CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Applying a 'meat axe' is the problem, not the solution (email sent 21/4/11)

Julie Novak
Institute of Public Affairs

Re: What happened to the meat axe?, The Australian, 20/4/11

Your article suggested that, given the federal government’s need to find budget savings, it might be desirable to reduce the numbers of public servants. It also suggested that applying the ‘meat axe’ (eg a razor gang) might be the best way to achieve this – a method once advocated by Mr Rudd, a former prime minister.

I should like to suggest, for your consideration, that politicians who wield the ‘meat axe’ are largely responsible for the dysfunctions and inefficiency that now characterise governments in Australia. Concentrating on boosting governments’ ability to ‘govern’ would yield far better outcomes.

One documented example of the effect of wielding a ‘meat axe’ involves Victoria experience in the 1980s. A vicious approach was used to try to create an efficient, accountable, equitable, coordinated and effective public service. In practice the Cain Government degenerated into chaos and incurred massive fiscal losses because:

“The view was that government could be run like a business (managerialism). Management skills were seen to be interchangeable rather than requiring specialised knowledge. New recruits had management and economics training. An elite 'Senior Executive Service' was created on terms similar to the private sector. Managerialism devalued professionals and career public servants. The latter had greater knowledge of (say) health, agriculture or education - but were told they knew nothing about managing. The outcome was that the public service became an end in itself rather than concerned with real outcomes. Junior staff were promoted beyond expectation, through political connections. This led to poor morale. Politicisation meant that senior management ceased to be a 'brake' on expansionist ministers. Whilst building up a team of 'super managers' in the public service, the Government cut resources at the coal face. …….. Cain had: delegated Treasury to a young inexperienced Minister; and allowed Ministers to replace senior administrators with inexperienced University staff. The Cain Government was unlike no other in following theories, supported by party factions, with growing gaps to the public service. The nature of what was happening was only slowly recognised by the public, because of centralised media liaison. Critics were answered in terms of Government's electoral 'mandate' without any critical scrutiny.” (Review of ‘The Fall of the House of Cain’, 1992).

However Australians seem rather slow learners, and:

  • In the early 1990s the Goss Government in Queensland (in which Mr Rudd had a central role) applied a ‘meat axe’ to the public service in exactly the same way and with the same idealistic goals. And by doing so it also created a system of government that was essentially incapable of efficiency and effectiveness in implementing the policies of elected governments (see Toward Good Government in Queensland, 1995), though this did not become obvious until the Goss Government’s successors tried to achieve practical results (see Queensland's Worst Government? , 2005);
  • the Kennett Government in Victoria, the Greiner Government in NSW and ultimately the Howard federal government adopted similar theories about what was needed to make government more efficient. Though they were not quite so blood-thirsty, the outcomes they achieved were similar (see Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002);
  • Queensland’s new Opposition leader, Campbell Newman, appears to believe that an ‘out of control’ bureaucracy is a major obstacle to achieving the cost savings that are needed to improve the state’s poor budgetary position. “Existing state government departments are also likely to be streamlined, with efficiency dividends forced on bosses. "It is a huge bureaucracy that is out of control and it needs to be brought back under control," he said “ (McKenna M., ‘Campbell Newman has Queensland public sector in his sights’, The Australian, 26/3/11).

Some suggestions about an alternative approach are in Beyond Populist Rhetoric (March, 2011). In simple terms this suggests that: (a) government’s core role is ‘governing’ (ie creating a framework in which others can ‘do things’, rather than ‘doing things’ itself); (b) the more emphasis is placed on trying to make public services efficient in ‘doing things’ in an environment in which their efficiency is constrained by their political accountability, the less capable they will become in supporting governments in ‘governing’ (including the creation of frameworks in which others can ‘do things’); and (c) there is more to be gained by considering deeply the nature and functions of government, and re-emphasising government’s core role.

Applying a ‘meat axe’ is the last thing that is needed to boost the professional knowledge, skills and experience that public services need to be effective in supporting elected governments and containing administrative costs.

John Craig