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Email sent 2/6/09

Professor Robert Manne,
Latrobe University

Bureaucratic Timidity and the Black Saturday Fires

Re: Stewart C. 'Manne on Fire', The Australian, 2/7/09

I noted Cameron Stewart's report about your article concerning the Black Saturday fires (in The Monthly of July 2009 ). Mr Stewart's article included the following quote / summation:

"Far too few inside the firefighting bureaucracies were willing on February 7 to break the rules, to disobey authority or to act spontaneously at a time of crisis," he writes.

He concludes that this timidity contributed to a deadly failure to deliver warnings to people in the path of the fires. But Manne goes further, suggesting that there was a moral vacuum at the heart of the way the firefighting bureaucracies responded.

"Conformity to rules was the enemy of judgment, commonsense and moral responsibility," he writes.

"The answer to the question of why we weren't warned ... requires not only the forensic capacity of a royal commission but also a sociologist with the capacity to illuminate the strange character of our postmodern world."

I should like to suggest that (though I am not familiar with the organisations involved) the bureaucratic timidity that alarmed you is likely to be the result of 'politicisation', rather than post-modernism. By 'politicisation' I do not mean that the officials involved were committed to any particular ideology, but rather that their working environment and career structure was likely to make initiative (even in the face of imminent disaster) personally hazardous - as the present writer can testify.

Sociologists are unlikely to identify ways to reduce this problem.

The creation of a working environment requiring strict, narrow and unquestioning compliance with political assumptions has been one of the main results of public sector 'reforms' in Australia in recent years (see Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002). While a need for change was recognised in the 1970s and 1980s, the voice of experience was disregarded, because: (a) earlier problems were naively blamed on 'bureaucrats'; (b) Peter Wilenski's theories about 'reform by revolution' to bypass 'bureaucratic' obstacles were influential, and (c) inexperienced and autocratic reformers were unaware of the limitations of their theories and understandings. The rot in the public sector arguably started in the states under the Cain, Greiner and Goss governments, and (though some claim that similar decay had started under the Hawke Government), it seems likely that the main federal culprit was the Howard administration.

The unintended consequences were: (a) the ending of traditions of independent public service professionalism; (b) growing dominance by cronies and 'yes men'; and (c) the re-emergence (at least in Queensland) of a purely procedurally-focused service - similar to that which the present writer had observed about 40 years ago.

Indications of the organisational consequences are in The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service (from 2001) and Outline History of the Westminster Tradition's Breakdown in Queensland and the Growth of Public Service Bullying, 2002).

The real-world consequences of reform failure have been widespread failures in service delivery, provision of infrastructure and regulation. NSW has been described as a 'state of dysfunction' (see It's time to fix the failed state). Surveys in Queensland currently show huge public dis-satisfaction with the performance of states (eg see Wardill S., 'Overstated', Courier Mail, 27-28/6/09). This seems more than justified given the crises that have occurred in the last few years in child safety, electricity distribution, hospitals, and in SE Queensland water supply and transport systems (see major documents in Towards Professional Public Service for details).

As all governments in Australia have followed similar approaches to public sector 'reform' in recent years, it is very likely that the failures that occurred in relation to issuing bushfire warnings in Victoria on Black Saturday were symptoms of very general systemic problems.


John Craig