My week began at the Griffith showground watching the Red Dirt Run, in which my daughter was competing for the first time in cutting. For those who don’t know — and I certainly didn’t — cutting is a Western equestrian event (evoking poignant childhood memories of Roy Rogers and Trigger). A truckload of identical Hereford steers is offloaded into the dusty arena. The rider somehow selects one and then endeavours to keep it separated from the herd. Given that the beast wants nothing more in life than to rejoin the bovine crowd, and exhibits unexpected wile and dexterity in seeking to do so, it makes for an exhilarating display of swift gallops, spinning turns and flying hooves. To make it harder you are required to do all this with no use of the reins. No, I’m not making this up.
The scoring system remained a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. What as a Canberran I did quickly appreciate was a spectacular contest of will between the cow and horse/rider, in which victory came from subtle imposition of authority rather than raw aggression. Incidentally, there’s nothing worse for the competitor than to suffer a ‘hot quit’, ‘die in the herd’ or find oneself ‘whistled off’. These terms could usefully replace the tired idiomatic clichés of political power in which opponents ruthlessly ‘jockey for position’.
What was most inspiring to me was the manner in which enthusiasts had come together to organise all this activity. It’s a story, too rarely told, that goes to the heart of what makes Australia the country that it is. The National Cutting Horse Association is just one of 600,000 not-for-profits. The community sector is not only comprised of large charitable enterprises and advocacy organisations. In fact most NFPs are tiny. They depend for survival on the untiring efforts of volunteers, bound by shared enthusiasms and commitments. They create networks of social capital, building civil society without the intervention or intrusion of governments.
On Tuesday and Thursday I was back in more familiar territory, officiating at graduations as Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney. We bestowed an Honorary Doctorate on the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. Her occasional address paid tribute to UWS as ‘a gutsy Australian story’, which aspires to being ‘everyone’s university’. As the students nervously cross the stage, and their families applaud, cheer and ululate with pride, our commitment to that goal is evident. I congratulate our next generation of primary school teachers – Abdel-Mounem, Aisatullin, Bhoyroo, Csanyi, Du Plooy, Garcia, Ibrahim, Kontozis, Nguyen, Parisi, Shakoun and Smith. Some 30 per cent of our students who live in Western Sydney are classified as low socio-economic status (the sector average is 16 per cent). Almost 35 per cent of our domestic students have families who speak a language other than English at home. Those outcomes are a result of considerable effort: UWS works with public school students from Year 9 to raise their educational aspirations and, once they gain entry to university, provides the support necessary to ensure they can benefit fully from the learning offered. Achievement through educational opportunity, as both Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam recognised, sustains a socially mobile, inclusive and equitable nation.
All week I found myself dodging questions from journalists who sought my response to the Business Council of Australia’s views on public administration, given in the speech by its CEO Jennifer Westacott. On Friday I flew to Melbourne to fulfil a long-standing engagement to address a Per Capita lunch on delivering government policy. Given my just-in-time approach to preparing speech notes I had no excuse for not hazarding a few remarks on the issue which has gained most media attention, namely the ‘game-changing’ proposal to restore public service authority and legitimacy by reducing the number and influence of ministerial ‘staffers’. I don’t agree with this nostalgic sentiment. I believe strongly in a professional public service able to serve successive governments with equal commitment, but I also subscribe to the virtue of competition. No group should wield monopoly power over policy advice. In the Australian Public Service political advisors and apolitical public administrators are employed under different legislation and work in different buildings. Their distinctive roles are clear. When I was a Departmental Secretary I always found it easier to prepare non-partisan advice knowing that ministerial staff would take care of the party political dimension. Of course many advisors are young and enthusiastic. That’s their value, for goodness’ sake. I always found that my instincts as a grumpy old man more than a sufficient counterweight to any youthful inexperience they displayed. Over two decades I learned from many good advisors: I hope on occasion they learned from me.
My major criticism of the BCA view of public administration is that it focuses on the past. Governance in Australia has changed profoundly over the past generation. Whether it’s building public infrastructure or delivering human services, the implementation of government has become far more dependent on collaboration across the public, private and community sectors. About $26 billion of government programs are now delivered not by public servants but contracted out, mostly to not-for-profits. The key challenge is to ensure that these organisations are treated not just as outsourced providers but as genuine partners in the design of public policy. Advice to governments should not just be frank and fearless but also contestable. The public service needs to become an effective facilitator. Let’s address the challenges of the future.
Peter Shergold is the Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney.