The Public Prodigals
That was the title of a book I read when I was a backbench MP – proud to say that in a 22 year political career I only suffered that status for 13 months – and I mentioned it speaking last night to a group of people from both sides of politics convened by Parnell Palme McGuinness.
Also speaking was Gary Sturgess, former adviser to the Greiner government, former Executive Director of the Serco Institute and now Adjunct Professor with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.
The size and effectiveness of the public sector was the focus.
I spoke about some of the grotesque inefficiencies in the government railway workshops. I had inspected this workplace as opposition leader. What I saw resulted in my corporatising and then privatising Freightcorp in 2002. This privatisation transferred a lumbering, Soviet-style, dispirited government enterprise, where employees suffered chronically low morale, into an efficient competitive private sector outfit. Offload it, is my advice – where a government owned enterprise is ready to be transferred to the private sector.
I was proud to have done the same with TAB Corp. and Powercoal; I praise my successors in government for doing the same with State Lotteries and NSW Waste Services. Now privatisation of electricity – the great white whale of public policy – appears to hinge on the Shooters Party in the NSW Upper House. If they were to block it, it would round out this comedy of errors.
Gary Sturgess focused on a very specialised area, but one of mounting importance: the efficacy of contracts between government and private sector for the provision of services.
There was good interaction with the audience, especially those, interestingly, with backgrounds in Labor administrations. Perhaps those from the conservative side of politics are less inclined to follow the debate out of the UK and the USA, simply assuming they are on the right side of history and don’t need to know what’s happening in the nitty-gritty.
Sturgess threw down one challenging bit of analysis. He said that all the increased spending by the Brown government on public services resulted in no increase in quality or – to the extent that it can be measured – in the productivity of the public sector. Britain overall, he argues, would have been better off without the extra tax haul and burden of borrowing. The country’s net welfare would have been greater.
Gone are the days when expanding the public sector was the essence of the Labour dream. Or the Labor dream.