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The Public Prodigals

October 12, 2011

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.

2 Comments
  1. Christopher Brown permalink
    October 12, 2011 7:18 pm

    G Sturgess is the smartest bloke I’ve ever met, and worked with in public administration, especially in regard to the efficient delivery of services, and the development of innovative partnerships with the private sector. It would be productive and instructive (and very entertaining) to have him address Trades Hall about how the general public, working Australians and trade union members would benefit from the wholesale outsourcing of public service delivery to private operators.

    Sturgess could chronicle the money wasted, the innovation ignored, the costs blownout and the public good denied by slavish adherence to the Socialist Objective mantra of the government owning and government employees delivering all public services. He could showcase the success stories of modern outsourcing contracts, the jobs grown, the career pasths enhanced, the workplace and marketplace innovation, the expansion of services and the savings for the taxpayer that flow from great partnerships that balance the public good, mandate great service delivery and address social inequity.

    Old Labor’s dirty little secret would soon be out in the open whereby the only beneficiaries of continued public sector management of service delivery are union secretaries, the public sector management class and conservative political commentators who get continued ammunition with which to lambast Labor for its lack of management and service delivery credentials.

    The victims of the featherbedding, inefficiency, inequity and lack of workplace pride and career development are the general public (known as customers or clients in the private world and usually lower socio economic groups), the workers in those enterprises who are denied pride in their job and career paths and taxpayers. Speaking as a proud unionist for 28 years, as a kid sacked at 16 by McDomnalds for joining the union, and as the grandson of a NSW transport union official, I am as ashamed of the industrial rorts we pull and prop up, as I am appalled by the corporate greed of the banking sector, the bullyboy tactics of Patricks and the featherbedding of the surgical colleges. However, we can’t attack those on the right while we ignore those within our ranks who abuse the trust of the community and their own members. We can’t just hold our nose and avert our eyes while our union officials oppose competition, use members money to buy prostitutes and get rich off the supply rorts.

    For all of us on the left who value great public services (safe and efficient transport, accessible health care and education, responsive community services, modern, clean and affordable utilities) and who are proud of the trade union hisrtory of our Party, we should be the champions of just that, instead of being the defenders of those uinionists who cling to dogma as tightly as they cling to the monopolies they run. After all, it is these people who not only hold their own members’ professional futures to ransom, not only deny working families efficient services, not only rob welfare recipients of advancement by ending the waste but are also prepared to, and experienced in, bringing down those Labor leaders and Governments who have the courage to realize Labor’s role is a defender of the public good, the public purse, the public in general – and not the defenders of industrial rorts, closed shops and Labor rats.

    Let’s have government focussing on that which it should be good at – regulation, planning, integration, investigation, safety & security and standard setting, rather than doing badly what it has little or no capacity to do – namely delivering modern, efficient, responsive, clean, on-time, cost-effective, cstomer-focussed and best practice service delivery. Have government design and deliver great contracts, have them set rigourous standards, have them end monopolies, have them enforce integration, have them demand innovation, have them meet ‘market failure’, have them gaurantee equitable access, have them manage pricing and have them srutinise and hold accountable those who bid for, and win, modern contracts for private delivery of public services. Yes, there are numerous examples of bad experiences with contract outsourcing and privatization so let’s use Sturgess’ experience to get tougher on the contractors, to write better deals, to enshrine values and stadards within those deals. But let’s not take the easy option and demonize them. Outsourced contracts do not have to mean non-union workplaces or wholesale job losses – especially in the smart young set of Trades Hall become proactively engaged in the debate, and strike god deals to build in industrial protection.

    Before the defenders of the closed shops jump up, frothing at the mouth about “profit motive” and “public good”, have them first answer this simple question – are those defending the status quo that has seen an appalling drop in service standards in NSW, and a corresponding drop in Labor fortunes, really confident that they speak on behalf of the silent majority (general public, working Australians, taxpayers) or are they simply defending the no longer defensible – the modern monopolists in Trades Hall and their fellow travelers in that other ivory tower in Macquarie Street.

    If we learnt anything from the annihilation of NSW Labor it is that the public demand modern, reliable and affordable services. We owe them that much and we owe our own supporters some hope that we can return Labor to the progressive, popular, efficient and proud traditions of the Hawke/Keating/Carr era.

  2. October 12, 2011 9:49 pm

    Does this mean you are in favour of the GP Super Clinics set up or being set up by the Gillard government, Mr Carr, or that you are not in favour of them?

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