As I’ve argued before many bureaucrats and government agencies seem to have taken the view that it is their job to take on the government.
No doubt, next week some other government agency will step up and belt the Abbott government for good measure.
To be fair, it has taken more than a week – but, I suppose, we can’t expect too much over the summer break. Nonetheless it has happened as Nick Cater explained in the Australian:
In December, at a forum of health ministers from Australia and New Zealand, assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash made it clear that she was sceptical about a plan to place a health star rating on the front of food packets.
She was concerned that the Regulatory Impact Statement, requested by the Office of Best Practice and Regulation in the middle of last year, had not been produced. Nash ordered the department to calculate both costs and benefits and to report back to the forum in June.
The Blob was having none of it. Kathy Dennis, the assistant secretary in charge of the Healthy Living and Food Policy branch, decided to press ahead anyway.
Two weeks ago, the department launched a website, www.healthstarrating.com.au, explaining the forthcoming health star rating system that the minister had yet to approve.
A ministerial adviser contacted Dennis expressing the minister’s concern, but the website remained in place. Nash’s chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, called Dennis to reinforce the message. Dennis stuck to her guns.
The minister was obliged to take the matter to the acting head of the department, Mark Booth. On Booth’s instructions, the website was taken down and Dennis was moved to other duties.
That is bad enough – but get the next part of the story:
The excuse for the outbreak of insubordination, if you believe The Guardian, was that bureaucrats believed they answered to a ministerial forum (which includes, incidentally, New Zealand’s Health Minister Tony Ryall) not Nash, the minister accountable to the Commonwealth Parliament.
The fact that Australian public servants could even imagine that they are not accountable to the Australian government, or the minister, is astonishing. That is a huge governance failure. Now maybe the previous government led them to that view – although I seriously doubt that.
Now Kathy Dennis should be sacked – and several of her mates too for good measure. At present the Abbott government does not have control over the bureaucracy. As Nick tells us:
The mutiny at Sirius House is not an isolated case. The progressive establishment clearly has it in for the Abbott government.
Across the board, from the Climate Change Commission to the ABC, the Human Rights Commission and even Infrastructure Australia, all are openly hostile to the popularly elected government.
Unfortunately the Liberals have a history of weakness in this area. Failing to sack Ken Henry in 2007 was a huge mistake – that we all came to regret, and pay for, through his advice during the GFC, his mining tax proposal etc.