least 18 months earlier) ignominiously dumped.
He got himself so bogged down in every detail of other departmental or ministerial duties his government virtually seized-up.
Things got so bad that, after a full two years of such bureaucratic bedlam, he couldn’t muster a dozen caucus votes.
It was his serial micro-mis-managing that earned him his due – the royal boot.
But all our premiers are equally bogged down in ever-sprawling departments that give birth to all sorts of special purpose units, research divisions, special task forces, and project policy teams, when all these should be within pertinent traditional departments.
A premier’s office, which may or may not include a cabinet secretariat, shouldn’t have more than 50 to 100 staffers – preferably closer to the 50 than 100.
Premiers’ departments across Australia need drastic slashing of staff numbers to somewhere within that 50-to-100 range.
Instead those departments today are jumbo bureaucracies, not lean co-ordinating entities, with the traditional state departments undertaking all policy, planning, regulation, and administrative duties.
Apart from all the other obvious criticisms of moving ever more doggedly into jumboism, this demonstrates a callous disrespect for ministers since it shows premiers, who attract most of any state’s political publicity, see themselves as media prima donnas.
Ministers are paid handsome top-up salaries so they should be required to earn their pay and not allow themselves to be treated like obedient lap dogs by their premiers.
Unfortunately too many of our politicians who manage to reach ministerial rank meekly kowtow to greedy power-hungry premiers and prime ministers.