17/04/2007 - 22:00

Shadow behind the good news

17/04/2007 - 22:00


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Unemployment at 2.7 per cent of the workforce is reason to celebrate; for most of us. But, in government, that number is a classic example of a double-edged sword, bringing the good news that all’s well in the wider economy, and compounding the grim news about the quality of the services it tries to offer.

As Briefcase, and other observers, have been saying for some time, there is a malaise at all levels of government, caused largely by the best people wanting nothing to do with it.

At the top we have seen, courtesy of Corruption and Crime Commission hearings, how standards have slipped, and how jobs and favours for mates remains a preferred method of doing business.

At the bottom, we are seeing the near-impossible task of filling the lowest-paid government jobs because the private sector offers better pay and conditions without the bureaucratic nonsense that goes with a government appointment or contract.

In the middle, we are seeing some of the top ranking civil servants express their dismay with government by opting to either decline a pay rise (because performance targets have not been met), or decline to use the very service they offer the public.

Neale Fong, the chief health system administrator, was the man to decline the pay rise in what was probably a public relations stunt, but which was actually something far worse, because the man in charge of health really was confirming that government medical services are sub-standard.

Sharyn O’Neill, the woman in charge of the education system, has done much the same thing by choosing (as she is perfectly entitled to do) a private school education for her son rather than send him to a school run by her department.

Mr Fong and Ms O’Neill have voted with their wallets and their feet and sent to the rest of the community the clearest message possible – government services are simply not good enough.

But – and this is the nub of the rant from Briefcase this week – do we honestly expect them to get any better when the economy is booming, everyone who wants a job has one (or two), and when given a choice between a government job and a private sector job, most people go for the private offering because it probably pays more and offers opportunities for faster promotion?

Ms O’Neill’s decision to by-pass the services of her own department has been treated kindly by most observers of the situation, but largely because it is politically correct to do so.

The premier, Alan Carpenter, refused to comment on her choice of a private school over public despite castigating former opposition leader, Colin Barnett, when he did the same thing.

A spokesman for the teachers’ union said she should support the government system, and then added that it was Ms O’Neill’s decision to decide what was best for her son.

Briefcase, which lacks any semblance of political correctness, reckons that everyone involved in this case is simply dodging the issue.

The simple, inescapable, unavoidable, irrefutable truth of the situation is that private schools, of whatever type, are infinitely better than government schools for two staggeringly simple reasons: they really are better because the people involved, teachers and parents, actually care; and because the private system can exert discipline on students and parents alike.

That is not to say that government education system people do not care, but not enough really care about the service being offered to ensure that it is of a standard of which they can be proud.

Two points make the O’Neill case even more pertinent. Firstly, this is an example of what happens when people are given a choice of government over private.

Secondly, in the same week that the head of the government’s education system was exerting her right to choose, Briefcase became aware of the sub-standard services offered to some government teachers.

Second point first. In a country town hundreds of kilometres from Perth, a young teacher has spent the past three months waiting for the ruin of a house offered to her as accommodation to be made liveable. She was a believer in government education when she took the posting, but that belief is being rapidly eroded. And she’s not alone.

On the first point of people voting to quit the government education system, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise because the same thing is happening with health, and it would also happen with water if that was thrown open to competition.

Government is not alone when it comes to feeling the heat of competition. A few weeks ago, Briefcase humoured Mrs Briefcase by joining her in a visit to Tiffany on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

With its wallet somewhat lighter, and the old adage about “once bitten, twice shy” ringing in the background, a second retail jewellery stop was requested at De Beers, just a few doors down from Tiffany.

How very interesting the second visit proved to be. Whereas Tiffany was crowded, De Beers did not have a single customer.

Why was this so? The answer, which slowly dawned on Briefcase, was that the front door of De Beers was actually hard to find, which is really rather astonishing for retail outlet. Once inside, the layout was awkward, the presentation of goods uninviting, and the staff unpleasant.

Perhaps the De Beers crew could spot an impoverished journalist and couldn’t be bothered with such an obvious non-spender. But, that didn’t explain the complete absence of anyone else in the joint.

The truth about Tiffany and De Beers is very much an extension of the government versus private situation when it comes to services – one does it well, and the other doesn’t.


On a more pleasant note, and to deliver a bitter/sweet piece of news to one of Perth’s better lawyers, and one of its richer people, old Toyota vehicles have become collectors’ items.

How does Briefcase know this is true? Because it was reported in a recent edition of the International Herald Tribune newspaper, which noted that a 1966 Corona, of the type once driven by Perth lawyer, David Williams, recently sold at auction for $US16,740 – 21 times the original purchase price of $US800.

More impressive is the price today of a mid-’60s Land Cruiser (the FJ40 series) as once driven by prospecting millionaire, Mark Creasy. These ancient workhorses, in good condition, are fetching more than $US30,000 in the US.

The good news is that these wonderful old vehicles, which re-defined reliability in cars, are having their intrinsic value recognised.

The bad news is that David Williams sold his Corona decades ago and Mark Creasy donated his to the Miners Hall of Fame in Kalgoorlie, where it might actually be one of the more valuable exhibits.


 “She may very well pass for forty three, in the dusk, with the light behind her.” WS Gilbert (Trial by Jury, 1875)


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